Tree defenders launch a pioneering dash for ash

Written by Simon Hacker; originally published in February 2019

As Britain’s countryside braces itself against the impact of ash dieback, a devastating fungus that threatens to wipe out up to 85% of our native ash trees, a pioneering project to defeat the disease is underway in Wickwar.

Lower Woods, at Inglestone Common, is one of the largest ancient woodlands in south west England. There is evidence that it was managed as a woodland 2,000 years ago when the Romans occupied the area. The nature reserve, which is open to visitors, runs across 281 and the majority has status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. 

Ash trees are one of the most common species here, account for 70% of trees in many areas of the wood. But ash trees are slowly disappearing from the UK as a result of a fungus commonly referred to as ash dieback. It’s a disease that threatens to wipe out most of the ash trees in the UK. Since 1982, ash dieback has spread westwards through Europe and, of the 80 million ash trees in the UK, it is estimated that between 70 and 85% will be wiped out.

The loss of ash trees will have a pronounced effect on the countryside and its biodiversity: 12 species of bird, 55 mammals and 239 invertebrates are associated with ash woodland. 

It is this level of concern that has prompted Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust staff and volunteers to develop a project to grow replacements. At a new tree nursery at Lower Woods, oak tree saplings are being grown from acorns collected in the woods. 

“When the saplings reach around 48 months, they will be planted in the woods to help fill the gaps resulting from ash tree losses,” explains Dr Gareth Perry, GWT’s director of conservation. 

Other species of trees will also be raised, he says, including hazel, hornbeam, beech and even walnut. Wild service and hawthorn join the list, too, though these are more difficult to grow from seed than oak and require specialist knowledge. 

The new nursery has been built by staff and volunteers, with a potting shed erected entirely using timber harvested from the woodland. 

“While we hold out hope that a solution can be found to save our ash trees, we have to prepare for the worst and ensure that there is a long-term future for our ancient woodlands. 

“This project not only helps build resilience to the impact of ash dieback, but also for the predicted consequences of climate, which may reduce the ability of some native species to persist.”

Big business has also stepped in to help, with Grundon Waste Management donating £20,000. 

Anthony Foxlee-Brown, spokesman for Grundon Waste Management, told the Wotton Times: “The effects of ash dieback have the potential to be absolutely devastating for the finely balanced biodiversity of our beloved woodlands. 

“This is why Grundon felt it was vital to support this initiative to mitigate dieback and help to preserve our ancient woodlands.” 

To date (in 2019), Grundon has donated more than £2m to help wildlife through Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s work. 

Lower Woods Nature Reserve is owned by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, and managed in conjunction with Avon Wildlife Trust.

Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust is a charity which manages a number of nature reserves around the country and inspires people to engage with the country’s outdoor places.