COLUMN: Wildlife Matters with Robert Adams

A campaign to save ash trees along the side of Ripon canal was launched by the Canal and River Trust in September.
A campaign to save ash trees along the side of Ripon canal was launched by the Canal and River Trust in September.

In the Gazette column that takes a walk on the wildside, Robert looks at the threat of ash dieback disease to woodland in the Ripon area:

There has been much in the media recently concerning a disease set to sweep across Britain and kill off most, if not all, of our ash trees

Chalara fraxinea is a fungus, parasitic on ash, which eventually kills the tree that it lives on. It has apparently been present in Scandinavia and parts of northern Europe for some years, devastating the populations of ash trees there. Incredibly ash saplings were still propagated in the affected areas and exported to tree nurseries in this country, some of which have been found to be infected.

As a fungus, chalara fraxinea reproduces by means of spores, which are wind-borne and quite capable of crossing the North Sea without human assistance, so would almost certainly have arrived here eventually, but to have helped it seems careless at the very least. By whatever means it got here, it has now been confirmed as being present in North Yorkshire, so it looks likely that we are to lose our ash trees in the near future.

The loss of such a widespread and long-established tree from our countryside will have an enormous impact, both ecologically and visually, changing the character of the landscape and its wildlife.

The ash, as its latin binomial fraxinus excelsior indicates is, when mature, a tall beautifully shaped tree, vying with the oak and the beech in excellence of form. It is also as steeped in folklore and superstition as any of our trees, and its timber has been put to as many uses, or possibly more, that any other native species.

In Scandinavian mythology the ash was known as Yggdrasil and represented the universe, its roots and branches binding together heaven, earth and hell. It was the tree of time and space, life and knowledge; from it Odin learned the secret of the runes.

The Vikings and other northern immigrants to Britain may have brought the mythology of the ash with them, for superstitions regarding it are common here. A widespread practice was to split an ash tree down the trunk then pass an injured child through the cleft three times. The tree was then bandaged and as it healed so would the child. There are records of this still going on in Devon in 1902.

In Ireland and elsewhere ash wood was burned at Christmas to banish the devil. The hot sap that oozed out of the ends of green ash sticks burning on a fire was collected in a spoon and given to a newborn child in parts of the Scottish Highlands, in the belief that it would impart the strength of the ash and protect the child from witches and goblins. A frond of ash normally has an odd number of leaves, but one with an even number was once believed to be as lucky as a four-leaf clover and bunches of the seeds, or keys as they are known, were once carried as an amulet against witchcraft. Even today the saying “ash before the oak, we are bound to get a soak, oak before the ash and we are bound to get a splash” is widespread, if more folklore than science –the ash is one of the last trees to come into leaf, the oak is invariably first.

On a more practical level the ash provides the toughest and most elastic of British timbers. Wooden cart wheels were made of ash, as were the shafts that fitted onto the horse’s harness. Ash was a favourite timber of the coach builder, a preference that carried on into the era of the motor car – the wooden frame of the rear part of the little Mini estate was ash. Buy a good quality wooden handled garden spade or fork and the handle will be made of ash.

The timber is still the best material for many items of sporting equipment. Hockey sticks, rowing oars and cricket stumps are made of ash and when we watch snooker on television the players are using ash cues. Ash can be coppiced and pollarded. The poles are cut on a ten-year rotation and are easy to bend – the arched pieces of lobster pots were traditionally ash. It is known that ash rather than oak was the timber used on the internal fittings of Fountains Abbey. Many fitted kitchens today are constructed from ash.

The ash is an extraordinary tree: towering to a height of 150ft and having a girth of 20ft; specimens known to be over 1,000-years-old are (at present) alive and well. It is a tree of base-rich soils and the limestone dales of Yorkshire suit it perfectly. Examples which must be at least 500-years-old can be seen in Wensleydale and elsewhere, often growing along the same courses as ancient dry stone walls. Biologically, the tree is quite remarkable in that it can be female one year and male the next, or be completely male or female, or have male and female branches on the same tree. This may have something to do with it being attributed with magical powers.

The predicted unstoppable onslaught of ash dieback disease will have catastrophic consequences for our local countryside. Ash is the dominant large native hardwood tree of the Ripon area. Most of the trees on Quarry Moor, on the south side of the city are ash; in much of the local dales landscape it is the only native tree of any size. Only exotic species in parklands such as Studley Royal come anywhere near it in stature and grandeur. Ancient hollow ashes are favoured by bats and owls, while the keys, which persist on the tree throughout winter, are a staple of the bullfinch.

If the predictions are correct, ash woodland areas such as Quarry Moor will resemble the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, with little but dead skeletal trees. A year ago I had never heard of ash dieback disease; this year part of my job will be to look for its signs – with the virtual certainty that sooner or later it will appear. Then our local countryside will enter a new era.