Plenty of reasons to mourn the loss of ash trees to dreaded dieback disease
Ash dieback may have, temporarily, fallen out of the headlines. But the disease, first found in Devon two weeks ago and which is at risk of infecting virtually every part of the country, has not gone away. Philip Bowern looks at the consequences for our countryside as it slowly spreads.
The landscape laid out before me as I stand in a favourite spot looking down the Avon estuary above the Devon village of Aveton Gifford is punctuated by a series of landmarks, natural and built. There is the river, widening after the ancient bridge, into a true estuary that sweeps in several curves to the sea, out of sight over the last hill.
There is the copse of conifers, dark green against the paler browns and creams of the stubble fields. And there are the hedges; wide and fairly deep here and marked, at intervals, with trees. Some, old and bent, are the stubby sort of oaks that thrive along the Devon lanes that cut through this farming country. But others are taller, with whip-thin branches reaching the sky and, even now, in mid-November, a smattering of small leaves left on them, showing against the pale dove grey of the bark.
These are the ash trees. They come in every size and shape, from single slender saplings, reaching up between the hawthorn and the elder, to majestic full-grown trees and everything in between. And they may not be here for very much longer.
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Their loss would be grim, not just for the lover of the landscape, who would miss their beauty and the way they help the observer to "read" the view and get his bearings on a country walk.
The farmers, for whom the ash is an important component of many stock-proof hedges, would certainly miss them. When the elms died off in the 1970s, the landscape changed but, for the most part, the dead trees remained where they stood, tragic and bare of leaves, winter and summer, but still performing a role, in the hedgerow. Ash trees, especially smaller examples, some of which have been cut and bent or laid to make a proper barrier, would be missed much more if they had to be cut out and destroyed.
They would be missed by the naturalist, too, who would regret the loss of the haven they provide to birds and insects.
Even the gamekeeper, who makes use of stands of ash in pheasant coverts, where they provide cover and roosting spots for the game, would mourn their passing. And the pigeon shooter knows that stands of ash alongside arable fields are often used as "sitty trees" by birds coming to feed and are, therefore, the perfect place near which to set up decoys to bag a few birds when on crop-protection duties.
The wood of the ash tree has many uses. It is relatively fast-growing and has been coppiced over centuries, leaving some old ash stools that, according to the natural historian Oliver Rackham, may be among the oldest living things in Britain, with some, that have been cut back and cut back to encourage constant re-growth, perhaps more than 1,000 years old. Ash wood has been used to make ploughs and axles for carts, as well as cut into planks for building use and fashioned into sporting implements, from tennis racquets to oars. It is also revered, by people who care about such things, as just about the best wood you can get to burn.
There are several versions of a verse describing the burning qualities of different types of wood. All end with the lines:
"But ash logs, all smooth and grey,
Burn them green or old,
Buy up all that come your way,
They're worth their weight in gold."
Sadly, if Chalara fraxinea, the Latin name for dieback, continues to spread as far and as fast as many scientists fear, that's pretty much all ash will be good for. And I, for one, will miss its smooth, grey bark, its black buds in spring, its small green leaves and its important place in the landscape.