Children from six primary schools in Oxfordshire are studying the story of a mature and majestic oak to understand how trees and woodlands play an important part in our lives and environment.

The English oak has been growing in the grounds of Blenheim Palace at Woodstock for about 160 years and has been donated by the Duke of Marlborough’s estate for the educational programme called One Oak that is being run by the Sylva Foundation in conjuction with the Oxfordshire Forest Schools Project.

Pupils from four schools around Blenheim are taking part — Bladon, Combe, Stonesfield and Woodstock — plus children from Wood Farm Primary, Oxford, and Willowcroft Primary, Didcot.

They have already been making regular visits to the tree in the woodlands and writing about what they have been learning and discussing their experiences back at their schools.

Dr Gabriel Hemery, of the Sylva Foundation, said: “A lot of children these days do not have an opportunity to have contact with the outdoors and a woodland environment.

“Through the story of one oak tree we are telling the whole story of a growing tree in a woodland, touching on the history of woodlands and the importance of trees to our lives. We want people to look around themselves and see how much wood and timber are connected to our daily lives. So we have been looking at all aspects of the oak, such as its volume and eventually its carbon content.”

The studies will go beyond discovering how trees contribute to our environment and biodiversity through the insects, fungi and birds it supports.

In January, the tree will be felled and in following months the children will see the uses to which the timber will be put, even as far as bark being used in tanneries and woodchips being used for fuel and smokeries.

Craftsmen and women — cabinet makers, turners and furniture makers — and students from the Rycotewood department of the Oxford and Cherwell Valley College are lined up to transform the timber into much-needed objects.

The work of the project will be featured in the Art in Action event at Waterperry next summer.

The project is one of several being undertaken by the Sylva Foundation, which is based at Little Wittenham, and which was officially formed in March this year when it gained charity status.

It was co-founded by Sir Martin Wood, whose company Oxford Instruments has been celebrating its 50th anniversary, and Dr Hemery.

“I was invited by Sir Martin to join the foundation and there was a two-year genesis period to consider the work the foundation would do,” said Dr Hemery.

So he spent two years studying the value of growing broadleaf trees in 28 countries across Europe, focussing on ash, cherry and walnut as opposed to only oak and beech.

The European Commission gave a grant for the travelling.

“I met foresters and social scientists, who were looking at the human benefits of forestry” said Dr Hemery.

One of the conclusions was that forests and woodlands were less vulnerable to the spread of disease if they were of mixed species, rather than being of one.

If there is a diversity of trees then if one is attacked by disease then the other species will help prevent or slow up its spread.

For example, in this country the red band needle blight is devastating the predominant Corsican pines in Thetford Forest in Essex.

“In fact, the plant import industry in this country is the greatest threat to diseases reaching this country, usually through the foliage of the plants,” said Dr Hemery.

Climate change poses another danger to trees. Dr Hemery said there was some threat to the famous beeches in the Chiltern Hills.

“Beeches like a high altitude and are vulnerable to drought. They will not die out in the Chilterns but they will be affected by climate change,” he said.

Another project under way is My Forest which promotes sustainable forest management and puts landowners in touch with the timber supply trade.

In the long term, Dr Hemery would like to see the Syvla Foundation launching a national survey by the public to report on the health of trees in their locality.

“People see trees when they are out and about, even when walking the dog. Many have trees in their gardens. If a survey was carried out every year we could build up a picture of the national health of our trees,” he said.

On the academic and scientific side, the foundation is looking at creating an MSC course in forestry with the plant sciences department of Oxford University.

Dr Hemery is in no doubt of the importance to our daily lives of understanding trees and woodlands.

One major reason is that this country imports so much timber, about nine million metres of roundwood.

“If we can produce more ourselves from well-managed woodlands we can make a larger contribution to our needs,” he said.

  • The Sylva Foundation can be contacted on 01865 408018 or at