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Birchanger Wood Trust grappling with ash dieback that threatens to wipe out 90% of ash trees across the UK



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Daniel Brett, secretary of the Birchanger Wood Trust, issues a rallying cry to the local community to get behind the woodland as it faces a disease pandemic...

Woodlands across the country are facing a disease pandemic that is wiping out one of the nation's best-loved trees, the ash.

Local residents are set to see the full impact on Birchanger Wood as the charitable trust that owns and manages the 69-acre ancient woodland grapples with ash dieback.

A fungal disease also known as chalara, ash dieback is set to eradicate 90% of ash trees nationwide.

In Birchanger Wood, where ash comprise 25-30% of the total tree stock, the problem is particularly chronic and far worse than the Dutch elm disease that swept through the country in the 1970s and devastated the national elm stock.

Birchanger Wood Trust had anticipated the devastating impact of the disease, but the scale and pace of it is as bad as, if not worse than, we thought.

Daniel Brett, secretary of the Birchanger Wood Trust, with diseased ash trees that need to be taken down. Pic: Vikki Lince. (51642422)
Daniel Brett, secretary of the Birchanger Wood Trust, with diseased ash trees that need to be taken down. Pic: Vikki Lince. (51642422)

The deaths of millions of ash trees across the country will deal a massive blow to entire foodchains, particularly those of our most vulnerable species.

Ash trees grow to a height of up to 35 metres (115ft) and form a graceful domed canopy of pinnately compound light green oval leaves that provide dappled sunlight on the woodland floor – ideal for many native flowers.

Seeds of ash trees are food for bullfinches, the branches are used for nesting by owls and woodpeckers, and they form part of the habitat supporting insects such as the stag beetle and small mammals such as dormice.

The ash in Birchanger Wood are not evenly distributed and in some plots in the wood they represent 70% of the trees – all these trees have signs of dieback and all will eventually die.

The disease rots and weakens the tree from the inside, leading to branches dropping, structural failure and death.

Birchanger Wood has a significant liability due to its urban setting, bounded by housing and the A120. Most of the remaining ash are along these boundaries and will have to be removed by professional arborists before the disease makes the trees structurally dangerous.

The disease cannot be allowed to progress because tree failure will destroy property and potentially harm people.

Although volunteers are trained in chainsaw work, they are not qualified or insured to do dangerous aerial work or licensed to close one of the lanes of the A120.

Soon, all 40 or so of our remaining ash will need to be taken down by experts, at a cost of up to £2,000 per tree.

The public is bound to be shocked at the scale of the work needed in coming months.

Daniel Brett has issued a rallying cry to the local community to get behind the woodland. Pic: Vikki Lince. (51642280)
Daniel Brett has issued a rallying cry to the local community to get behind the woodland. Pic: Vikki Lince. (51642280)

The ash will then have to be replaced with other species, and Birchanger Wood is set to totally change as a result – it will be entering a new era in its thousands of years of history.

The national cost of dealing with ash dieback was put at £15 billion in a 2019 study by the University of Oxford, Fera Science, Sylva Foundation and the Woodland Trust.

The financial costs pose a huge challenge to the trust as they are higher than the still considerable amount it has saved in reserve for such contingencies.

At a time when public money is being poured into tree planting, there is little appetite for funding tree felling.

In short, the second biggest open-access woodland reserve in Uttlesford – after Hatfield Forest – and the "green lungs" of Bishop's Stortford is facing a big ecological and financial problem.

The local community needs to rally behind our local woodland.

If all households in Bishop's Stortford, Birchanger and Stansted gave just £10 each, we would not only be able to afford the costs of managing this disease, we could support restocking and biodiversity and ensure that Birchanger Wood remains an island of local biodiversity.



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