3 Dec 2012

December 2012 Nature Notes - Pete Lambert

It cleaves so sweetly, the characteristic straight grain making the firewood pile grow steadily and with little effort. A short seasoning period is all that is needed and then on the fire to burn hot and easy.  I have a few long clefts saved for tool handles, hand shaped they are quirky and personal, the honey-yellow wood soaking up the impact of the swing, smoothing out each jarring whack.  Last week Sid’s side-axe and a favourite drawknife helped me cleave and carve a small chopping board to go in the rucksack for a leisurely mid ramble picnic. Whenever I work ash wood I get transported back to a heavy close planted Suffolk conifer stand where stately and ghost like, with its sandy coloured limbs twisted in sadness reaching up out of the gloom, a lonesome veteran ash tree had become locked away within the impinging rows. 

The recent alarm concerning the threat to our third most common native tree via an introduced fungal disease, Chalara fraxinea, has caused considerable debate and a steadily shifting variety of proclamations to confront this calamity. A number of personal thoughts occurred, firstly why have we been importing so many ash trees, when it so freely reproduces without any assistance from the attentions of a skilled nurseryman? And again why have we been planting trees without local provenance, wilfully importing genetic material against the standard advice of the Forestry Commission , Woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trust amongst other conservation organisations, advice which has been in place for decades! Sorry I have found myself ranting a little, and now calmer, what are we to do?

Infected nursery stock has been grubbed up and burnt, smart phone apps have been developed to help the wider public to identify the symptoms of the disease,[which are lesions in the bark and necrosis of the leaves, that’s dead bits at their tips] and the washing of dogs and small children.  Investigative activity will help track the infection as all good disease control should and in time understanding of the lifecycle of the fungus will help in prevention. It may in time prove that natural checks will limit the spread and the disease will just become another problem faced by our largest common living organisms, trees.

All trees are susceptible to disease, virus, insect attack, climatic change, atmospheric pollution, soil contamination, road salt spray, cat urine, and of course fungal attack to list but a few. Trees such as the oak can be virtually defoliated by moth larvae in the early summer, reducing photosynthetic resources, but the late summer Lammas growth occurs outside the lifecycle of the caterpillar and so the oak persists. As someone said today maybe the ash will decline in the ancient woodlands but the woodlands will remain. The most common tree in pre-history was the elm, the pollen record has shown that for reasons unknown this tree went into rapid decline about 5,500 years ago. The most recent cycles of Dutch elm disease have merely been attacking the remnants of a previously deep cloaking cover of elm. Later still, about 5100 years ago, the small leaved Lime went into decline, though it is felt this was attributable to pressure from early man and the palatability of the leaves and seedlings.

It is tempting to react to this crisis by planting lots of new trees, disease resistant, local provenance and in their millions. It is useful to reflect that In the aftermath of the 1987 storm, that smashed its way wilfully across the southern counties, a network of Tree wardens marshalled tree planting projects to ‘restore’ the woodlands. In the decade following the tree planting schemes had been overshadowed and suppressed by powerful natural regeneration that had been ignited by the sun reaching through the gale wrenched holes in the woodland canopy. The easiest way to secure the future of our woodlands regardless of their individual species make-up is to fiercely protect the woodlands we have already and for the new; simply enclose an open field, stop cutting and grazing, and nurture what nature delivers. Of course, I will also plant a tree or two to help nature on her way and fortunately Christmas is also the best time of year to do so!

Festive greetings,  Pete.