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Millennial Oak

Production year: 2004 | 1*24 | Genres: Nature
What happened to the dense oak forests that once convered the whole of southern Norway?
Origin country: Norway
Production company: NRK Norsk Rikskringkasting AS
Original title: Kunnskapens Tre
Original language: Norwegian
Formats: SD

Southern Norway is the proud guardian of an oak tree, the Mollestad Oak, that is more than one thousand years old. Despite the ravages of frost and lightning, the Black Death and the Little Ice Age, it still bursts into leaf each May. A giant - its trunk has a circumference of ten and a half metres - it is one of the last such stalwarts left to us. But what, it may be asked, happened to the dense oak forests that once convered the whole of southern Norway? Are there any remnants still standing?

A tree of such an advanced age is a world in itself: no other tree hosts such a multiplicity of species - they can be as many as two thousand - as the oak. Blue tits, starlings, jackdaws and tawny owls nest in hollow spaces in trunks and branches, cavities made over the centuries by saphrytic fungi that have eaten their way deep into the wood. Colonies of ants take over abandoned nests and wasps lay their eggs in the maze of passageways made by wood-boring insect larvae, leaving behind for their own larvae a small store of food for when they hatch; they then seal the opening with clay. And where the wood is decayed, other larvae metamorphose into Norway's largest beetle, the rhinoceros beetle.

What makes all this possible is the great age of the oak. It is a stable element in the landscape, in which a wide variety of species interact with the tree and each other, and are allowed time to develop. As has been said, the Mollestad Oak is one of the few such giant oak trees still standing. The oak woods that once covered much of southern Norway were ruthlessly chopped down in the 17th century and their timber exported. Oak trees that could have grown into woods are still being felled to make room for serried ranks of pine and fir. It is doubtful whether any of Norway's original oak woods still exist, though there may be a few hardy survivors in remote areas where the chain-saw has not yet found its way.

But the oak faces another problem, quite apart from the depredation wrought by man. Whereas the seeds of most trees are dispersed by the wind or in the alimemtary tracts of birds - thrushes, for example, carry off within them many a rowan seed when they feast on the berries - neither squirrels nor field mice are able to convey very far the, for them, relatively heavy acorns on which they feed. The oak does have one good friend, however, and it is thanks to this involuntary helper that it has succeeded in making its way northwards along Norway's western coast - though only as far as Tingvoll in the county of Nordmøre, where is to be found Europe's northernmost oak wood. But why did the oak's advance stop there? Why did the tree not make its way still further north?

These are questions Ut i naturen (Out in the Countryside) seeks to answer. The programme also features some of the strange creatures to which the oak is host and shows how wonderfully well many species adapt to their leafy home.

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