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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 13:51 GMT
Big Belly gets a corset
Big Belly Oak
The Big Belly Oak dates back to the old Wild Wood
Forestry experts hope a giant brace will stop a 1,000-year-old oak tree splitting in half.

Legend tells how the devil can be summoned by anyone dancing naked round the Big Belly Oak in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire.

But a huge crack recently appeared in the tree, which has a girth of 11 metres.

On Tuesday, Forestry Commission specialists were putting a brace round the main limbs of the tree - one of the oldest in the UK.

The tree took root around the time King Harold was defeated by William the Conqueror in 1066.

Savernake Forest is rich in rare fungus
It is a rare survivor from the so-called Wild Wood that covered much of southern England, before being cleared for farming.

Henry VIII may well have seen the tree while hunting in the royal forest of Savernake.

It even survived the two world wars, when the forest was heavily plundered for timber and used as an ammunition dump.

The devil-worshippers' ritual involves dancing 12 times anti-clockwise round the tree at midnight.

Ancient wardens

The work to protect it coincides with a national campaign to save England's ancient woodlands.

A report by the Woodland Trust and the World Wildlife Fund says long-standing forests are suffering degradation and tree loss, despite planning policies designed to protect them.

Woodland is considered ancient if it has been continuously wooded for at least 400 years.

Savernake Forest, just south of Marlborough, has been carefully managed for at least 950 years.

William the Conqueror appointed Richard Astormit the first of many generations of wardens of Savernake.

The land is leased by the Earl of Cardigan to the Forestry Commission.

It has been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its fungi.

Hilary Alison, The Woodland Trust
"We are very reliant on planning policies of local authorities"

Click here to go to BBC Wiltshire
See also:

05 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Great dormouse hunt under way
18 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
UK woods' survival 'at risk'
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