e Personal

Dutch elm disease is a tragic thing to watch, but we shouldn’t be too gloomy. Woody vegetation responds, adapts, regroups. What emerges in its recovery stage may not be the same as before, but it will always be a vital, dynamic, arboreal community.

The fungus, now known as Chalara fraxinea, is biologically mysterious, an entirely new organism of uncertain origins. It probably evolved in eastern Asia, where it appears to be harmless to native ash species. Its ancestor is a benign and widespread leaf fungus called Hymeno­scyphus albidus, native even in the UK. But at some recent date, this threw up a mutant, Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, with slight genetic differences but a terrible virulence.

Natural resistance is likely to be the best hope for the survival of a core population of ashes in the UK. Isolated from the continent for nearly 8,000 years, our trees may be more genetically diverse than those in Poland.

For their part, ordinary rural people were mystified by the need for plantations, having lived for thousands of years with woods that renewed themselves spontaneously and indefinitely by seeding, or by regrowth from cut coppice stools and pollards. In place of this system of natural regeneration came the notion of trees as artefacts, biddable machines for the production of timber, programmed at every stage of their lives from planting to cutting.

The fundamental grammar of our relationship with them had been changed. Previously, “growing” had been an intransitive verb in the language of woods. Trees grew, and we, in a kind of subordinate clause, took things from them. In the forest-speak of the Enlightenment, “growing” became a transitive verb. We were the subject and trees the object. We were the cause of their existence in particular places on the earth.

Now, in the extremities of ash dieback, we can see that decades of well-intentioned planting have been not only often unnecessary, but, quite possibly, dangerous. Runtish saplings, often mislabelled and of unknown provenance, are shoved into the ground, regardless of whether they might be vectors for disease, or whether the soil is right and the site appropriate.

The existence of a large population of indigenous ashes is our best safeguard for the future and makes rather baffling the Forestry Commission’s experiment, initiated early in May, of planting out trial plots with 150,000 saplings of “15 different varieties”. The intention is to discover whether a few may be resistant and eventually propagate from them. But as 80 million ashes from probably ten times that number of genotypes are already engaged in just such an experiment across Britain, it is hard to see this as much more than a PR exercise – one that fits tidily in to our long, hubristic belief that the salvation of trees lies with us and our superior arboreal intelligence only.


See also: http://worldwidewood.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/natural-ash-nursery-cleared-and-ready-for-the-deer-fence/

This year, the winter’s work graduated from the young hazel coupes to the high forest. The objective was to fell 85 per cent of the trees, leaving only the very best oak trees, about 20 of the best ash and a few lucky birch trees to add a bit of variety. Of course, all the dastardly Holly had to be removed, too.

In two years, a crop of thousands of ash seedlings will sprout into the new light. Then all we have to do is keep the Holly regrowth in check and KEEP THE DEER OUT with a fence. The experts are saying that one in 10 trees are resistant. Lets say I have 10,000 seedlings … we would still have too many ash trees for the area. So let’s say, it is only one in a 1000 that are resistant, then we would still have 10 resistant trees, wouldn’t we? And that would be priceless.


… when we stop and recall the bungled mess that has seen ash-dieback enter our island acres; when we hear the FC’s top expert suddenly warning of all the other diseases lining up to kill our trees – we begin to see that there aren’t really many folk out there standing up for trees.

The ones who are have their voices lost in a forest of other stories which overtake the headlines. Tree diseases are here today, gone tomorrow. Except they’re not. And something should be done.


A groundbreaking Show Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013 from the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) will highlight how imported plant pests and diseases such as Chalara ash dieback, Oak Processionary Moth and Phytophthora ramorum, and invasive non-native species such as Floating Pennywort and Water Primrose, have huge potential to change how our landscape looks and severely impact our biodiversity and wildlife.

A beautiful sunken garden featuring herbaceous planting and a sculpture by Tom Stogdon is bordered by quintessential native trees and lush shade-loving planting.  This is starkly contrasted with sinister and shocking elements:

The National Trust is sponsoring the garden and is lending their support to its development.

The ‘Stop the Spread’ garden aims to inspire the public to play their part in preserving our horticultural heritage, biodiversity and wildlife by adopting good practices to minimise their chances of unwittingly spreading plant pests and diseases, or invasive non-native species.  These include sourcing plants locally, being more patient in planting small plants and watching them grow, cleaning footwear and bikes and other equipment after visiting the countryside; checking, cleaning and drying water sports clothing and equipment after each use; and disposing of plants and garden waste safely, never letting them escape into the countryside.


Nonetheless, given that most people in the UK could not identify an ash tree, I do wonder why we care so much. It is not about ash per se – it is about woodland more generally and seems to transcend politics:

Bizarrely, this passionate concern is accompanied by an almost wilful ignorance. The historian David Dymond has described it as “hunger for false information”:

This devotion to what Oliver Rackham calls “pseudo-history” and “a triumph of unreason” baffles scholars, but I do not think it should. It seems to me that the forests we are in love with are forests of the imagination, where Robin Hood leads a band of merry outlaws and where lost children find gingerbread houses and make their fortunes. Interest in and passion for ancient woodland have grown enormously since the 1970s, while the number of people who actually go out and walk in woods has radically declined.

If we want woodlands to flourish, we have to bring that buried awareness to the surface and back it up with better information. For a start, identify your nearest ash tree and keep an eye on it next summer.


Biosecurity – preventing the introduction and spread of harmful organisms – is big news at long last! The arrival of Chalara fraxinea in Britain has brought this important issue to the fore. My first recommendation is to visit the Forestry Commission’s webpage on Biosecurity Measures.

  • Clean your footwear after visiting a woodland. Wear Wellington boots, as these are easier to clean thoroughly. To do this effectively you must remove first all soil and leaf litter from your soles. You will need water and a stiff hand brush.
  • If you have been to a high risk site apply a detergent to sterilise them, although it is good practice after all visits.
  • Sterilise your tools. Be careful that the chemicals you use do not harm trees (or other wildlife). Read more about sterilising forestry and woodland tools.
  • If you drive into a woodland, even on a road, wash your tyres to remove soil and leaf litter.
  • Propellar™ – FC approved chemical to sterilise footwear and equipment email greg@evanschemicals.co.uk

Finally, this advice can be followed by woodland owners, arboriculturists, foresters and anyone who accesses woodland regularly. Whether it is practicable or feasible for the average member of the public to adopt these measures is doubtful.


“When you get the fungus in your woods, there really isn’t anything you can do,” says Ditte Olrik, a biologist with the Danish Nature Agency. Like the rest of Denmark’s foresters, scientists and countryside lovers she has gone through stages of denial, anger and finally acceptance. “When you get it, it’s bad,” she said.

Nearly all the young ash trees died first. Mature trees hang on for longer, lingering for years sometimes as the fungus slowly kills them, spreading into the wood after it gets into the leaves. Bark splits, leaves blacken, tiny mushroom-like fungus grows on twigs, and treetops die, even if there are signs of life lower down the trunk.

When it arrived in Europe some nations tried to stop it. But nothing has worked. “They tried burning infected trees in Norway but it was very expensive and had no effect,” Mrs Olrik said. “Children sing songs about the ash in school,” Mrs Olrik says. “And according to the old stories, when the ash trees die, chaos follows.”

A tiny number of trees seem to be immune to the fungus — perhaps as few as 120 in the entire country, Mrs Olrik believes, although possibly more.

The fungus has been a disaster for Denmark’s foresters, wiping out the most valuable timber they grow. Now foresters everywhere are cutting their trees as soon as the fungus shows up, producing, rather bizarrely, a glut in the market of a tree which will soon almost vanish.


The UK Chief Plant Health Officer Martin Ward has said that ash dieback will not be eradicated – but that there is no reason for people not to visit woodlands.

He spoke to BBC News after attending a summit on the outbreak which proposed focusing on newly planted trees and better surveillance to tackle the disease.

Mr Ward said the fungus which causes the disease did not have long-lasting spores so the outbreak could be contained by collecting the ash trees’ fallen leaves.


My own nursery, Wyevale Nurseries of Hereford, stands to lose some £150,000 worth (sale value) of healthy ash trees, carefully grown here and nurtured over years. More crops are in the process of maturing. Movement of these trees is now banned, and regardless, demand has ceased, they will now likely never be sold. The delay in government action has probably trashed our heritage and our legacy – and the value of our nursery crops (as well as my own family name).

There will be some, 5% to 10%, it is said, in the natural population that are resistant to the disease. Our task is to find these and understand how to concentrate that trait, propagate a wide gene pool and offer them back into the landscape.

The Cobra committee’s meeting must be followed by a taskforce of the best of British brains and practitioners, to promote a resurgence of the ash.


Ministers are concerned that the fungus could be present on fallen leaves and could be transferred via leaf mould.

Mr Paterson told the BBC: “Everyone should be responsible and if they do visit a wood just make sure they wash their boots, wash their dog, whatever’s been running around the leaves, wash their child, to make sure they don’t transfer to the next wood.”


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