Ria Oak Woodland

The Ria’s of South Devon and Cornwall are unique. The conditions they cope with cannot possibly equate them with upland sessile Oak woodland, which they match in terms of indicator species found and percentages.

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The Oaks face salt dumping on an extraordinary level, up to 200 kg per hectare per annum. On every spring tide the limbs themselves dip into the seawater of the ria’s, which are much less brackish than the majority of estuaries in Europe.

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The Oaks themselves have a body language that defies the textbooks as they are. Natural grafting of roots aids these trees to create a leverage against their collapse. The basal area hangs below the tree adapting to the need to create a counterbalance to the often 90° rootplate.

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These trees rarely hollow despite considerable age. The timber is of immense strength and value. Prized in past history as perfect for sculpting ship figureheads.

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Nowadays, following failure, the trees become a vital part of a very special localised ecosystem.

But this is becoming increasingly frequent. These trees are under immense threat for the majority of their linear range along the coastline of the Ria’s.

In most places the trees are now only found in steep sloped areas due to a long term pressure to develop or gentrify areas where access to the water playground is easy. Soil creep is substantial, particularly given the immense rootplates. These trees rotate slowly, falling into the tidal zone and allowing Oaks upslope to take their position. But with increasing extreme weather the undermining of the trees by frequent storms sees also a dramatic increase in trees falling into the tidal zone – only set to worsen as climate change continues.

Worst of all is that there are few oaks to replace those falling into the tidal zone. The strip of woodland is decreasing in width and where the woodlands widen they are far too often planted up with ornamental specimens and in some places unsuitable ‘native woodland’ mixes of seriously dubious source.

These trees and woodland are of high cultural value. The history of these Ria estuaries is intertwined with these trees. The foreshore cannot be seen, it is shielded by the overhanging Oaks, smuggling was rife and in more modern times the area was ideal for concealing the embarkation of many D Day troops and vehicles.

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As with so many tree, orchard and woodland situations in the UK the continuing centralisation of policy, both governmental and NGO, has forsaken the uniqueness of these situations lumping all into over riding guidance and sometimes increasing threats rather than reducing them. As when I spoke to one landowner, he cannot get any assistance; technical advice is “spurious and blinkered” suiting an NGO or Quango’s aims and objectives over and above the local landscape conditions. The site specific solutions can only follow on from community led action, and it is clear that communities in the UK are increasingly severely and deliberately restricted to do anything at all.

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