Oak pollen is found from about 8-9,000 years ago at Wytham and oak has remained part of this mixed woodland through to modern times though never becoming very abundant (Hone et al., 2001). Then as now it was presumably pedunculate oak, the main species present today. After the Norman Conquest (1066) the Woods were part of the Abingdon Abbey estates and were probably managed as a mixture of wood-pasture and coppice-with-standards with oaks as the main timber trees.
The Abbey’s estates were re-allocated following the dissolution of the monasteries and the woods and eventually ended up as part of the Earl of Abingdon’s estate. A grant in 1541 includes reference to ’18 acres set with oak of 60-80 years growth usually cropped and shred’ and ’84 acres ..thyn set with oak of like age’. Another grant, in 1553 notes that Cowlers Copse (the current-day Cowleaze Copse) was ‘well sette with oke and hasell of 17 yeres growth’ (Grayson and Jones, 1955).
Parts of what is now Wytham Woods were farmland in the past. Oaks would have been present in hedges and the largest, probably oldest oak on the estate, the Broad Oak may have started its growth in a hedgerow in the 15th century. Like many such open grown trees it was managed by pollarding although it has not been cut for at least a century. Large old oaks are common in old parks such as at nearby Woodstock, but at Wytham, the Park seems to be largely a late 18th C. creation – some of the parkland trees are remnants from the clearance of a small wood.
The oaks from Wytham were clearly of variable sizes and quality in the 18th Century. In the years 1787 and 1788 about 650 trees were sold, ranging from less than £1 a tree for one parcel of 44 trees, to £3-£4 a tree in other parcels, while just one, presumably massive, tree sold for £18. It was not only the oak timber that was important; there are also records of sales of oak bark with prices ranging from nine pence to two shillings and thruppence a yard (Grayson and Jones, 1955).
There was a major reorganisation of the Wytham Estate, including the woodland in the early 19th century when the fifth Earl of Abingdon moved his main residence to Wytham Village. He also diversified the composition of the Woods, bringing in a mixture of native and non-native trees such as hornbeam and sweet chestnut that seem not to have been present earlier, including a few Turkey oak, one or two large specimens of which still survive (Grayson and Jones, 1955). New shelterbelts and plantings were organised. One such plantation features in a painting by Sir John Everett Millais – The Woodcutter’s Daughter. Painted in 1850-51 it shows young mature oak with a scatter of pines which would have been planted as a nurse crop. Many of the current crop of mature oaks date from this era.
Not much is known about what was happening to the oaks in the Woods in the second half of the 19th Century, but there are reports of heavy felling during the First World War (Smeathers 1939). Afterwards in 1920 the estate was bought from the Earl of Abingdon by Colonel Raymond ffennell. Some new plantations were created during the 1930s but there is no indication of significant new stands of oak. Timber, including oak, was again removed from the Woods during the Second World War and this would have focussed on the most valuable trees. The old trees that we see today are generally those that did not make the grade and so are not a fair reflection of the timber quality that the site could produce.
During the War the Woods passed to the University and the management was initially directed by the University’s Department of Forestry (Kirby, 2016). The management plan produced in 1950 gives an idea of the composition of the Woods at that time. Oak was by far and way the most common tree and particularly in the larger size category (>35 cm diameter); there were slightly more large oaks than all the other species put together. The number of large oaks was also about three times the number of small ones. Yet ten years later the position had changed. The larger oaks still outnumbered the small ones, but many self-sown sycamore and ash poles had grown past the 35 cm threshold used and were now more frequent than oak of this size.
During the 1950s various compartments were planted with oak as part of the post-War policies to improve timber production from woods across the country and replace trees felled during the war. Scattered oaks also regenerated naturally in the grassland patches. Ash and sycamore however continued to increase their contribution to the canopy, while the contribution of oak has remained fairly static (Kirby et al., 2014). This predominance of larger oaks, lack of smaller size-classes, and increase in other tree species since the Second World War is a pattern often seen in other lowland semi-natural woods. It seems to reflect the past favouring of oak as a timber tree, as is evidenced in the nineteenth century timber sales.
More recent surveys have looked at the health of the largest oaks across the whole of the Woods, because many of them are showing signs of dieback, although so far we seem to have avoided Acute Oak Decline. Some of the dieback can be linked to increased competition from the cohort of ash and sycamore that established in the post-war period. There are other indications that extreme drought years such as in 2003 can lead to declines in oak growth.
Overall Wytham Woods shows the sort of mixture of oaks found across much of lowland Britain: we have some old coppice, standard trees and pollards; areas of new plantings and some naturally regenerated stems. It will be interesting to see whether, as Ash Dieback opens up parts of the Woods there is a resurgence of oak.
KIRBY, K. J., BAZELY, D. R., GOLDBERG, E. A., HALL, J. E., ISTED, R., PERRY, S. C. & THOMAS, R. C. 2014. Changes in the tree and shrub layer of Wytham Woods (Southern England) 1974–2012: local and national trends compared. Forestry, 87, 663-673.