The Garrulous Jay – Mighty Oaks

Publish date


Us Brits have a deeply ingrained affection for the oak tree. You can see it in the place names, company names and expressions that we derive from Quercus robur. Indeed “Heart of Oak” is the official march of the Royal Navy with its rousing words, “Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men…”

So what qualities does the mighty oak have that underpin this attachment?

A number come to mind: size, durability, solidity, longevity and independence. All of these are positive qualities that we would like to believe are also reflected in our collective national character.

I happen to think that they are characteristics to which businesses should also aspire, and which may also carry lessons for investors.

Whilst size for the sake of size is something I would guard against – it has cost many companies dearly – having sufficient scale and breadth to withstand the ups and downs of economic cycles is self-evidently desirable.

But the oak also teaches us that reaching scale takes time: the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire is estimated to be over a thousand years old and, as the saying tells us, mighty oaks from small acorns grow.

It also the case that some of the other features of the oak are doubtless a direct result of the fact that it takes time to grow: the solidity and durability are a direct consequence of the density of the tree’s trunk, while the root system can spread up to seven times the diameter of the crown.

Perhaps there is another lesson here too: the strength of the oak is to some extent derived from that part of the tree that cannot be seen because it lies below ground. And that root system too has a symbiotic relationship with a fungus called mycorrhiza that protects it from other fungi: a classic case of mutually beneficial co-operation in nature.

When I was out on my (strictly legal) lockdown bike rides in the summer of 2020, one of the more memorable and dispiriting sights I witnessed was the number of fallen branches from the oak trees around my home. We had experienced a prolonged period of dry weather and this was the trees’ coping mechanism.

This conveys another important message from nature: sometimes it is necessary to shed part of something in order to secure the long-term survival of the whole. I pass these trees today and, although some look a little lopsided they are still healthy specimens coming into leaf for another summer.

I note too that it wasn’t the violent but short-lived storms of February 2020 that caused the greatest damage, but the more incremental and insidious effects of the dry weather that followed six months later. Perhaps a lesson in what we should all look out for in business and investment decision-making.

I conclude that the oak, and nature more widely, has much to teach us: we ignore it at our peril.