Ash Dieback, a real concern

I just wanted to start by saying the threat of Ash Dieback isn’t new therefore, you may think this blog post maybe isn’t necessary however, I believe it is more than necessary. I feel it is imperative we all know and understand the signs, the devastating effects and begin a discussion upon how we are to sustain our landscape and replace the Ash tree when the inevitable happens.

What is Ash dieback?

The disease is caused by a fungus named Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. The fungus begins to work its deadly magic by blocking the water transport systems in trees which will cause leaf loss, lesions in the wood and on the bark and ultimately the “dieback” of the crown of the tree. The fruiting body of the fungus produces spores and these will attach themselves to fallen Ash leaves. The spores can disperse naturally and can reach over ten kilometres on the wind. This means naturally, the spread of the disease is very difficult to control however, us tree men can ensure the transport of infected Ash over short distances is kept to an absolute minimum to avoid any action aiding the spread.

What to look out for

Autumn and Winter aren’t great times to look out for signs as the trees are naturally shedding their leaves. Summer is the best time to look out for symptoms

Saplings will show dead tops and side shoots

The tips of the shoots become black and shrivelled

Dark lesions often long, thin and diamond-shaped appear on the trunk at the base of dead side shoots

Blackened, dead leaves, could look a bit like frost damage

The veins and stalks of leaves, normally pale in colour, turn brown

In late summer and early autumn (July to October), small white fruiting bodies can be found on blackened leaf stalks.

In mature trees, dieback of twigs and branches in the crown, often with bushy growth further down the branches where new shoots have been produced

If you see or recognise any of the above please contact an expert in the field as quickly as possible to ensure the disease is confirmed and the tree is dealt with accordingly. The Woodland Trust and the Forestry Commission are two places to start reporting what you believe could be an infection.

Discussion time

The Ash tree has been part of Britain and Europe’s history for centuries. Folk lore and traditions include the Ash alongside many other ancient trees. In Norse mythology, the Ash was held in the highest regard representing Yggdrasil, the tree of life. It’s branches reaching to the dizzying heights of heaven and the roots to the darkest depths of hell. The tree supported the 9 worlds. The Norse god of war, Odin, hung himself from the branches of the tree of life with his spear in his side to obtain all knowledge. This act was also reminiscent of Christ’s suffering on the cross. Anglo Saxon England referred to Odin as Woden and is still remembered in our calendar as Wednesday. The name Ash comes from Old English aesc, meaning spear as does it’s Latin name Fraxinus. Isn’t it interesting that both names refer to it’s earlier use and myth? Not withstanding Norse mythology, there are so many stories including the Great Ash Tree, Gelert’s Grave and The Wesley Tree to mention a few.

It is devastating that we are on the precipice of loosing such a large impact to our culture and landscape. Whilst scientists work away to try and understand what can be done to save the species we need to look to the future and come to terms with the fact this ancient, beautiful beast may not be a part of our landscape for much longer. This unfortunately, is going to leave quite a large gap in our hearts and landscape.

How do we replace such an iconic part of our landscape and culture?

What tree species will not have too much of an impact or change ecologically?

Personally, I would like to see a gradual increase in Sycamore and Birch trees.

Sycamores have very strong wood with all kinds of timber and bush craft uses, however, one of the most important uses in my mind is the wildlife benefit. As the tree ages, a fungus attacks and consumes the heartwood. The fungus will not kill the tree, but it does makes it rather weak and hollow. A range of different species of wildlife are then given the opportunity to use them as storage chambers for nuts, nesting sites and shelter. The enormous size of a sycamore tree makes it somewhat impractical for the average home type landscape, however they make great shade trees for parks, along stream banks and in other open areas. The Sycamore can also contribute to erosion control. The roots are very complex and weave around themselves tightly gripping at the soil. When planted on loose soil sites such as river banks, they help to ward off erosion and settle the soil in place. If planted in a built up area, these roots could quite easily infiltrate waterways and damage paved areas. The beauty of the Sycamore is they can tolerate most soil conditions making them a good bet for some of the larger landscape areas. Woodland integration of the Sycamore could be detrimental due to its gigantic shading nature and constant litter. Unfortunately, it is quite a messy species, shedding a generous supply of leaves, seed balls, twigs and strips of bark.

The UK have two species of Birch tree native to it’s lands, Silver and Downy. Unfortunately, Birch trees have a self-limiting character, they cannot grow in the shade. Once they have formed a small woodland they are typically replaced by Pine, Oak, Hazel, Alder and Lime. The beauty of a small Birch woodland is phenomenal and the assistance to the growth of fungus resulting in a quick decomposition of leaf litter enriches the soil. For a woodland to be sustainable, it also needs to be economically viable in the modern world, a Birch woodland can achieve this within 40 years. After 40 years of growth, often the beginning of their natural decline, one would have a fantastic crop of firewood or possibly timber for bush craft. Not only that the bark can also be cooked in the absence of air and a tar extracted (Oleum Rusci) which contains creosote like compounds and has been used to treat leather and also as a glue to mount arrowheads and the like. It can also be used as an antibacterial and antifungal agent. To follow on from the practical uses of the bark, it is rich in oils and certain components making the species very resistant to environmental aggressions such as the often harsh climates in Scandinavia and Russia, more of which we are seeing as time goes on in the UK.

These of course are only a few ideas jotted down, I could go on for hours discussing the pros and cons of many different tree species however, I digress. The point behind this post is to raise more awareness to the ever increasing threat looming over our beloved Ash population and begin a real discussion upon how we may begin to try and replace this beloved species when all else has failed.

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