Thursday, 18 April 2013

the ash tree, ash die back and ash bowls

I love ash trees, in particular weeping ash is one of my all time favourites though rarely planted today. Ash timber is incredibly versatile, strong and springy, over the years it has been used for all manner of things including the felloes (rims) of wooden wheels, axe and hammer handles, all manner of sports goods from hockey sticks to tennis rackets, the chasis of Morgan cars and thin strips can be used to weave baskets or as binding to tie stuff together such as besom brooms. On top of this it is great for furniture and the all time best firewood. Many folk think slow grown wood is better quality this is the case with softwoods but with hardwoods fast grown wood is significantly stronger than slow grown, the optimum for ash is 4-8 growth rings per inch. 

The ash tree is the subject of a forthcoming book by this crazy guy Rob Penn who some UK wood fans will recognise as the presenter from BBCs tales from the wildwood
For Rob's latest project he felled an ash tree and is setting off to get different things made from it that help him tell the story of the tree and man's relationship to it. I think it's a wonderful project and was thrilled that the first items made from the tree were a set of my nested bowls. Rob arrived by train and bike with a very serious chunk of ash in his backpack.
 I cut the tree up and then turned a nest of bowls.
 Rob with his bowls.
 Ash was the most commonly chosen timber for bowls during medieval times, I don't use it so much today but these bowls turned out nice so maybe I should do it more. Here is a typical ash bowl from medieval London.

Folk may have read doom-laden reports in the press about ash die back disease and how all our ash trees are going to die.


I have been involved in forestry long enough to read the catastrophic prophesies on diseases affecting sweet chestnut, alder, oak, horse chestnut (those all in the last 10 years) all were proclaimed as the next dutch elm disease, all have proved to be problematic but not catastrophic. Ash die back could be different, it could kill a lot of trees or it might not. The comparisons with Denmark where most trees died are not relevant those trees were primarily forestry trees of uniform age and limited genetic diversity, we have yet to see how it reacts in our natural genetic diverse population, in Sweden around 50% of the trees have noticeable damage and 25 percent are severely injured. Even if we accept the worst case scenario and we have let something truly grim loose then running around stressing is not going to help anyone, if all the ash were to die their places would be taken by other trees as the spaces in our woodlands were filled when the elms died, can anyone show me a gap in a woodland where the elms were? 

The other idea that is touted about which is silly is the idea that if we can somehow slow the spread down then it gives us time to do something about it. Well this is twaddle. Fungal diseases affecting trees mutate and change rapidly, it is not in their interest to wipe out the host entirely, trees do not develop immunity think about the length of lifecycle of the fungus and the tree and think which is going to change first. The whole delaying spread so we can develop resistant strains thing is about as silly as suggesting we can hold back this years strain of flue whilst we humans develop resistance.

The wise approach to ash die back is to admit that we don't know yet what it will do, there is nothing we can do about it but that whatever happens the combination of nature and foresters will deal with it without drama. Forestry is a long term game, selling news stories is of the moment. No one will get on the TV for saying let's sit back and wait and see. Or as leading woodland historian Oliver Rackham has said "What is to be done? Probably nothing effective in the present state of ignorance."

My last word on the subject must include a rant about the tree planting business. I call it a business because that is what it is, a large scale industrial business with many vested interests making money. People love to plant trees, if you fence stock out of anywhere in lowland Britain and wait it will become woodland surprisingly quickly through natural regeneration with local genetic stock but people are impatient so we buy trees from nursaries. We don't ask too much about those trees, if we want to hear they are local seed types and ask they will tell us they are and we are unlikely to ask for proof. I have planted "native dogwood" in a hedge only to find it come out in spring with variegated leaves. The nursery trade has grown up with serving an ignorant public who do not ask enough questions and are often not in a position to know if their ash is native or not, we have to trust the nurseryman and sadly we can't. The result of this is that there is now global trade and movement of tress and tree diseases. Trees and their parasites and pathogens have evolved over millennia together, when we start moving stuff around it causes problems, this has been proven many many times but we have done nothing about it. We have been sending ash seed to be grown in Holland and reimporting infected trees probably for some considerable time. 

If there is any intelligent action to be taken over ash die back it would be increased regulation of the nursery trade and re-educating the well meaning public and various woodland charities so that they understand that tree planting is not often a very good thing to do. I say that as someone who has planted  well over 10,000 trees, most of which I now realise would have been better not planted.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent and informative post. As I have recently planted fruit trees, I found this shocking, and yet not surprising. Excellent work on the turned bowls-functional art.

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