The National news has been full of stories about Chalara fraxinea in recent weeks, some more rational than others. This malign fungus is set to chomp its way through ash trees in the UK, if the 90% infection rate experienced by Denmark is anything to go by. If that is the case, then here in the Sid valley, we are in line for a landscape-defining period, as the woodlands which cling to these East Devon valley sides are made up primarily of ash cover.
For the time being there is no need to panic, but rather be aware.
The most westerly case of ash dieback was spotted at the beginning of the month to the west of Exeter, but this was in nursery saplings, so its movement is human-powered, rather than being a spread of fungal spores. Also, the fungus attacks saplings evidently more quickly than mature trees, so cutting down all our mature ash would simply give rise to many more young ash saplings that would succumb more quickly.
For those of us with woodlands to manage, like the 40 hectares of mature woodland The Donkey Sanctuary is responsible for in the Harcombe Valley, the next ten or so years will mean preparation. Getting the woodland to a position to best see out the fungal attack is something which will have a net benefit to wildlife - removing non-native species such as rhododendron, which might otherwise smother the wood as the ash retreats.
Knowing the signs of ash dieback is a good starter for local woodland visitors too. In full lead, check a tree for clumps of dead or dying leaves, which look like partial drought damage. The fungus destroys the internal water vessels in the tree, which leads to this external sign. Also, look for characteristic diamond-shaped scars on the trunk of the tree or sapling, which might indicate the fungus lies beneath the surface of the bark.
There are countless infections, diseases and cankers which attack wild trees, and through this process create the value to wildlife that woodlands hold. My optimistic side says that there ought to be some natural genetic resistance to Chalara in our wild tree stock, and that from these trees the impact of dieback can be diluted. However, it certainly means a busy few years, keeping abreast of current best practice and making strategic plans to help our cherished wild woods get through this dark horizon.
Video: Spotting symptoms in the field (published by the Forestry Commission)
If anyone suspects they might have found an infected ash tree or would like any further information, please contact the Forestry Commission.