Brian Muelaner – Ancient Tree Adviser for the National Trust gives his overview of ash dieback and how it could affect our ancient trees:
One would have to have been living in a bubble over the past six months not to be aware that Britain’s ash trees are seriously at threat from Chalara fraxinea, a fungal pathogen commonly called ash dieback. Since this fungus was first identified barely 10 years ago it has swept across northern Europe from Poland causing massive dieback of ash trees of all ages and sizes. It now appears to be deeply embedded within the countryside of England and to a lesser extent Scotland and Wales, putting at risk some of Britain’s most important trees.
Since ancient times, well before the Roman’s came to Britain, ash trees were important for providing ‘tree hay’, particularly in upland situations where the severe climate made it difficult to produce traditional hay. This practice has taken place in upland regions across Europe. Trees were pollarded every three to five years in the summer, removing all of the tree’s branches above browsing height at around eight feet. The branches were collected and tied into faggots and stored under cover till winter when they were fed to the stock.
The practice still survives in some countries, such as in Sweden, through grant aid to help preserve these biologically and culturally important trees. Farmers still regularly pollard ash trees to feed to their cattle in winter. Ash leaves have a much higher level of protein than traditional grass hay.
The landscape in some of the dales in Cumbria such as Langdale and Borrowdale is littered with ash pollards which are many hundreds of years old, yet these are small hollow trees, kept small from the repeated cutting over centuries. The Trust has restored the practice of pollarding these old trees to prevent their collapse as the limbs become too heavy for the fragile shells of the trunks to be able to support. We have even recorded ash pollards on farms as far south as in east Cornwall, which were almost certainly historically managed to provide tree hay. In Cornwall the wet climate makes producing traditional hay a risky business, so before the advent of silage tree hay was a safer option.
At Dyrham Park in South Gloucestershire there are several dramatic ancient ash pollards which are the sole remnants of an older landscape now incorporated within the designed deer park. These very fragmented old trees are all that remain of a time before the great landscapers created the beautiful parklands we know and love.
Down in Branscombe in East Devon the ancient ash pollards were used for a very different but equally important purpose. Here the trees’ branches were cut on a longer cycle of every 10 to 15 years to provide fuel for the village bread oven. We forget just how significant a role trees have historically played in providing us with warmth and cooking before coal and electricity.
All of these trees could disappear in the next decade or two as Chalara fraxinea slowly sweeps across the country. We must continue to survey and record these wonderful old trees as quickly as we can before they are sadly lost forever.
- Brian Muelaner – Ancient Tree Adviser for the National Trust. I advise on how best to manage these special trees to preserve their natural lives. I am often among trees many hundreds of years old, some are a thousand years or more and still quite healthy. I am coordinating a national survey of all ancient and notable trees on Trust land. To date we have recorded a remarkable 25,000 trees and still have many more properties to survey. I am also compiling an inventory of the hundreds of Trust avenues.