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.

http://www.newstatesman.com/sci-tech/2013/06/our-ash-trees-are-dying-dont-despair-catastrophes-are-natural-events-lives-trees

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

Scientists are now breeding the two ash trees together in the hope that they will be able to create a new generation of saplings able to survive infection by the Chalara fraxinea fungus, which causes ash dieback.

Experts have found two trees – known as tree 35 and tree 18 – among Denmark’s ruined woodland that show the highest levels of resistance to the fungus ever seen.

British scientists have teamed up with Danish researchers in a bid to find the genes responsible for protecting these plants from ash dieback.

They hope to develop a test that will allow them to find similar trees in Britain’s woodland so they can begin breeding new saplings to replace those that die as a result of the fungus.

While other ash trees in the plot withered and died as the fungus slowly spread along their branches and through their leaves, the plants grown from tree 35 and tree 18 remained strong and healthy.

The pair also were found to be a viable breeding pair – with tree 35 being predominantly female and tree 18 being predominantly male.

Landowners have accused the Government of ignoring scientists’ efforts to develop a cure for ash dieback and instead relying on cheaper ‘management’ of the disease.

Sir Richard Storey, who owns 300 acres of mature ash trees on his Settrington Estate in Yorkshire, pointed out that Britain has far more ash trees than Continental Europe as it is more difficult to grow other species like beech and oak in the UK because of grey squirrels.

Harriet Tupper, Chairwoman of the International Dendrology Society, accused the Government agency in charge of tackling the disease, the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) of rejecting projects working on cures and antidotes.

“It is pessimistic not to try to find a cure/antidote. Over the centuries, scientists have discovered cures for many diseases, of humans, animals and plants. There is no reason why this cannot also happen for Chalara fraxinea. No antidote was found in Poland or Denmark, but of the trees in those countries, ash represented only a tiny fraction unlike the situation in the UK.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/9948411/Government-ash-dieback-management-plan-criticised-for-failing-to-stop-disease.html

  • Developing resistance to the disease in the native ash tree population
  • Encouraging landowner, citizen and industry engagement in surveillance, monitoring and action in tackling the problem

Defra said it is planting 250,000 ash saplings in the east and south east so Defra scientists and the Forestry Commission and local landowners can monitor the trees for signs of Chalara, paying particular attention to any signs of resistance.

http://www.trees.org.uk/aa/news/Defra-admits-impossible-to-eradicate-ash-dieback-148.html

Comment: It is crazy to spend all the money planting out nursery reared seedlings, when natural woodlands can do a much better job themselves for free, with woodland saplings benefiting from their ancient mycorrhizal support systems. See: http://worldwidewood.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/ashes-from-ashes-making-a-one-acre-natural-nursary/ (JW)

A group including the Confederation of Forest Industries, the Woodland Trust and the Ramblers Association urged ministers not to scrap the Forestry Commission, which manages publicly owned forests in England and Scotland.

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph today, the group warned against any plans to merge “the Forestry Commission with Natural England or the Environment Agency”.

They said: “A merger would distract front-line staff at a time of threat from tree pests and diseases, and it would threaten, over time, the professional expertise built up in the Forestry Commission.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/9967598/Scrapping-forestry-quango-leaves-trees-at-greater-risk-of-ash-dieback-type-diseases.html

The best case scenario is to be able to save the most valuable trees, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The department wrote to a company which had proposed a general treatment and confirmed that they had “serious doubts” it would work in woodland, according to The Times.

But the fungicides could help save trees of special conservational value, or young trees still in nurseries. 352 sites across Britain are infected with ash dieback.

The recent cold snap has stopped the spread but it is expected to resume in the spring when the in the spring when the Government will announce it’s plans to deal with the disease.

HUNDREDS of trees could be chopped down to halt the spread of a disease wreaking havoc on woodlands.

The zone would run diagonally across Scotland from the Moray Firth to the Clyde to create a sheltered area to the west.

It is hoped that, while some more areas will be affected in the next five years, the sheltered area could remain disease-free for up to 20 years, allowing new approaches to be developed.

Statutory action is being considered which would require the removal or killing of all recently planted ash trees on any infected sites in both the buffer and sheltered areas.

Actions could include uprooting or cutting the trees before burning and deep burial, spraying the stumps or chemically injecting standing trees.

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/trees-face-the-axe-in-buffer-zone-bid-to-control-disease.20429396