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18th February 2016

Mal Sueño and the veteran oak

oaks in Sherwood by Tim Hill cropped

Major Hayman Rooke, something of an expert in describing and sketching ‘remarkable oaks’ in the park at Welbeck and the wider Sherwood area, set the scene nicely at the end of the 18th Century: ‘Were we even now to enter a grove of stately oaks, seven or eight hundred years old, whose spreading branches form a solemn and gloomy umbrage, I think we could not behold them without some degree of veneration.’

About a mile from the iconic oak that now bears Major Rooke’s name, and within the former Royal Forest of Sherwood, can be found the greatest density of veteran oaks in Europe.  Not surprisingly, it is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).  Beyond, there is a scattering of solitary veterans, hiding in plain sight within pine plantations and 19th Century beech and oak woods.  Each of them has a story to tell but one in particular caught my attention, when walking through the woods this Winter.

I must be the envy of many a Forester, working as I do in Sherwood Forest, or to be more precise Birklands.  Not only do I have responsibility for managing ancient woodland and magnificent veteran oaks but also for harvesting timber across 800 hectares of productive forest.  I have even been granted the honorary title of Woodward by the Estate for which I work.

Anyway, I digress.  You want to hear about the curiosity in the pinewood.


solitary oak at Sherwood by Tim Hill cropped


Not much of a looker but characterful; at dusk a little disturbing.  Where had I seen something like this before?  The gaping mouth, a bulging eye, even the shock of hair.  Then one evening it came to me – one of Goya’s charcoal sketches called Mal sueño – ‘bad dream’.  I rummaged and Googled about until I found this……

Mal Sueno crop 2


A bit too fanciful?

And the gaping mouth (which Goya used to indicate imminent death)?

It does have quite a sharp outline and with good reason.  The woodsmen cut into the hollow trunk to fashion a type of oven.  Into the hole they stuffed dried grass and dead branches, setting it alight.  The hollow trunk acted as a chimney and pretty soon the tree was engulfed in flames.

Why did they do it?

In the 1950s and 60s there was a big push by private estates to plant up their ‘unproductive’ woodland with conifers.  Some 250 hectares were cleared and replanted with a mix of larch, Scots and Corsican pine.  The scattered old trees were no longer required and burning was the simplest method of disposal.

Fortunately, several of the veterans (and how appropriate the term is here!) survived and were forgotten about until the late 1990s, when a survey of the ancient oaks in Birklands and Bilhaugh SSSI was commissioned by Natural England.  Subsequent GPS mapping by John Smith of the Ancient Tree Forum highlighted individual trees outside the main clusters of oaks and these have gradually been brought into management.

In the next few weeks, the Scots pine surrounding Mal Sueño will be thinned.  At the same time, all trees within a 15 metre radius of this tree (and its nearby cousins) will be removed, thereby reducing competition and increasing light levels.

I’ll keep you posted in the spring.

Posted by: Tim Hill Tim Hill is a trustee of the ATF. He recently retired as Forestry adviser to the Thoresby Estate, Nottinghamshire. where he managed 800 hectares of ancient woodland (230 of which is currently managed as wood pasture) in the Sherwood Forest.

2 Comments | Leave a Comment

  • Stan says:
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    I shall forever look at old trees in a different way now you’ve pointed out the similarity to Goya’s sketch! You’re right, there’s a spooky resemblance.

  • Brian Muelaner says:
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    Nice one Tim. Good to show that us ancient tree folk are quite a cultured lot!


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