The Coronavirus pandemic is hastening some major changes to our high streets. But another disease is fast changing the look of our countryside – removing many of those common landscape features – the ash tree.
There is a flurry of activity to remove trees with the fungal disease ‘ash dieback’ before the onset of winter and its storms that can bring boughs and sometimes whole trees crashing down.
The seriousness of the situation can be seen from Wiltshire Council’s decision to close the A4 at Derry Hill between Calne and Chippenham. For eleven days from 22 October, the Council are working with the Bowood Estate to remove up to 400 diseased trees that could threaten vehicles travelling along that stretch of the A4.
In the Marlborough area, it is estimated that “well over two thousand” ash trees have had to be felled on the Ramsbury Estate. It has been a priority to cut down diseased ash trees that endanger roads. They recently felled about thirty trees on the banks either side of the road leading down from Martinsell Hill toward Wootton Rivers.
For the farmer there taking out so many ash trees was ‘really tragic’. But, he emphasises: “There is a real issue with the approach of winter storms – when these ash trees get the fungus they can go very quickly and become very fragile and brittle.”
The fungus blocks the passage of water up ash trees – so one of the first signs of infection is the number of leafless twigs sticking out around the topmost parts of a tree.
Although the broadleaf, deciduous ash tree is the third commonest tree in British woodlands, over recent years its planting has been patchy. It is, however, quite common on the Marlborough Downs and it seems as though the area south of Marlborough – including Savernake Forest – is being badly affected by he disease.
Marlborough Town Council has fifty ash trees among the more than 1,500 trees it is responsible for. It has recently had to fell two diseased trees in Coopers Meadow. Another on the Common will be reduced rather than felled.
Shelley Parker, the Town Clerk, told marlborough.news: “Our Grounds Manager, Nigel Weatherly, has been inspecting Ash trees on Town Council-owned land and noticed that around 40% of them are now showing signs of fungus and it could be others will follow.”
Everyone we have spoken to has emphasised that felling of these diseased trees will be followed in the spring by planting programmes. Native trees such as beech and oak will be planted – but a little further away from roads.
For those old enough to remember the grand old British elm tree, a local farmer is planting, as an experiment, some elm tree saplings that are resistant to Dutch elm disease. That disease – also a fungal infection – removed elms from the British landscape in the 1970s and 1980s, killing more than twenty-five million elms trees across the United Kingdom.
There is more information about the disease in this August 2019 piece by Ramsbury Estate Manager, Alistair Ewing here