a YouGov poll conducted for the Woodland Trust suggests.

Only 17 per cent recognised an ash leaf, despite the high profile of Chalara ash dieback, which experts have warned could be as devastating as Dutch elm disease. And 57 per cent could not identify an oak. Fewer than two-fifths (39 per cent) of young people could identify an oak and only one in 10 identified an ash. Older people did better: more than two-thirds (68 per cent) of over-55s identified an oak and almost a quarter (23 per cent) recognised an ash.



Action against the deadly fungus threatening the UK’s ash trees was delayed by a lack of qualified plant pathologists, MPs were told on Tuesday. Government scientists being questioned by parliament’s environment committee also said border controls against the rising number of invasive plant pests were not working, while committee chair Anne McIntosh said it was “staggering” that the amount of imported firewood – a potential infection risk – was unknown.

The Forestry Commission recommended in July 2011 that ash trees should only be imported from areas free of the Chalara fraxinea fungus, but an import ban was only imposed in October 2012. At least 136 of the 291 infected sites now identified in the UK resulted from imported trees.

In November, Prof James Brown, president of the British Society of Plant Pathology, told the Guardian the job losses in plant science were “severe”. He said: “Britain is not producing graduates with the expertise needed to identify and control plant diseases in our farms and woodlands.”

a key measure put forward in the action plan – developing strains of ash trees that are naturally resistant to Chalara – would take 10 years or more to bear fruit.


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.


1. There is always a tremendous hurry and lack of adequate cash about grant aided planting which means trees are often imported

2. Inappropriate tree species are routinely introduced.

3. The groups of trees which are planted do not constitute woods. In particular, no-one bothers to establish an understory, which means they have less value for biodiversity than they should do. Demand for woodland bulbs is amazingly small and their purchase is never covered by woodland planting grants, for example.

4. This issue is compounded by planting densities being too high, which blocks out any light reaching the plants on the ground.

5. We sometimes establish these plantations, with limited ecological value, where more interesting habitat previously existed.


And this is why ash dieback breaks my heart: a sense that while they may be of little import to most of us on the surface, what we lose when they die runs deeper than we know. Many people – most, perhaps – couldn’t identify an ash; and I’ve heard some comment blithely that surely other trees will just grow, it won’t matter, not in the long term.
It matters. Along with their unique physical presence in our landscape, along with the ecological benefits they bring as a major native species, there is a pool of myth and folklore and wisdom and learning and allusion at stake; a deep collective history which is our birthright and which, more than ever right now, can sustain us. Will the next generation even be able to call ash trees to mind – the shape their branches make in winter, the sticky black buds in spring, the sound their leaves make in a warm breeze, the feel of ash keys in the palm – as my parents could the elm?


Some of the plant biologists working on ash dieback believe that the same organism has now become pathogenic because of changing cultural conditions, atmospheric pollution, drought stress, nutrient overload, unseasonal rainfall, or absence of limiting factors such as frost.

One way we could try to protect our ash trees might be not to let this year’s leaves rot down, but to rake them up and burn them, keeping the ground under the trees clear. This might be a waste of time but it must be worth a try. We are more likely to be told to mulch the leaves, burning of woodland debris now being frowned upon, but burning is a surer way of eliminating a fungal pathogen.

Unaffected trees have been found growing alongside dead and dying trees. Some individuals, perhaps as many as 20 per cent of a population, are naturally resistant. What this suggests is that we should be selecting and breeding ash trees with this genetic trait to replace the ones we are certain to lose. the virulence of the disease may well decrease in time.

require both Railtrack and the Highways Agency to monitor the ash trees growing in their many miles of verges and embankments, and remove juvenile ashes in the understorey. Fungal spores are not just carried on the wind; they are also transported by vehicular traffic.


The Earl of Courtown, an hereditary peer in the House of Lords, said television programmes, such as Ground Force, made people expect an “instant garden”.

“Landscape architects and garden designers specify these larger trees of all species because of the Instant Garden Syndrome, people want to have this immediate impact in their gardens and are not prepared buy whips that can grow and establish themselves more quickly than say a root balled specimen already 18ft high. Local Authorities are also guilty as is only too apparent when you look around a new housing estate and the size of the trees planted,” he said.

Chelsea Flower Show has also seen a resurgence in the fashion for large trees and shrubs in recent years, many imported from abroad.

“It is promoted by gardening programmes when you see the kind of gardens we used to see some years ago.”


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.


What is worrying is the apparent blindness of those who have been busy planting broadleaved trees by the square mile in the conviction that they are helping to regenerate Britain’s heritage of woodlands. No one is a more enthusiastic planter of amenity trees than the Woodland Trust whose aim is to “support, nurture and encourage native woodland and making them more robust in the fact of climate change and disease.” The Trust buys its trees from nurseries. It claims to always ask for trees of local provenance, evidently not knowing, and certainly not asking, about how exactly these trees have been nurtured. In fact, many – to judge from the official figures, most – seedlings of ash and other trees are exported to Holland and other European countries for growing on and are then imported back for planting out. This practice is widely known and condoned in the trade, and was certainly known about by Defra and the Forestry Commission. Yet the Woodland Trust admits they knew nothing about it. In their innocence they feel themselves victims (pardon me, but I’d say the ash trees are the victims here).

But can I suggest that, until we can guarantee that nursery trees are free from contagious and fatal diseases we simply stop planting trees?