Sunday book review – The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham

Ash72This book was written in response to the recorded arrival of Ash dieback disease in the UK in 2012. Apparently it is the first book ever written about what is the one of the UK’s commonest trees.

Oliver Rackham is one of the UK’s experts on the countryside, its history and its woodland and so he is well-placed to write this short guide to what may be a rather unappreciated tree.

I enjoyed this book very much, and for two main reasons. First, it was written in a very clear way that meant that I, an ignoramus when it comes to trees, learned a lot very easily. And I always like that sort of book. Second, Rackham is opinionated (and his opinions are worth listening to) and he is pretty forthright in setting out what he thinks. And I usually like that sort of author.

Here is a short extract to illustrate my point: ‘Get real. Stop letting the anthropology of commerce overrule the practical world. Stop treating plants (and bees) as mere articles of trade, like cars or tins of paint, to be made and bought in industrial quantities from anywhere. Importing a million cars does not imperil the cars that are already here, but trees are different.

Rackham is right. The consequences of global travel where a person can switch countries and/or continents in a day, coupled with a disease, Ebola in this case, which has an incubation period of weeks, is a medical epidemiologist’s nightmare. Importing tree saplings into tree nurseries all over the country (like ‘coals to Newcastle’ as Rackham writes) has proved to be the equivalent for trees. This cat is out of its bag – and it will scratch us badly.

This book, then, is a handy guide to Ash dieback in particular, and tree diseases in general, but it is also a very informative and accessible guide to one of our most familiar trees which deserves its write-up by a leading ecologist and conservationist.

The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham is published by Little Toller Books.

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury.


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7 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham”

  1. Unrestricted global trading is a disaster on many fronts. Horticulture and arboriculture are particularly vulnerable - as we have found out, often through ignorance of the possible consequences - with Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam and Rhododendron ponticum springing quickly to mind. That's just the physical and ecological impact - no phytosanitary implications as far as I recall. What happened to our phytosanitary system, btw? Does it still exist? Does it have teeth? Is it a vehicle for ticking boxes? Peachy!

    As with many supply chains the passengers on the Clapham omnibus are blissfully unaware of the complexities of the trade in plants. The modern erol of competitive contracting has led to a race to the bottom on prices which is exploited by countries with highly developed horticultural industries using both legal and underhand means to stifle home-grown competition. I recall an attempt by an enterprising company in Shropshire in the late 80s to establish a system of growing virus-free potatoes using micropropagated tubers. It was killed off by their European competition who adopted the low tactic of slashing the price of microtubers until the nascent UK company folded.

    "Importing a million cars does not imperil the cars that are already here". True 'nuff - but it does destroy the livelihoods of people who used to make them here.

  2. Oliver Rackham could justifiably claim to be the doyen, the oracle of all things sylvan or arboreal in this country and I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at an AGM of Small Woods Association ( when I was its Treasurer.

    Ash Dieback is but one sad example of imported diseases blighting our native tree species. My only hope, and I speak with no wisdom, is that Ash propagates so easily that somehow dieback will wash through and go away before it becomes a real devastating plague.

    Oliver Rackham has earned the right to speak with real authority and we ignore what he has to say at our peril.

  3. Unrelated to ash dieback but I recall reading somewhere that ash trees can change sex year by year or at least some of their branches can.....but I've no idea why they might have evolved to do that!

    1. Nick - I think you're right, I have a field guide to Trees by the late Alan Mitchell which described the flowering of ash as "total sexual confusion". Rackham makes reference to this as well.

  4. Mark - so pleased you reviewed this and a great review as well. I've always loved Rackham since I first picked up a copy of Trees and Woodland in the British Countryside twenty odd years ago. I think you've summed up his appeal perfectly - a vast depth of knowledge, meticulously researched and presented and yet written up with razor sharp clarity, with a few fantastic barbed one liners thrown in that would be worthy of DCI Gene Hunt (or if you prefer DCI Gill Murray) on top form.

    I'd say the Ash Tree is a great study of the ash but also, as you say, so much more. As such it's a great introduction to Rackham himself, a sort of boiled down version of Woodlands, his 2006 contribution to the New Naturalist series.

    I fear that ash, like elm, is already being written off and quietly airbrushed from history in many quarters as though, in the words of Peter Marren, it had never been. Rackham doesn’t seem certain that Chalara is an out and out calamity, and by no means the number one threat to ash, (more on that in a moment). It’s certainly serious enough, though. For one thing it threatens coppicing, becoming perilous in any case due to booming populations of introduced deer. Due to its predilection for young trees and coppice shoots it threatens to stop ash being self supporting wildlife that costs nothing, in the same way as mildew has all but stopped oak regenerating naturally in many woods (the "oak change") and grey squirrels may eventually do for hazel. That would be a real tragedy – the sight of well grown self sown ashes springing up by themselves is one of those sights in nature, like a buzzard or red kite soaring, that fills one with not just delight and wonder but hope, a success story that shows it might just be possible for us to still turn things around and win the fight to protect nature.

    Interestingly Rackham refers to Chalara as ‘Ash Disease’ rather than Ash Dieback, as the dying back of the crown in any tree is common and may be due to drought or flunctuations of supply and demand of life giving nutrients as a tree ages, often perfectly naturally. Perhaps he’s trying to tell us we shouldn’t confuse a virulent pathogen with natural dieback - so often mistakenly attributed to trees being ‘geriatric’, ‘over mature’ or even ‘dangerous’ - for which trees are superbly adapted to take in their stride.

    He also points out that, despite the painful memory of Elm Disease, we in the British Isles have got off relatively lightly in terms of our exposure to tree diseases – in comparison with “the great ecological tragedies” in the United States, Japan and Australia for example. We therefore need not be detained by those battles we have already lost but should focus on preventing the infestations which have yet to arrive while it is still possible.

    Which brings me back to the no. 1 threat to ash which is not Chalara but the deadly Emerald Ash Borer, busily devastating ash throughout the US and has now reportedly been reported advancing west from Russia. As Rackham points out Defra’s response to Chalara in 2013 did not even refer to this threat from “one of the world’s most feared insects”. Having read that I have asked my MP to ask Defra how they plan to prevent Emerald Ash Borer being introduced to the UK and, specifically, whether imports of timber from countries where it is active have already been banned. Given that imports of ash saplings from were not stopped until *after* the Chalara outbreak (probably about fifteen years too late as it turns out) and the responses to e-Petitions highlighted on this blog I’m not massively optimistic but I’ll keep pressing on this and I’d urge anyone reading this to do the same.

    To end with another quote from the great man:
    “The greatest threat to the world’s trees and forests is globalisation of plant diseases: the casual way in which plants and soil are shipped and flown around the globe in commercial quantities, inevitably bringing with them diseases to which the plants at their destination have no resistance. This has been subtracting tree after tree from the world’s ecosystems: if it goes on for another hundred years how much will be left?”


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