In other News: Spring is here

During the winter, nature goes into lockdown. Trees have shed their leaves and stand to attention …. birds scrabble around desperately searching for their next meal ….. insects live as eggs, larvae or cocoons. Waiting … patiently waiting for longer and warmer days.

And now spring is here! Birds are singing their heads off in anticipation of imminent breeding and the raising of a new family, butterflies are pursuing the same goal but rather than singing they are flittering. Trees are beginning to come into bud, leaves are magically beginning to appear.

But this is not a normal spring, we are part of nature, whether we think so or not, yet we now find ourselves in lockdown when the rest of nature is not. I am reminded of a poem …. The Waste Lands by T.S. Eliot, written in a different century about a far bigger catastrophe – World War One. Two of the most famous lines spring to mind ‘April is the cruellest month’ and ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’. The next few weeks are going to be difficult and traumatic for us, but, and I don’t want to sound trite, as a nation, we will get through this and life will go on, as The Waste Lands shows us.

Of course, elsewhere life is going on and watching it unfold is my favourite hobby, because whilst I think I know what is going to happen nature doesn’t always read my script. For many years now, I have been looking at the oak and ash trees in my garden, prompted by the old country expression ‘oak before ash – we are in for a splash and ash before oak – we are in for a soak’, I want to see who wins the race to be the first species to come into leaf.

In reality oak pretty much always comes into leaf before ash. In the last fifty years oak has always leafed before ash. It has not always been this way – in the 18th century when it was less mild ash did often produce leaves before oak – thus the quote.

Climate change has changed all of this – usually oak comes into leaf in late March-May which is about two weeks earlier than 30 years ago. Ash usually comes into leaf during April and May, about 7-10 days earlier than 30 years ago.

However, first in 2017 and now again this year, it is pretty much a dead heat – the ash is early. I’ve got 5 different oak trees in the garden and one big ash (seriously affected now by ash dieback). The oaks appear genetically different so I think they have come from different parent trees as the come into leaf at strikingly different times. One is way ahead of the others – the same happens every year. This particular oak has ‘beaten’ the ash, but the ash is ahead of the other four. I can’t really explain this as it has been a very mild winter in a warming world so oak should have beaten the ash by quite a distance.

When this pandemic madness has passed, at least for now, and we begin to reconstruct our lives and rebuild the economy, we need to remember that the global climate and biodiversity crises have not gone away and still need to be urgently addressed. If we learn one thing from all of this, it is that we live in a very connected world, and actions taken in one place can impact detrimentally elsewhere. Who would have thought three months ago that fruit bats and pangolins (the presumed original source of COVID-19) would play such a key role in our lives but we also need to remember that in reality they are the victims and not the villains in this whole saga.

Ash dieback in Devon

I’ve just seen the latest Forestry Commission data on Ash Dieback – a huge increase in the incidence of breakouts in Devon – must admit I’ve yet to see a case anywhere in the UK but this is worrying.
The national picture care of the Forestry Commission

Focusing in on Devon – a lot of new 2016 records …

If you want a copy of this map you can download it here and you can get more information about ash dieback from the Forestry Commission website – here.

The FC have also produced two really useful videos to help you ID ash dieback

Winter symptoms

Spring symptoms

Ash dieback in Devon

The BBC carried a report a couple of days ago that the incidents of the fungal disease ash dieback in Devon had increased rather dramatically. Unfortunately I can’t find any reference to the short report and have only managed to find a Forestry Commission ash dieback map which was updated on the 1st September this year.

This map at this scale isn’t particularly clear but it would appear that new cases of ash dieback have been recorded in between Exeter and Dartmoor and especially running up the Exe Valley (the light green squares). You can look at the map yourself – see here and zoom in on areas you are interested in.

If anyone can point me in the direction of the report / press release which led to the BBC coverage I would be most grateful.

The demise of the ash tree?

The Guardian ran a story today which stated that ash dieback and a beetle called the emerald oak borer was likely in the coming decades to wipe out Europe’s and the UK’s ash trees – see here. I have commented on this story before when I was reviewing Oliver Rackham’s book: the The Ash Tree – see here. I have also written about ash dieback before see here, herehere and here.

The Ash Tree
Oliver Rackham’s last book before he tragically died

Rackham Ash diebackRackham’s illustrations of the lifecycle of the two fungi involved with ash dieback

626-EmeraldAshBorer_lgThis is the emerald ash borer – a native of Asia but now imported to North America and spreading across Russia – it will prove fatal to ash trees in Europe (Fraxinus excelsior) – if it arrives / when it arrives.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SSCN0845Ash flowering and coming into leaf

The report in the Guardian was based on a paper in the Journal of Ecology – ‘Biological Flora of the British Isles: Fraxinus excelsior’. The Biological Flora series of papers have been published for decades by the journal and provide a very detailed literature review of the ecology and  biology etc of individual species of British plants. You can download this paper by Peter Thomas of Keele University here. It tells you everything you need to know about ash trees and a great deal more!

Interestingly the Journal of Ecology also includes another paper on ash and ash dieback by Jessica Needham et al from Oxford University. Based on a study of the famous Wytham Woods near Oxford the paper models what the author believe will happen to the forest community in Britain as ash dieback increasingly takes hold. The paper suggests that ash has done well in recent decades out competing oak for light but as ash dieback stunts ash trees the sycamore (a non native) is likely to be the winning species. Again you can download that paper and read it yourself here.

Nature over the coming decades has a lot to contend with – new fungal diseases, new insect pests and of course climate change – our cherished countryside will change for ever and we’ve only got ourselves to blame.




The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham

Oliver Rackham has published a new book – The Ash Tree.

The Ash Tree

Oliver Rackham is one of my heroes – I have studied his work in great detail all of my career starting with his amazing book Ancient Woodland first published in 1980. Amongst the other classic books he has written are the History of the Countryside (1986) and the Collins New Naturalist – Woodlands (2006). For me he invented historical ecology (the study of the past to guide the future) and coined the phrase ‘factoid’ – an incorrect piece of information believed to be true because it has been incorrectly and repeatedly repeated.

I had the privilege of going on one of Rackham’s Field Studies Council courses (based at Flatform Mill) in the 1980s and met him on and off at Hayley Wood when I was the Operations Director at the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northampton in the 1990s.

Those familiar with Rackham’s previous work will recognise his style in the first four chapters of his new book: The ash tree: what it is and how it behaves; The ash tree in prehistory and history; Veteran, ancient and exceptional ash trees and Cultural, spiritual and material ash.

These chapters catalogue in meticulous detail the rise of the ash over the centuries to a position where it has become one of our commonest and most resilient trees. I won’t try and summarise all the detail and stories – read it for yourselves and then consider what you have written as the definitive account.

Chapters 5 and 6 (Pests and diseases & Recent past and future) see an altogether more irritated and frustrated Rackham. In these chapters he covers deer browsing (more deer in the UK than for 1000 years which have stopped ash (and oak and hazel etc.) from regenerating; climate change – a phenomenon which is occurring but not one that will finish off ash and plant diseases including ash dieback (or ash disease as Rackham prefers).

His insights into ash dieback are very interesting, for example why was the fungus so impactful in 2012 but not in 2013 or 2014? He suggests that ash dieback may be a problem in the UK but it is unlikely to be catastrophic but another pest the emerald ash borer beetle which is currently not in the UK will cause havoc if it arrives from the US (it originally came from the Far East).

His message is that if we continue to trade and ship plants around the world as we currently do as if they were commodities such as ‘cars or tins of paint’ we will reap the whirlwind and our remaining tracts of historical ecology will be lost forever.

The last two chapters are not a comfortable read but they are essential reading. Rackham is clearly tired of repeating this core message and is completely frustrated by governments’ and bureaucrats’ unwillingness to act. Rackham concludes  ‘Homo sapiens have proved to be an increasingly unreliable guardian of the world’s trees’.

Suggest you read this book – its publication will help us all avoid factoids.

Shropshire wow

After months of planning, those of us involved with co-ordinating / leading on the National Trust’s response to ash die back met in Shropshire to discuss our response to the Government’s Ash Dieback plan. You can follow the links in the previous sentence to find about that story but here I thought I would share a few pictures of some fantastic places we saw during our meeting.


The view from the Board Room at the Trust’s Attingham House property


Veteran tree in the parkland

Veteran 2

And another one


The ash dieback team

Fallow deer

Fallow deer in the Park

Long Mynd Hotel view

We stayed overnight in Church Stratton at the Long Mynd Hotel – another room with a view and lots of snow!

Long Mynd Hotel view b&w pan

A black and white panorama

Wenlock Edge

After more meetings with colleagues from the Woodland Trust we departed for Wenlock Edge one of our most important ash woods which could be affected by the disease to discuss options for the future.

Serious snow has fallen here in the last few days – maybe 12″ and drifts by the road of over 6′ – we were lucky to get there and then get out!

Wenlock Edge snow

Snow on Wenlock Edge

The Wrekin

The Wrekin.

Conclusion – Shropshire is well worth a visit – The Long Mynd, Wenlock Edge, the Wrekin – lots of NT properties – I’ll be heading back for another visit – perhaps after the snow has gone!

You can follow the local NT team’s exploits on Wenlock Edge here in their blog

and a multi author book on the place is available here.