Skip Navigation

Ashes to ashes: the inevitable impact of ash dieback

I am watching Mark Feather’s arboreal version of a horror movie. This coming summer, he says, we’ll all start to notice the carnage being wrought by a merciless alien invader.

“Dying, dying … all dying. These are century-old ash trees, they are beside a road, and they are all going to have to come down. We’re looking at a national disaster about to hit.”

Mark’s video tracks along a lane in the Yorkshire Wolds, in the heart of his northern England patch where he looks after 44 Trust woods. More than half the UK’s roadside trees are ash – and in parts of Yorkshire the species is even more dominant. “Some of our woods in the Dales are 90% ash,” he says. “We’re facing a denuded landscape and it’s really upsetting.”

The Chalara ash dieback fungus has swept through the nation from Devon to Scotland since its arrival in 2012. It is now believed that its deadly spores will spare very few of our 128 million ash trees. 

Almost every skyline, whether urban or rural, will be indelibly marked by their loss. The 'Venus of the Woods' is our third most common broadleaf tree after oak and birch, and for millennia we have had an intimate relationship with it. It makes the best firewood and, since the Stone Age, it has made our tools – only in recent decades have man-made materials replaced ash in the handles of our spades, axes, scythes and hammers. 

Other lives absolutely depend on it. “Ash has completely been taken for granted – it was a shock when we discovered that 955 mammals, birds, insects, fungi and lichens use the tree, and more than 100 species are either completely or heavily dependent on it,” I was told by Dr Ruth Mitchell, tasked by Defra to find out how much our ecosystem will miss the tree’s dappled shade and nutrient-rich, fast-decaying leaves. 

Don't miss another copy of Broadleaf

Become a member now

Mike Ryder examines the telltale fungal marks of ash dieback in our tree disease feature (Photo: Matthew Roberts)
Mike Ryder examines the telltale fungal marks of ash dieback in our tree disease feature (Photo: Matthew Roberts)

So, given that there seems to be little hope of stopping Chalara, what can we do?

  • Plant native trees, as many as you can, to fill the gaps that ash dieback will inevitably create. We're rolling out new off-the-shelf tree-packs for sale right now, from dedicated tree disease bundles of 45 saplings to pint-sized packs of just four or 15 trees which could be shared among friends or neighbours. Some are free. 
  • Throw your weight behind the demand for a national nursery assurance scheme that would make it possible for buyers to see where their plants and saplings were germinated and grown on, so they have the option to choose only those that are native-grown. Have your say by filling in Defra’s plant-buying survey
  • Join our citizen science effort. Observatree is the UK’s first line of defence against tree disease and we’re looking to recruit 60 more volunteers to plug geographical gaps in our patrol network, particularly around busy ports and transport hubs in Suffolk, Norfolk, Sussex and Kent, and along tree disease battlefronts in Mid Wales, Lancashire, Cumbria and Scotland central belt. 
  • Or you can simply keep an eye out on your daily travels and flag up suspect specimens on the Forestry Commission’s TreeAlert website. It has a handy guide to the five priority pests to look out for and user-friendly report forms. 

Finally, thanks to the generosity of our supporters and partners, our dedicated tree disease fighting fund has already grown to £275,000 to fund vital work; this money has primed the £250,000 we’ve put into the Observatree project, our tree health research budget and our UK Sourced and Grown programme. Beyond that we aim to invest £150,000 a year in new hedgerow planting and ‘Tree Disease Recovery Packs’ specifically designed to replace our lost ash trees. Every donation helps – and if you’ve already donated, heartfelt thanks. 

Help tackle ash dieback and other deadly diseases facing our trees

Support our tree disease fighting fund

The full version of this article appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Broadleaf, our quarterly magazine exclusive to members. Its news, features and stunning pictures tell the inside story of how we, our volunteers and partners stand up for trees. To receive your regular copy and exciting welcome gift, become a member now