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Lush Times Spotlight on… Ash Dieback

Ash has long been an integral part of the native British woodland landscape - over 1,000 different species depend on it either wholly or in part for their survival - but this is an ecosystem that is under severe threat thanks to a rampaging fungal infection that has already claimed so many Ash trees over the last decade it has now been recorded across some two thirds of the country.

They say good things come to those who wait and so it is for the much neglected British native Ash tree which has spent so long out of the spotlight, you might have trouble remembering the last time you actually saw one ... or if you’ve ever seen one.

Unlike the Horse Chestnut tree which delivers up its shiny conkers each autumn or the Holly you may go a-hunting for its red berries at Yueltide, there’s little of the rich history of Ash that has survived into the 21st century. You might stop to photograph the roots of a gnarled old Yew tree in a Churchyard or to capture the glorious autumn colours of a Beech wood but who’d ever stop to photograph Ash which until recently, many people regarded as an irksome weed. (The fact is the UK has 7,500 ancient and veteran ash trees - and is home to some 70% of all of Europe’s ancient trees.)

But poor Ash is so overlooked and uncelebrated that if she was at a party, she’d be the wallflower in the corner - in fact she’s probably not even there because nobody remembered to invite her.

But all that’s about to change thanks to Ashscape - the first-ever week-long conference dedicated to all things Ash, including and especially the increasing threat to the surviving population across Britain with a focus on what we can now do to protect and preserve these important trees.

Ashscape is the brainchild of environmentalist and campaigner, Edward Parker, a photographer and writer who has written some 30 books on trees in a body of work that includes writing about rainforests and Indigenous Peoples around the world. He will be hosting the first Ashscape conference at the home of the Springhead Trust in Fontmell Magna, Dorset. Springhead is an educational charity of which Edward is the director and the pioneering Ashscape conference is being staged in collaboration with the Ancient Tree Forum and the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

There’s just nothing flash about Ash

Edward, who has travelled the Globe photographing spectacular trees, has some thoughts on why Ash has never made it big in the popularity stakes which he puts down primarily to the fact that Ash just goes quietly about its business and does not, like some of its more flamboyant tree counterparts, go looking for the spotlight.

“In many ways Ash trees are physiologically quite unremarkable, many being so quintessentially tree-like in appearance with a tall, slender, straight trunk supporting a graceful dome of feathery leaves we just don’t pay attention to them,” he says.

“They are not particularly tall or stout. They do not sport flamboyantly coloured flowers or, despite living to great ages, display the ostentatiously ancient-looking and gnarled trunks of trees such as the oak, olive and yew. They tend to just quietly go about their business blending into the woodland communities and the agricultural landscapes they inhabit and go largely unnoticed in towns and cities.

“Even the great writers and artists have failed to immortalise the Ash tree. Writers such as Wordsworth and John Clare, despite their enduring love of trees, hardly mention the Ash at all, and among the 884,647 words of the complete works of Shakespeare the Ash tree makes a guest appearance only once!”

ash tree
ash tree

What is Ash Dieback?

Sadly, Ash has not moved into the spotlight for reasons we can celebrate. Yes, the first-ever conference dedicated to Ash trees will remind us of why we should care about the threat to Ash and yes, it will include new artworks dedicated to discovering the understated beauty of Ash but the real reason the conference is being held is to alert us all to the fact that if we don’t tackle Ash dieback now, we’ll be waking up to an ashless landscape in the very near future.

Ash dieback - known as Chalara after the original name of the fungal infection causing it (Chalara fraxinea; actually this name has now been changed to Hymenoscyphus fraxineus but dieback is still referred to as Chalara) - causes leaf loss, crown dieback and bark lesions in infected trees and is almost always fatal, although some more mature trees have shown resistance and survived. It was first spotted in the UK in 2012 and infection rates have been accelerating at such a rate that current estimates suggest Ash dieback has now spread to two-thirds of the UK area where ash trees grow.

Researchers are still uncertain as to whether the disease arrived here solely as a result of trees imported from Asia or whether dieback has been a naturally-occurring event with the fungal spores reaching these shores in the wind so whilst Ash itself it not an invasive species, the disease affecting the Ash population is!

Yggdrasil - the world tree of Norse legend - is an Ash tree and according to Danish folklore, it is said that if Ash should ever disappear then the world would end. According to ecologists, the impact of the Ash dieback fungal infection coupled with the destructive activities of a bright emerald green beetle called the ash borer (which hasn’t arrived in Britain - yet)  could, if undeterred, wipe out all the Ash trees in Europe.

But happily, there is hope in the form of resistant strains of ash and the use of techniques to prevent the infection of vulnerable ash seedlings in the first place which means we could, if we cared enough, fight back and keep Ash - currently the third most common tree in the British landscape - in its rightful place.

Springhead Ashscape - A First Step In Fighting Back!

Topics to be covered during the two dedicated speaker days on October 13th and 14th include an exploration of the resistance of Ash to dieback; the medicinal importance of Ash over the last 2,000 years and its potential contribution to modern medicine including the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease and obesity; a Dutch perspective on those ecosystems (plant and invertebrate) affected by the loss of Ash in the landscape and a Scandinavian perspective on regeneration and how to fight back against dieback with the identification of genetically-resistant material and the planting of the more resistant strains of European ash to replace those trees we are losing.

Written by Susan Clark

*Springhead Ashscape runs from October 10th - 15th and is open to the public on the two speaker days (October 13th & 14th) and on the final day which is being billed as Springhead Open Garden Day (October 15th) when a 75-strong choir will gather at the event to sing songs celebrating the history, folklore and importance of the Ash tree and where Professor Adrian Newton of Bournemouth University will offer visitors the chance to plug in and listen to the heartbeat of a living ash tree (yes, it actually vibrates to produce sound!)

Conference Tickets cost £30 per day and include lunch on the day you attend. Entry to the Open Day is £4.50. To book visit, email [email protected] or call 01747 811853

(*Springhead Ashscape has been part funded by The Valentine Charitable Trust and a number of private donors)

Poor Ash is so overlooked and uncelebrated that if she was at a party, she’d be the wallflower in the corner - in fact she’s probably not even there because nobody remembered to invite her.

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