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.