Ash dieback could devastate Britain’s landscape

Name an iconic tree species for Britain … Did you answer oak or Scots pine? My guess is that it was one or the other. There is another species however that holds a unique place in British landscapes, not just in lowland forests, but in our uplands, in wet woodlands, among hedgerows and fields, in streets, parks and gardens – the ash Fraxinus excelsior. It may not demand our attention in the same way as some other tree species but it is extremely valuable and important in so many ways.

Ash trees at dawn in Cumbria
Ash trees at dawn in Cumbria. Photo
Ash in Britain
Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) in Britain and Ireland from The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora, Oxford University Press. Click to view an online version from the BSBI website.

Take a look at the distribution map (right) for ash – every blue dot represents a 10×10km square in Britain where ash is present. Very few places in Britain are without ash trees. It is a vital component in the ecosystems of many mixed woodlands, being an ideal companion to oak and other hardwoods. It regenerates readily being adapted perfectly to the British climate. Its wood remains one of the best materials for sporting goods, makes beautiful furniture, while its properties for firewood are unrivaled.

Imagine therefore a scenario where ash may disappear from our landscapes. Horrifying – yes; a reality – quite possibly.

Readers may have picked up the worrying news that during an official inspection carried out in February 2012, symptoms of ash dieback were observed on Fraxinus excelsior in a nursery located in southern England. Suspect symptoms were identified in a batch of 600 plants which had been imported from the Netherlands in November 2011. The presence of Chalara fraxinea (EPPO Alert List) was confirmed on the basis of the morphological characteristics of the pathogenic fungus. Eradication measures were put immediately into place and the infected lot of F. excelsior was destroyed. Further investigations on the site revealed suspect symptoms in other Fraxinus species which had also been introduced into the nursery in November 2011. Investigations have been carried out to trace-back all Fraxinus consignments originating from the same Dutch supplier which had been imported into the United Kingdom, as well as to trace-forward all plants from the infected lot which have already been sold by the British nursery.

In Denmark, around 90% of all ash trees have been affected by Chalara fraxinea, and it is rampant across northern and central Europe. Young ash trees are particularly vulnerable and can die within one year, while older trees although capable initially of surviving the dieback, are likely to die after two or three consecutive years of infection.

According to the official line (see links below) the fungal disease has not yet been found in the natural or wider environment in Great Britain, that is, outside nurseries and recent plantings. My guess is though that it is already loose and rampant in our landscape. History tells us that we usually become aware of serious pests and pathogens late in the day. Pests and diseases can appear and then take time to impact too. For instance, Dutch elm disease was first detected in Britain in 1927, and was probably present before then, yet it was not until the 1960s that millions of elm trees were affected by the disease and mature elm trees wiped from our landscape.

Chalara fraxinea is being treated as a quarantine disease under national emergency measures, and it is important that suspected cases of the disease are reported. See the links below to aid in identification.

More about Tree Health

Further information:


8 thoughts on “Ash dieback could devastate Britain’s landscape

  1. As this disease gains greater publicity than other threats, such as OPM and Asian long horn etc., and that relying on the experience of DED really does’nt cut it any longer particularly with a depleted resource and knowledge base, I hope the policy makers start to take notice of the need for hefty research rather than simply PR friendly import bans, 30 years too late, or preemptive felling. The Danes have learnt a lot about chalara I hope and maybe you can confirm that FC and others are allowed the funding to gain from this?

    1. I think one of our main challenges will be getting everyone concerned really engaged with biosecurity in our woodlands. Every woodland worker must get in a habit of sterilising all tools (including stripping and cleaning chainsaws), clothing and vehicles (including tyres) when moving between sites.

      …And then there are the public. How can we persuade the millions of visitors to our woodlands every year to undertake similar biosecurity measures for themselves.

      There are lessons that can be learnt from US foresters in dealing with sudden oak death.

      1. I frequently visit woodlands as an Ancient Tree Hunt Volunteer Verifier and also with the ATF (Ancient Tree Forum). The ATF have recently adopted a policy of using boot sprays to prevent cross contamination of woodlands. I myself clean my boots at the site I have visited to avoid carrying any contamination further afield. Unfortunately the public are less likely to engage with this idea as they will have other things on their minds like the economic climate and austerity and their jobs which all too easily serve to mask the greater threats to our future economic values as a nation. Yes natural resources are a greatly underestimated asset. But I would hesitate to put a price on anything natural for fear of the speculators using it as another means to make money at our expense by hiking the prices of these services. But that’s another story for another day.

        Until the woodlands are seen as the irreplaceable resource (without a specific price tag attached) and all public access banned then we will be hard pressed to prevent the spread of any and all infections regardless of what bio-security measures we put in place. There will always be those who flaunt the rules because they ‘don’t think it applies to them’ or ‘they can’t be bothered with all the hassle’. That is the nature of humans in the modern age.

        Could you see us banning public access? I doubt even the ‘condems’ would dare to chance imposing that sort of draconian rule.

        So what to do? We cannot deny the freedom of the land to the people. That would be seen as another step towards removing all access to all landscapes, another step along the way of the enclosures act that first saw the people removed from the commons. Their land access denied and their future independence and resilience thrown into doubt. Seizure of the land for the bio-security reason would still be viewed as a sinister act and would not prevent people accessing the land illegally anyway.

        Its better to control the way we behave when legally accessing the land than it is to impose outright bans on access. Think poachers. Yes they exist and these days a lot of them are from the EU. I am not being racist here. The European way of life, especially the Eastern European ways are more likely to include foraging on the land for food and also for resources to sell. Fungi foraging being one of the major ones currently causing headaches to woodlands owners. Its seen as a nice little earner to some very specialised gangs of foragers who strip the woodland in a sweeping search, often destroying anything still to small to pick to cut out the competition who may follow on a few days later. It not only removes the foraging for th local community but also prevents the flourishing of these fungi species as well.

        So a solution would be to get the National Parks, Woodland Trust, National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and all the very many other natural environment groups that have public access to their landscapes together pretty damned quickly and encourage them to take the lead on this problem. If need be by they might need to temporarily impose blocks to land access, especially to our great Hunting Parks where there are a number of ancient Ash trees, especially when a threat of contamination is regarded as possible. Yes this would involve a lot of hard work for the land owners but if its the difference between the cost of securing the resources from accidental contamination by Imposing bio-security measures versus losing the very thing people go to woodlands and the countryside to see its a price worth investing. If this is imposed across the public domain as an imperative act to protect the landscape in the first instance with plenty of publicity (communication from every soul who works on these landscapes to the visitors at every opportunity) then the situation may well be mitigated.

        As for the Arborists they need to be taking this even more seriously otherwise their future livelihood will be taken away from them for a very long time, if not forever. They have an organisation/federation/institute or some such and I believe they have to be registered as tree surgeons/arborists etc so these avenues would be the way to get the news out there quickly.

        One point made already is that the infection is very likely already here. If so its all a little bit stable door and bolted horses.
        The only other step would be to initiate a research program to investigate a natural predatory cure which may already exists here. Its not impossible that some small micro-organism or fungi species, even a Lichen, may prove to poses the ability to prevent this infection spreading. I’m no biologist but its better to try all options than to give up.

        All this costs money I know despite the vast number of voluntary workers who engage in outdoor activities for the greater good. The only way to possibly mitigate for the problem of limited finance is to encourage all these groups to use their funds for at least one year to finance a protective initiative and also donate a sum to the Forest Research units. Stopping planting more trees for a year won’t kill the Woodland Trusts plans. Suspending that great garden makeover at a National Trust property won’t stop the flowers blooming. In fact if this disease gets loose the trees will die anyway being young and the entire ecosystem they sustain, like the flowering gardens will suffer. So temporarily suspending new tree planting and garden makeovers will at least free funds for this really important issue. Get the rest to follow suit and we may yet overcome the threat before it starts. At least we are aware of the problem.
        Only a thought.

  2. Reblogged this on W L West & Sons Ltd – Timber Merchants and commented:
    The potential for this disease to spread could be disasterous. The English Ash from a commercial point of view is a beautiful timber. It is very important that we stop any spread of this disease in our country.

    We have experienced various plant heath problems over the years including Dutch Elm and more recently Phytophthora ramorum which has affected forestry from the West Country eastwards.

    The Forestry and Timber industries together with landowners need to be very attentive to these problems.

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