Like you, I expect, I cannot imagine what the landscape will be like in, say, ten years’ time. My window on the world is in Ramsbury, in the upper valley of the Kennet in Wiltshire. We have long been used to dying trees. Death took all our mature elms long ago, and they have gradually faded from human memory as though they had never been. Our horse chestnuts, planted in the late Victorian era, are falling to pieces and in most years turn brown by midsummer. Most of the mature crack willows died of a combination of canker and wilt a few years back. The alders are pegging out from yet another disease. Even the Leylandiahedges are looking sick.
Fortunately there was always the ash. What is it about the English climate that so suits the ash tree? Here they are at once the principal hedgerow tree and also the main large tree of watersides. They are just as much at home on the clay tops of the downs as they are down by the river. We have an ash pollard with a great hollow hammerhead trunk like a cave. We have crenelated and embossed ash stools on woodbanks that date from the early Middle Ages. For anyone with eyes to see ash defines the landscape here, in its grace, its beauty, and its infinite capacity for regeneration both from seed and from stumps. It is hard to believe that most, may be all of them, are doomed (and how, I wonder, are we going to feel about ourselves when that happens).
Ash dieback has been in the headlines for more than a week now and we now know roughly what is coming and from where. By November 5th the disease had been confirmed at 52 sites with more expected over the next few days. Many of the outbreaks are in tree nurseries but it has also been detected in mature woodland in Suffolk, Norfolk and Kent. Maybe it was all inevitable, once the disease had reached the Channel (although some pathologists say the spores are unlikely to have come from over the wide sea). It is obviously in the Government’s interest to make the case for the natural spread of the disease. What is certain is that it came in with infected seedling trees imported from Dutch nurseries. There was no screening for disease and, until the Government’s belated ban on ash imports last week, no import controls. Some 5.2 million ash saplings were imported to Britain between 2003 and 2011.
Let’s leave aside the idiocy of importing a native tree whose saplings grow by the million in local woods (it’s a real garden weed round here). What is worrying is the apparent blindness of those who have been busy planting broadleaved trees by the square mile in the conviction that they are helping to regenerate Britain’s heritage of woodlands. No one is a more enthusiastic planter of amenity trees than the Woodland Trust whose aim is to “support, nurture and encourage native woodland and making them more robust in the fact of climate change and disease.” The Trust buys its trees from nurseries. It claims to always ask for trees of local provenance, evidently not knowing, and certainly not asking, about how exactly these trees have been nurtured. In fact, many – to judge from the official figures, most – seedlings of ash and other trees are exported to Holland and other European countries for growing on and are then imported back for planting out. This practice is widely known and condoned in the trade, and was certainly known about by Defra and the Forestry Commission. Yet the Woodland Trust admits they knew nothing about it. In their innocence they feel themselves victims (pardon me, but I’d say the ash trees are the victims here).
Until now none of these millenarian tree-planters seem have taken stock of what is happening to our native trees. In the whole of the twentieth century there were just five major outbreaks of tree diseases from imported pathogens, including, of course, Dutch elm disease. Yet, according to the Forestry Commission’s Tree Health Research Group in the past twelve years alone there have been more than double that number, all introduced by pathogens, especially fungi, coming from abroad. Some were given wide publicity, such as Sudden Oak Death (which, in Britain, has attacked larch more than oak) and the recent outbreak of a fatal fungal pathogen among our already beleaguered wild junipers. Others, like a new one attacking Scotland’s native pines, are little known. Yet it has taken until now for the penny to drop. Assuming it has dropped. I do not see any sign yet of a diminution in the enthusiasm for planting trees. The Woodland Trust is, as far as I can tell, still “passionate about tree planting”.
Meanwhile we are about to lose perhaps our most elegant, certainly the healthiest, native tree. The argument about whether tree planting was responsible will go on. The chorus of denial will be led by the zealots more committed to carry on planting than to admitting to any sense of responsibility for what has happened. And for what, at this rate, will continue to happen.
It is always harder to propose something that sounds positive than to propound a negative. But can I suggest that, until we can guarantee that nursery trees are free from contagious and fatal diseases we simply stop planting trees?