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.

Ash and ivy are also partnered in the botanical name of one of Ireland’s most characteristic types of native woodland, Fraxinus excelsior-Hedera helix. On the relatively dry and lime-rich lowlands of the midlands and east, ash-ivy woods (perhaps with a scattering of pedunculate oaks and birch, beech and sycamore), are the island’s richest habitat for colourful spring flowers. The ash’s late budburst lets in the sunlight to primroses, anemones and bluebells, violets, celandines and orchids.

This gift of early light to the forest floor is perhaps the ash’s outstanding ecological virtue. Lacking crevices and dense foliage, it hosts a fraction of the plant-eating insects and mites attracted to the pedunculate oak (about 40, compared with the oak’s 284) and offers too little cover and food for nesting birds. One ash at moist Killarney hosts more than 40 kinds of lichen, but the oak, again, tops 300.

In its 4,000 years on the island the fuinseog has had most value, perhaps, for people; certainly, we should miss it terribly from what is left of the native landscape.

The giant ashes of earlier centuries have entirely disappeared, among them the massive one at Emo, Co Laois, its main stem measured at 25 feet round in 1792.

Sacred and curative ashes have haunted Irish folklore, inspiring whole books to list them.

Trees hung with rags above holy wells or hammered with coins until they died of a thousand offerings; ash trees as proxy for saints or for funerals to walk round on the way to the grave.

One of these “funerary trees”, growing near Cong, ended with a whole cairn of little stones tossed in around its base. Our own glows with life – we trust, a long one.

Eye on Nature: Your observations and questions

Recently a two-inch-long newt squeezed under our back door and moved across the floor. Was it hoping to hibernate in our house?

Lorraine Marshall

Kildorrey, Co Cork

Newts hibernate in crevices. It must have thought that the space under the door was a crevice.

Last month while walking through mature woodland, admiring the multicoloured autumn leaves, I came on patches of fallen green leaves from ash trees, leaving them bare. What caused the premature shedding?

Hugh Lee

Kilcoole, Co Wicklow

There is a lesser fungus disease called ash anthracnose that causes ash trees to drop green leaves .

On a beautiful sunny day in late October a magnificent barn owl flew over the Owenacurra river in Midleton, Co Cork. It is rare to see a barn owl in daylight.

Oonagh Doran

Midleton, Co Cork

In hotel grounds beside Lough Ennell on a foggy morning in late October we saw a hedge covered with cobwebs. Was it made by a spider?

Liz Duggan

Holywood, Co Down

The webs were made by the caterpillars of the small eggar moth or one of the ermine moths. When the eggs hatch out the caterpillars spin webs under which they hide and feed on the foliage.


Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address.

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