Somehow I have been lucky enough to miss out on two of the most catastrophic epidemics to hit our countryside in recent times. I grew up with some awareness of Dutch elm disease but in truth it never really meant anything very real to me. As a child trees fell into several main categories with the main ones being those good for climbing, those good for constructing aerial walkways, treehouses and zip wires and those for finding shiny conkers underneath to be satisfyingly pocketed for no reason whatsoever than the pure joy of the look and feel of them (the sight of a rich mahogany conker gleaming enticingly from within a newly split green husk is still something I find irresistible to this day!). By the time I was old enough to start to take an interest in trees as part of the British countryside most of the elms had gone so, unlike my parents’ generation, I never suffered the personal tragedy of watching old friends disappear one by one from the landscape. Then in 2001 when foot and mouth struck the UK I was mercifully spared the horror that gripped the country as I happened to be living in Venezuela at the time. By the time I got back the worst was over and all that remained were a few closed footpaths and a lot fewer animals in the countryside.
Sadly I fear that I will not be spared the next tragedy currently sweeping across the land. I am talking of Chalara fraxinea, more correctly termed Hymenoscyphus fraxineus but more commonly known as ash dieback disease. I spent two days this week on a training workshop to discuss the implications of ash dieback disease on National Nature Reserves and, although there were some slivers of positivity to be gleaned from the two days, overall I came home pretty depressed.
In 2012 when the papers first filled up with talk of ash dieback myself and particularly my partner were fairly dismissive. Comparisons with Dutch elm disease seemed invalid as genetically speaking ash is far more diverse than elm in this country so it seemed likely that, whilst we might lose a small proportion of susceptible trees, generally ash should be fairly well-equipped to resist the new disease. Furthermore, the press loves a bad news story and over recent years we have been reportedly due to lose all our horse chestnuts, our alders, our oaks, our junipers and probably many others that I have forgotten. Now I appreciate that none of these trees are by any means out of the woods, so to speak, but in most cases the initial predictions of rapid decimation of the countryside seem mercifully unlikely to come true. Added to this my partner had just returned from a week in Denmark spent entirely talking to foresters in a country where they had reportedly lost 80% of their ash trees and yet at no point did anybody mention ash dieback disease as an issue. It appeared that ash dieback was most likely to be a problem in monocultural ash plantations with little genetic diversity but did not present a significant threat to the British countryside.
Since my initial scepticism in 2012, the more that I have read about ash dieback, the more I have had the uncomfortable feeling that for once the dire predictions of the media may have hit the mark. First-hand reports brought last week from continental Europe and parts of the UK where ash-dieback have already hit seem to confirm this. Extensive surveys in Europe have failed to find any evidence of ash trees showing resistance (i.e. not susceptible to ash dieback disease) and only around 1-5% appear to be significantly tolerant. Those that are appear to be only the most healthy prime specimens and any trees that are already stressed or growing in sub-optimal conditions appear to be very unlikely to be able to tolerate the disease. The staggering implications of this are that, at best, the UK seems likely to lose a significant proportion of its ash trees and, at worst, we could lose nearly all of them. If this wasn’t bad enough, in some ways ash dieback disease has the potential to be even worse than Dutch elm disease. This is because Dutch elm disease doesn’t affect trees until they reach a certain age or size meaning that there are still plenty of elm trees in the British countryside and in many cases these manage to reach a sufficient size to produce seed before succumbing to the disease. Added to this, a very small number of elm trees actually appear to be resistant to the disease and survive to maturity. These factors mean that not only are there still plenty of elms around but also it is possible to picture a future where large elms are once again a prominent feature of the British countryside. Ash dieback on the other hand appears to be most devastating amongst young pole-stage ash trees. This has obvious and serious implications for the future of the species in this country, particularly if many of the mature seed trees also succumb to the disease.
I did mention something about a glimmer of positivity earlier in this post – what of this? Amidst all the gloom there are indeed some reasons to be positive. If we are to lose many of our ash trees then we need to rethink our woodland management. Resilience is the word of the moment and this is what we need to begin to build into our woodlands. This means encouraging a greater diversity of our native species such as lime, beech, oak, field maple, hornbeam and how about elm? Perhaps we all gave up on elm too quickly. Maybe it is time that we cared for our elms a bit better and made life easier for them in our woodlands. Much of the woodland wildlife that has been declining in recent decades has been suffering from a lack of open space caused by the decline in traditional practices such as coppicing and ride management. Perhaps the gaps left by ash trees will benefit some of these plants and creatures and make them once more a familiar sight. Perhaps the solace to be derived from the demise of many of our ash trees might be the return of woodlands bursting with wildlife once thought to have disappeared.
In spite of these slight rays of hope, it is not really surprising that the drive home from the tree health workshop was something of a sad one. That evening my partner and I went for a ride on our motorbike and as we slipped through the valleys and plateaus of the south Cotswolds in the soft evening light I felt a deep sorrow at the loss that was to come. Ash is such an intrinsic part of the Gloucestershire landscape that it is all but impossible to imagine it not being there. As we rode though I was struck by the complete futility of my sadness. Ash dieback will come to the Cotswolds and it seems inevitable that it will change the landscape, at least for the course of my lifetime. Trees that I know and love may slip slowly away and certainly we will have to readdress the way that we manage both our grasslands and woodlands. My feeling sad will not change this and for now, ash dieback is not in the Cotswolds. For now, ash trees burst from hedgerows and woodlands across every hill and along every valley. They stand alone and venerable in fields, crowd for attention in woodland glades and give gentle shade in garden corners. From tiny saplings to ancient veterans, ash is prolific and healthy and should be celebrated in the here and now. Sorrow will inevitably come but today we should be celebrating this wonderful tree for its smooth grey bark, its light dappled shade, its slightly untidy crown, its gnarled and hollowed old age and the myriad plants and animals it supports. To this end I feel that we should have an Ash Appreciation Day, a day to celebrate everything about ash and all that it has given us. For now every day I spend out in the Cotswold countryside will be Ash Appreciation Day. For now, I shall savour the familiar sight, sense and touch of these beautiful trees and save the sadness for another day.