Updated 18 May 2011

Sherwood Forest, England

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Sherwood Forest

In the very heart of Nottinghamshire lies the ancient forest of Birklands, an extensive area of old pasture woodlands and heath on the nutrient-poor soils of the Sherwood sandstone. It represents a wonderful fragment of the great forest of Sherwood, one of the most famous forests in the world, and its celebrated old oak trees have inspired visitors and writers for centuries. Today, over 200 hectares of this internationally important woodland is now managed as a National Nature Reserve (NNR).

Birklands, which is an old Viking word meaning 'birch land', was first mentioned in documents in 1251 and is likely to be at least one thousand years old. It was part of the vast Royal Forest of Sherwood that covered over 100,000 acres of the county. The wood remained the property of the Crown for nearly 600 years and was used as a source of timber, grazing land and an exclusive hunting ground rich with wild deer for successive kings and queens of England. By the 19th Century, the wood had passed to the Pierrepont family at Thoresby, who have ensured its survival as a unique part of England's natural heritage. Nottinghamshire County Council and Forest Enterprise now manage the woodland as a NNR in partnership with English Nature and the Thoresby Estate. The NNR was declared in the presence of His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester in 2002 to mark Her Majesty The Queen's Golden Jubilee.

The woodland is dominated by both native oaks - sessile oak and pedunculate oak - which occur in great numbers along with other native trees such as silver birch, rowan, holly and hawthorn. Scattered amongst the bracken-filled glades of the wood are more than 1000 large oaks most of which are known to be more than 500 years old. The most famous of these 'veteran' trees - the Major Oak - is the largest of the group and may be nearly twice that age. These oaks owe their shape and character to a time when grazing animals such as deer and sheep kept the woodland open.

These giants of the forest - each one with its own distinctive character - are host to an exceptional array of wildlife found only amongst the hollow trunks, rotten wood and decaying bark of the trees. Over 1000 species of beetle and spider have been found, many of which are rare and dependent on these old trees for their survival.

Other wildlife is abundant in the NNR. The woodland in autumn reveals a rich community of fungi, with over 200 different species recorded on the trees and on the woodland floor. Animals that also depend on old trees include birds such as the great-spotted woodpecker, tawny owl and redstart, and a number of bat species such as the noctule bat.

Large tracts of sandy heathland, dominated by heather, were once typical of the Forest of Sherwood and remnants are found within more open areas of the NNR. The nightjar is often heard 'churring' eerily across the forest heaths at dusk during the summer, whilst the tussocky grass-dominated heaths are particularly important for ants and spiders and are favoured feeding areas for green woodpeckers.

The trees and heaths of the NNR require careful management if they are to survive as true remnants of Sherwood. Of greatest importance is the continued survival of the old oaks. In parts of the wood, they have become surrounded with non-native trees such as pine, beech and sycamore and these are being slowly removed and replaced by native oaks and birch. Similarly, new generations of native oaks are being allowed to grow old. Many of the rare animals associated with the oaks depend upon decaying-wood to survive, so fallen trees and branches are deliberately left to decay where they fall. The standing dead oaks are also very important. The heaths of the NNR also require the control of scrub and bracken in order to keep the habitat open and in good condition for wildlife.

You are very welcome to visit the NNR all year round. Car and bicycle parking can be found at Sherwood Forest Country Park (open all year dusk to dawn) north of the village of Edwinstowe along the B6034. The NNR can also be reached by bus direct from the City of Nottingham
(phone Traveline 0870 6082608).

A number of public rights of way cross the NNR and a series of way-marked footpaths and trails are available around the Country Park. Parts of the NNR are accessible to less mobile users. A regular programme of guided walks and events organised by Nottinghamshire County Council take place within the NNR each year and the Ranger Service runs a full Education Programme
please telephone 01623 823202 for details.

Given the large extent of the woodland and that the old trees are occasionally liable to shed their branches please take care and keep to the designated footpaths whilst visiting the site.

The Greatest Giants of Sherwood

by Roger A.Redfern

Country Life Jan 17, 1974

Old Sherwood extended from Nottingham in the South to within a couple of miles of Worksop in the North, to the outskirts of Chesterfield in the West and to Southwell and Laxton in the East. It was always a scattered forest punctuated by broad tracts of heath. The infertile Bunter sandstone underlying the area has been largely responsible for the salvation of the woodlands, for it prevented it being cleared for agricultural use.

If Sherwood was spared by the farmer it became an attractive prize for the carpenter. In 1337 Edward III ordered the Prior of Blyth to deliver 40 oaks to the King's carpenter for the construction of a galley at Kingston-upon-Hull. Major Hayman Rooke (who catalogued the Sherwood oaks in the 18th century) records that in 1609 a survey of the trees remaining showed there were 49,909 in the portions called Bilaugh and Birklands. There were 2,593 fewer in 1689, a reduction that includes loss by natural decay. But there was little thought of replacement. Kilton Plantation, near Worksop, was sown with acorns in 1763, but the ancient heart of the Forest was not conserved in this way.

By 1790 a survey showed that there were only 10,117 trees remaining in Bilaugh and Birklands, valued at £17,147 15s 4d. Two-thirds of the trees had gone in a century, many for timber and many cleared for convenience when the great estates were being enclosed from the Forest. In 1707, for instance, the Duke of Newcastle obtained permission to make a 3,000-acre park at Clumber, and in 1709 he was allowed to make "a broad riding-way through Birklands Wood, of a width of 80 yards". The value of the timber cleared to make this ride was £1,500.

Though the formation of the great estates resulted in the natural Forest area being reduced, what was left within their boundaries was to some extent safeguarded from later depredations. Most of the greatest trees remaining today are found within these estates. One exception is the best known of all- probably the best-known tree in Britain- which stands in the Birklands area of Sherwood, a mile North of Edwinstowe. It was formerly called the Queen Oak, but more recently has come to be known as the Major Oak, whether due to its great size or to the memory of Major Hayman Rooke is a matter for conjecture. It stands at the northern extremity of the newly established Sherwood Country Park, in the care of Nottinghamshire County Council. This great tree has a girth of 64 feet, and it is claimed that 34 children can get inside its hollow trunk.

The Major Oak is undoubtedly the most popular spot in the Forest area, and the path to it and ground around it are now devoid of all vegetation because of the number of people that have stood upon the infertile sandy soil. What a contrast with pictures of the tree two centuries ago when an old man kept fowls under the venerable giant. It was known at that time as the Cockpen-tree. On August Bank Holiday Monday, 1957, no fewer than 15,000 people came to look at the Major Oak.

In that part of Birklands to the West of the Major Oak is an area dominated by the remains of decaying oaks - "stag-headed oaks". Most of the trees of Sherwood are either sessile or pedunculate oaks, both deep-rooting species. During this century local water undertakings have extracted vast quantities of water from the Bunter sandstone layers under the Forest. The water table has been lowered (aided by new coal-mining developments), resulting in the slow death of many of the great oaks, hence the "stag-headed" form because the trees tend to die down from their outermost branches. It is amazing to find so many huge oaks so near death and yet still managing each spring to send out new foliage.

At the heart of Birklands stood the most famous blighted oak, called the Shambles Oak or Robin Hood's Larder. Inside its hollow trunk were iron hooks upon which was hung stolen venison. Writing in 1913, Robert Murray Gilchrist reported that the tree had been set on fire by a picnic party some years before and that there is "something pathetic in the valiant greenness of its scanty leaves. It is like an old, old man who will be brave to the end." That end came about eight years ago when the ancient shell was finally blown down by the wind. Between the Major Oak and the site of Robin Hood's Larder and extending from North to South is the 80-yard wide "Duke's Ride" already mentioned. Halfway along this straight ride is the fine Centre Tree. Unlike so many of the notable oaks of the district this specimen, probably planted soon after the ride was formed in 1709, is in its prime.

Of the great estates enclosed from the Forest undoubtedly the richest in old oaks was Welbeck Park. Some of the giants have now decayed and gone for ever, others still adorn this, the seat of the Duke of Portland. It was recorded in 1875 that "Welbeck contains 2,283 acres, 3 roods, 3 perches of land and anciently formed part of the Manor of Cuckney, which was held by Sweyn, a Saxon". Major Hayman Rooke described the finest trees in his Descriptions and Sketches of Remarkable Oaks in Welbeck Park, published in 1790. The Duke's Walking Stick was an oak "perhaps unmatched by any other in the Kingdom for height and straightness". It has long since disappeared but in its prime measured 111 feet 6 inches in height, contained 440cubic feet of solid timber and weighted 11 tons.

Upon the gentle slope of Hagg Hill, to the East of Repton's Great Lake, grew the Seven Sisters Oak. This had seven trunks growing from one root to a height of 90 feet. In 1873 it was reported that "the circumference at the bottom is about 30 feet. Several of these stems were long since blown down". A pair of ancient oaks still stand on either side of the main drive from the Lion Gate to Welbeck Abbey. At one time a huge gate was hung across the drive between them, and for this reason they are known as the Porter Oaks. In 1875 Robert White recorded that "the height of one is about 100 feet, and its circumference about 38 feet; the other is about 90 feet high, and about 34 feet in circumference". The trees are now much reduced in size, having been capped with lead to protect them from the elements. But they are still impressive, backed by younger conifers and the sweep of the park.

Of all the trees of Sherwood the most remarkable is the Greendale Oak. It stands almost unnoticed at the centre of Welbeck Park, half a mile to the South of Welbeck Abbey. Once probably the greatest tree of the Forest, the first Duke of Portland said that he could drive a carriage through it and in 1724 had an arch cut out of the trunk to prove his claim. The timber removed was made into a cabinet for the countess of Oxford three years later. It contains inlaid pictures of the tree and the Duke of Portland driving a carriage and six horses through the arch. The cabinet is still at Welbeck.

Major Hayman Rooke considered the Greendale Oak "to be above seven hundred years old" in 1790, while in 1797 Throsby said "it is supposed to be upwards of 1,500 years old". In any event the tree never fully recovered from the removal of the archway and during the last century it was "planked diagonally and otherwise supported". Chains were later fitted to hold up its spreading branches, at that time still extending over a diameter of 45 feet

Today this former glorious giant is but a tumbled heap of seasoned timber, festooned still with old chains and wooden supports. Standing beside it, though, one can appreciate its monstrous proportions at its prime:
Whose head above his fellow of the grove
Doth tower, as these above the sward beneath.

Compiled, formatted, hyperlinked, encoded, and copyright © 2005, John Palmer, All Rights Reserved.