Ash Dieback and Tree Planting: An Intimate Connection?

Dave Bishop, MCFly’s biodiversity correspondent, on Ash Trees and Manchester…

A couple of years ago, persons unknown planted an Ash tree on Chorlton Ees. The tree is elaborately staked and mulched and protected with a rabbit guard – in an area with no rabbits! The ‘guerrilla planters’ probably thought that they were doing a good and noble deed by planting a tree and probably also thought they were doing something a bit defiant and radical by planting it surreptitiously.

If they had examined their planting site more closely, they would have found a number of interesting wild plants, including Yellow Rattle, Common Catsear and several different species of vetch including Grass Vetchling – a priority species for conservation in Greater Manchester. Several different species of wild grasses are also present. If the planted Ash ever reaches maturity (now a big if!) it will dry out the site and shade out all of the other plant species, thus reducing our local biodiversity. And if the planters had wandered just a few more yards beyond their planting site they would have seen that Chorlton Ees is currently being invaded by countless thousands of Ash seedlings. Up to now Ash has
been a prolific self-seeder and planting it has made as much sense as planting dandelions or nettles!

But if you have been paying attention to the news recently you will have seen that our Ash trees now face a deadly threat: ‘Ash Dieback’ disease – caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea – which has been creeping across Europe for some years now. In yesterday’s ‘Independent’ newspaper the distinguished tree and woodland expert, Peter Marren laid the blame fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the tree planters:

Marren writes:

“Future generations might wonder who was to blame for the holocaust of our most graceful woodland tree. They might point a finger at the hapless, failed guardians of our woodland heritage, Defra and the Forestry Commission. They would be wrong. What is about to cause the worst disaster in woodland history is not so much law as love. Everyone loves a planted tree. We thought planting trees was the solution but it wasn’t. It was the problem.”

He explains that many of the tree diseases that are now running rampant in our countryside, such as Sudden Oak Death, Chestnut Canker and the disease which has devastated our wild Juniper populations, were probably brought in on imported trees, all to satisfy the, often irrational, obsession with tree planting. He castigates the Woodland Trust, who claim to be, “passionate about [tree] planting”. Ash Dieback has recently appeared on one of their Suffolk estates, in a plantation next to an ancient wood (!) He asks where their plantation trees came from; were they imported?

As it happens I wrote to the Woodland Trust, several days ago, asking the same question. I have had no reply.

I don’t know whether Manchester City Council have ‘put two and two together’ yet (?) but this Ash disease could represent a sort of ‘Hurricane Sandy in slow motion’ for both Manchester and other British cities. There are literally thousands of mature ash trees throughout the city (not counting millions of seedlings and saplings – see above). Many of these are in prominent positions where the presence of a dead tree will represent a serious hazard. I believe that felling mature trees can be very expensive – so it’s likely that Manchester could be facing a bill of many millions of pounds!

In a recent post on his blog entitled ‘Green and Blue‘ , Sir Richard Leese mentioned tree planting and, as usual, the implication was that it is a sort of universal panacea for all our environmental problems. I submitted a comment quoting ‘Bishop’s First Law’, i.e. ‘An organisation’s knowledge of, or concern for, its environment is inversely proportional to its propensity to plant trees.’ This was probably seen as facetious – but it’s based on several decades of observation and is deadly serious. I have come to believe that much
of the thoughtless tree planting that goes on is really about, simultaneously, both our culture’s disconnection from Nature and our need to control it.

Dave Bishop, 4th November 2012

[MCFly says – we will be making a youtube about “Bishop’s First Law”!]

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About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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4 Responses to Ash Dieback and Tree Planting: An Intimate Connection?

  1. Most of the trees that Leese and the City Council, along with MMU and University of Manchester are imported tropical trees and not native species grown locally. They are usual planted as a token gesture after mature local trees are been needlessly cut down. The some of the imported tropical trees do not cope well in our climate and do not support our local biodiversity. As Dave Bishop points they introduce alien pests and diseases and some like Rhododendron, Buddleia, Japanese Knot Weed, etc., which cope with our climate become noxious invasive weeds. They may be good for the butterflies and bees but nothing else.

    • Keith McManus says:

      Can I say as an horticulturalist that our native species of trees are imported from Holland due to the fact that nurseries in this country do not have the space or inclination to produce, thats why most of the plants and other species are imported. Prior to cutbacks in the late 80s, every council had their own horticultural centers and greenhouses etc, Wythenshawe Park, Salford Crescent, Peel park, Parr fold, Buile Hill plus many hundreds more, All would produce seedling cuttings and propagate from local species, in the 70s and early eighties mass production from Holland and Germany made it cheaper for Councils to purchase abroad rather then local mainly due to heating cost and labour cost, District councils became full councils, for example Worsley had its own district council but this was eaten up with other councils and became Salford City Council. Only someone with lack of biodiversity and ignorance would call none native species weeds, perhaps someone could define what a weed is? The ash problem of course should have been dealt with long ago, but that fault is the problem of defra not acting sooner when it was notified of the problem, I had the problem 10 years ago in my garden and the council removed the tree, not because of the fungus but because the tree had died back and was a health and safety issue, The tree was chopped down in the garden then taken to front of the building and put through a shredder, no thought to the spores being transmitted in the air by the shredding of the tree. There are many other plant diseases which are currently being unchecked, in south for example Isle of Weight etc Bristol and Southampton and all along the South west is Fuchsia Gall mite, which is having a devastating effect on garden plants. Most fungus diseases are spread on the wind,hence the quickness of why the plants succumb to the disease. Trees are still the best environmental product we have for sound proofing, air filtration, and many other uses, so I for one would be annoyed if tree planting was suddenly stopped because of Human error!

  2. keithmcmanus says:

    Can I say as an horticulturalist that our native species of trees are imported from Holland due to the fact that nurseries in this country do not have the space or inclination to produce, thats why most of the plants and other species are imported. Prior to cutbacks in the late 80s, every council had their own horticultural centers and greenhouses etc, Wythenshawe Park, Salford Crescent, Peel park, Parr fold, Buile Hill plus many hundreds more, All would produce seedling cuttings and propagate from local species, in the 70s and early eighties mass production from Holland and Germany made it cheaper for Councils to purchase abroad rather then local mainly due to heating cost and labour cost, District councils became full councils, for example Worsley had its own district council but this was eaten up with other councils and became Salford City Council. Only someone with lack of biodiversity and ignorance would call none native species weeds, perhaps someone could define what a weed is? The ash problem of course should have been dealt with long ago, but that fault is the problem of defra not acting sooner when it was notified of the problem, I had the problem 10 years ago in my garden and the council removed the tree, not because of the fungus but because the tree had died back and was a health and safety issue, The tree was chopped down in the garden then taken to front of the building and put through a shredder, no thought to the spores being transmitted in the air by the shredding of the tree. There are many other plant diseases which are currently being unchecked, in south for example Isle of Weight etc Bristol and Southampton and all along the South west is Fuchsia Gall mite, which is having a devastating effect on garden plants. Most fungus diseases are spread on the wind,hence the quickness of why the plants succumb to the disease. Trees are still the best environmental product we have for sound proofing, air filtration, and many other uses, so I for one would be annoyed if tree planting was suddenly stopped, tree planters cannot be held responsible for the problem, perhaps we should look at suppliers and nurseries who failed in their hygiene and good husbandary practices, all this as become about because of Human error!

  3. Dave Bishop says:

    “Only someone with lack of biodiversity and ignorance would call none native species weeds, perhaps someone could define what a weed is?”

    I don’t understand that sentence, and don’t know whether I’m being criticised or not, but a weed is a plant species that can re-produce itself so successfully that it can out compete other plant species. This is currently what Ash is doing on Chorlton Ees, for example. If you don’t believe me, go and have a look! Nevertheless, quibbling about the definition of a weed is not the point. I’m questioning the current orthodoxy that suggests that tree planting is always a ‘good thing’ – far too often it’s thoughtless and irrational. And don’t forget that developers often plant trees as a tokenistic gesture to ‘compensate’ for their depredations.

    Of course it’s not ‘black & white’ – there are circumstances where tree planting can be a good thing: planting street trees, establishing orchards etc.

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