A drifting plague that threatens the ancient ash
Another Life:The demise of the tree would be a terrible blow to what is left of our native landscape
The ash tree outside the living-room window is down to its last few fronds, the bare branches smooth and silvery against the coppery glow of a young beech beyond.
It’s 22 years this month since we lifted the ash seedling from a forest path at Cong. We planted it, of course, too close to the house. In full flush it shades the lean-to greenhouse and has us peering out into the leaves, a thrilling lettuce-green in spring, thereafter cool as an aquarium, with flashes of blackbird and thrush.
Inland ashes sometimes keep their leaves for a brief autumn ignition of lime and saffron, flaring against a slanting sun. But ours is the last of our trees to burst into leaf and first to unlatch them in October. Thus it dodges most of the salty storms that might blunt its lovely winter shape, a bare but billowy candelabra gilded in every ocean sunset.
Twenty-two years is nothing in the life of Fraxinus excelsior, even as dark moss tucks into its armpits and gold and green lichens wrap around its bark. Two to three centuries is more like it, especially when coppicing teases the sap to rise for ever. But now, of course, we have to wonder if, here at a last slope of Europe, our acre will cherish one of the last trees of its kind, a few decades after we have gone.
Is that too much hyperbole? In Britain, as I write, the threat to that island’s 80 million ash trees is already considered beyond confinement. The killing fungus Chalara fraxinea was imported in ash saplings from a mainland Europe already ravaged by the disease.
But beyond all the tainted nurseries and plantations are dozens of wild woodlands now found with chalara. Most are clustered around Britain’s southeastern littoral and all too probably infected by spores of the fungus blown across from continental shores a mere ferry ride away.
In Ireland, too, the first casualties are among ash saplings imported from the Netherlands.
Having put a stop to that and then destroyed the trees in a wide scatter of plantations, the latest bans prohibit ash boles with their bark on, brought in for hurley manufacture, and raw timber for firewood and pellet stoves. As practical action it’s about the best we can do.
Unfortunately, short of some miraculously curative spray, the westward drift of this new natural plague, an apparent fungal mutation, seems every bit as inevitable as the march of Dutch elm disease in the later 20th century.
A recent New Scientist found feelings of futility in even the most knowledgeable of European experts. If the trees are chopped down “the infective material is all on the forest floor and cannot be removed or eradicated with fungicides without destroying countless other forms of forest life.” (Find this at nativewood landtrust.ie).
In Ireland ash is the typical hedgerow tree, often burdened in winter with dark shrouds of ivy that would not be found (or, perhaps, tolerated) in mainland Europe. However valued ivy may be for wildlife, its wind-catching canopy bulk puts trees at risk in storms, so that wild roadside ashes with the stag’s-head silhouette of die-back would invite the earliest destruction.