The holm oak, Quercus ilex, is one of the few evergreen oak trees in the country but it is not a British native. It was introduced from the Mediterranean in the 1600s and brought to Ventnor around 1900 by the Victorians, who returned with many exotic plants from their travels abroad.
The holm oak proved to be invasive. Its spread across Ventnor Downs is thought to have been assisted by jays collecting and burying acorns.
The tree thrives in the unusually mild climate at Ventnor and copes well with the dry chalk soils and its exposed coastal location – its glossy leaves are resistant to salt winds.
The history of the Holm oak
It was known to the Romans, who used its hard wood to make cartwheels and wine casks, and to the Ancient Greeks who honoured people with crowns made from holm oak leaves.
Today, it is one of the top three trees used in truffle orchards. The holm oak gets its name from its spiny, toothed leaves. These resemble holly leaves – 'holm' being an old word for holly.
Chalk grassland under threat
The spread of the holm oak poses a serious threat to the chalk grassland here, causing butterfly and insect populations to dwindle. We had to find a means of control.
Trees and scrub were removed in the 1980s but a longer-term solution was needed to prevent re-growth – holm oak doesn't respond well to herbicides.
A documentary on how feral goats decimated a Spanish holm oak wood provided the key. Why not use goats to control holm oaks on Ventnor Downs?
Goats vs holm oak
In 1993, seven feral goats were brought from the Valley of the Rocks in Devon to start a new life here. Today, there's a small breeding herd with a good appetite for bark stripping and browsing new growth.
Year by year, we hope to see the return of special chalk grassland plants, butterflies and insects.