From the ashes
In the face of devastating disease what is to happen to our ash trees and the wildlife which relies on them? Devon Wildlife Trust’s Pete Burgess explores what we’re doing to ensure nature’s recovery when the mighty fall.
Ash trees occupy a strong presence in our lives, even if this sometimes escapes our notice. The numbers alone are impressive: there are an estimated 80 million ash trees in the UK. In Devon, woodland where ash is the dominant tree species covers around 11,000ha, or more than 20% of all the county’s broadleaved woodland. Then there are the 1.9 million ash trees outside of Devon’s woodlands, many of them in parks, gardens and in our hedges.
Despite this strength in numbers our ash trees are however facing a threat which puts its very future in Devon and the UK at risk. This scourge is ash dieback which, latest estimates predict will mean the death of more than 90% of our ash trees.
Happening now, near you
If you think this Domesday prediction will take decades to happen, think again. Ash dieback is happening now. As just one example, we’ve found the disease in ash trees in all of the Valley Parks. Its malignant influence will be felt everywhere that ash is. In places where the tree dominates the landscape the impact will be dramatic.
Nor will the losses end at ash. The interconnectedness of the natural world means that the tree’s disappearance from our towns and countryside will be felt by a host of other wildlife. From bluebells to bullfinches, ferns to flycatchers, it’s thought that more than 1,000 species have come to rely upon ash trees.
The scale of such losses can make us feel hopeless. But that’s not the Devon way! We, along with other experts in the ‘Devon Ash Dieback Resilience Forum’, plan to act.
Using the collective experience gained from large tree losses before – think of the storms of 1987 and 1990, and Dutch elm disease before them – we know there are simple things we can do now to reduce the long term impact of ash dieback. Here are some of our plans.
Life and death
We own and manage 50 nature reserves and large tracts of the six Valley Parks in Exeter. Where our ash is affected with the dieback disease, and it is safe to do so, we’ll let nature takes its course. This will mean dying or dead ash trees, but in turn they will offer a deadwood home to many species including fungi and wood
boring insects. This approach may also help us to locate the most resilient trees
which hold the key to the future of the species in the UK.
Trees on boundaries, roadsides, or wherever there are people or buildings closeby
will be treated as higher risk and we’ll be embarking on essential felling work
this winter before the disease fully takes hold and makes the trees too unsafe to
Where affected ash trees are close to paths, roads, boundaries, power lines and
other human infrastructure then we’ll have to remove them. But that won’t be the
end of the story. Devon Wildlife Trust has signed up to the 3-2-1 formula. For
every large tree felled we’ll nurture or plant three new trees (of other native
broadleaved varieties), two for every medium tree and one for every small tree.
It’s an approach we are encouraging other to follow.
Ashes outside of woodlands are unlikely to be replaced without your help! If you
own or manage land locally we want you to follow the same approach. Devon
needs more trees throughout its landscapes, from nurturing new hedgerow trees,
through to new copses and woodlands.
Our aim is to help
We aim to be able to help you in the effort to replace ash with other trees. Devon
Wildlife Trust has recently submitted a multi-million pound National Lottery
Heritage Fund application – ‘Saving Devon’s Treescapes’ on behalf of the Devon
Ash Dieback Resilience Forum. This five year project will focus on our stunning
treescapes in the county, ensuring that we are replacing trees now that may be
lost in the future as a result of dieback or the barrage of other pressures trees are
facing. Devon County Council and Exeter City Council are key partners in the
project which will ensure there is a concerted drive to replace lost trees in the
Devon Wildlife Trust is planning to develop community tree nurseries where
locally harvested seed can be nurtured and saplings and tree guards given to
those who are willing to give trees space on their land.
There is a lot of support and advice on how, together, we can act in the face of ash
dieback (see ‘What you can do’ below). The loss of this life giving tree will be
significant. But the extent and longevity of the hole it leaves behind will be up to us
all to fill.
Cause and effect
Ash dieback is a disease caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus
fraxineus (previously called Chalara fraxinea). It is spread by the fungus’ spores. The
first confirmed case in the UK was in 2012.
Once the fungus takes hold an ash tree loses its leaves (usually in its crown first)
and lesions can appear on its bark. Death of the tree follows. This can be swift – one
or two years – in younger ash, or after several years of struggle for mature trees.
What you can do
Ash dieback’s effects will eventually be felt even by the oldest, sturdiest ash
trees. It’s important that we preserve a record of these ‘special’ trees now.
This spring and summer take a photo or make a video of your local/favourite
ash tree and send it to us (email firstname.lastname@example.org) for our ‘ash
archive’. Tell us where the ash is and, if you like, what the tree means to you.
For practical support on ash dieback and how to manage land with ash visit
the Devon Ash Dieback Resilience Forum webpages at: