Till every gust be laid.
Rudyard Kipling (1906)
There’s a particular book on my bookshelf that’s been high in my mind recently. Written by Gerald Wilkinson and published in 1978, it’s called Epitaph for the Elm. I found it in a little bookshop in Norwich in the 1990s, when the regenerating elms next to the Unthank Road were still just about hanging on. The book catalogues the decline of elm trees across Britain in the 1970s, and describes the massive impact it had on the structure and character of our countryside. The book’s cover is yellowing now, and the typeface is dated, but the message is just as strong.
I have always been fascinated by elms, although I’m too young to remember the elm decline. I’ve only ever known elm as a hedgerow plant, spreading by suckers and growing into saplings that then fall victim to Dutch Elm disease, leaving their young skeletons behind. Elm, the dark tree, the intolerant one, the wood used for coffins and water pipes because it was slow to rot. I was drawn to the old wych elm coppices at Gight Woods in Aberdeenshire that hadn’t yet succumbed in the 1990s, and marvelled at the little helicopter seeds flying from the surviving elms by the Meadows in Edinburgh in the 2000s. These days I make a point of singling out the miraculous adult elm tree in Chagford on Dartmoor, whenever I go by. It’s a special tree, a rarity, a survivor.
a king shall warm his slippers by.
Cecilia Congreve (1930)
Ash is the third most common tree in Britain, and the commonest tree to be found in British place names after the thorn. Look in any hedgerow or woodland in the lowlands and it won’t take long to find an ash tree.
Ash features heavily in folklore wherever it grows. There is debate over whether the Norse World Tree (Yggdrasil) was an ash or a yew tree. The Greek goddess Nemesis carried an ash branch as a symbol of the justice of the gods, and doled out justice with it so that fortune was shared out among the people and not just enjoyed by a few. In Britain, ash used to be considered the ‘healing tree’ and you will find it being used for protection against evil spirits in many of our folk tales. These days, ash is used for so many different things, and is so common, that perhaps we take it for granted.
You might remember the headlines in the papers, somewhere around 2013, before Trump and Brexit and everything else. A new disease that affected ash trees, coming to Britain from Europe (oh the hollow irony), accelerated by the planting of ash saplings imported from the continent. How could this be real? Suddenly we weren’t allowed to plant ash trees any more, and there were dark stories from East Anglia of ash dieback starting to take hold.
The media coverage has gone, but the disease is still here. Ash dieback (Chalara or Hymenoscyphus psudoalbidus) is a fungal infection that blocks the water transport systems in ash trees, causing decline and weakness of the tree that eventually leads to its death. For a tree that usually lives for hundreds of years, ash dieback is a swift killer. Young trees succumb to the disease quite quickly, within 2-5 years; older trees are a little more resilient but eventually the crown dies back, and the tree is more vulnerable to other diseases, to the point of death.
Ash dieback was first discovered in Poland in 1992, and it’s swept through Europe, distributed through wind-borne spores as well as planting of infected stock. It has decimated ash populations everywhere, killing up to 90% of trees. A paper in the Journal of Ecology in 2016 suggested that ash is heading for extinction in Europe.
The disease has probably been in the UK for at least 10 years. It is worse in the east. Colleagues in Kent say there are woodlands where all the ash trees have now died. I visited Norfolk a couple of weeks ago and was shocked to see many ash trees looking half-dead. Here in Devon, at first there were only a couple of records of ash dieback and it was thought to be restricted to an area around Tiverton. That was, they say, until a member of Forestry Commission staff travelled down to the South West, and stopped in every lay-by on the A30 and the A38. They found signs of ash dieback in every tree they looked at.
Scientists predict that only 3% of our ash trees will be completely tolerant of Chalara. The likely devastation of Britain’s woodlands and hedgerows over the next ten years doesn’t bear contemplation. Breeding and planting of resistant strains will need a whole generation, at least, to take effect.
It’s tempting to subscribe to a doom philosophy about tree disease, as some kind of barometer of our overall misuse of the planet. I suspect the truth is more practical. After all, nothing stays the same, and environmental change would happen even if our management of the land stayed the same. But with human activity, technology and movement all accelerating, environmental change moves with it – including mutations and transfer of new diseases.
All around us, right now, all over the country, ash trees are quietly struggling, and quietly dying. Who knows just how badly ash dieback will eventually affect our ash trees in Britain. Who knows whether future populations of ash trees will become resistant and be given the space to recolonise the countryside in the future.
With our short life spans in comparison to these trees, all we can do is watch, and react, and mourn the cruel decline of the ash tree: one of the fundamental characters of our countryside.
If you’d like to read further, here is a link to the excellent Ash Dieback Action Plan for Devon.