When Ash Dieback was discovered in Britain four years ago, the future for the country’s Ash trees looked grim and, with over 200,000 planted in the Heart of England Forest, it seemed that their very survival was in peril. Now, though, there is new hope as scientists strive to halt it in its tracks.

What is Ash Dieback and what to do if you spot it?

Chalara Dieback of Ash, to give it its scientific name, is triggered by a fungus, called Hymenoscyphus Fraxineus, that causes leaf loss, crown dieback (when a tree begins to die from the tip of its roots or leaves backwards) or bark lesions ( cankers or small lens-shaped necrotic spots). Infected young trees can often die within a single season, while older ones may take longer to succumb.

The more pairs of eyes that are on the lookout for the disease, the sooner cases of it can be identified, so forest visitors can help, too. It is important, if you spot any Ash trees with symptoms such as discoloured leaves, brownish spots on the bark of stems or branches or peeling bark with further discolouration beneath, that you report their whereabouts immediately. Please let the Forestry Commission know by clicking here.

What else is affected?

The loss of Common or European Ash trees is not only a tragedy for Britain’s woodland, but it also affects other plants and wildlife. The loosely-branched structure of the country’s 80 million Ash trees means that plenty of light reaches the woodland floor, providing perfect conditions for plants such as Wild Garlic, Dog Violet and Dogs Mercury to grow, which in turn encourages insects such as the rare High Brown Fritillary butterfly. Ash trees are also a favourite with a wide range of birds, such as Bullfinches, Owls, Woodpeckers, Redstarts and Nuthatches, all of whom who nest in them.

Is it in the Heart of England Forest?

Currently, it is hoped that the disease has not yet become fully established in the Heart of England Forest. A small number of trees that were not planted by us and that have all grown naturally have shown signs of the disease. In the meantime, our forestry team are taking extra measures to prevent it spreading by disinfecting boots and vehicle tyres if they venture into that area. However, since the fungus that causes the disease is primarily wind borne, its path is unpredictable. We are currently not growing any Ash trees at our nursery and it is also against the law to transport live Ash.

Head Forester, Stephen Coffey, assesses the situation, saying we are saddened that the disease has been found in a handful of our trees, but because we plant a resilient mixture of trees- 25 different native trees and shrubs- if one element such as Ash disappears, the other species will still be here so we will still have woodlands.”

Hope for the future

To date, there is no chemical treatment to stem the disease, but recent scientific research has given cause for hope. Earlier this year it was found that some trees have a robust defence against Ash Dieback and it is hoped that by studying them closely it may be possible to develop a resistant strain of the species. In addition, it has been discovered that a soil enrichment additive made from a purified form of charcoal mixed with fungi, seaweed and worm casts can also help to improve treated Ash trees’ resistance. ‘Touch wood’ the key to arresting this dreadful disease will be found soon!

The Heart of England Forest