Tree disease is ‘potentially a new epidemic’ for Peak
Autumn in Dovedale: red and yellow leaves, robins in the trees, dippers in the river, buzzards soaring overhead.The path alongside the rushing River Dove is one of the Peak District’s most popular attractions, with half a million visitors a year.
“It’s been called a ‘period of ‘Ecological Collapse’,” said Ted Talbot, looking across the National Nature Reserve at the greying ash trees of the Dovedale woodlands. “Doesn’t sound nice, does it?”
Earlier this year, after monitoring the spread of the deadly ash dieback fungal disease, Ted and his team of Peak District rangers from the National Trust learned that the disease had reached every part of the National Trust’s woodlands in the White Peak.
The conclusion was that 85% of the ash trees in Dovedale, Miller’s Dale, Taddington, the Manifold Valley and hundreds of roadside trees are likely to die from ash dieback in the next few years: maybe 250,000 trees in total.
“There’s a real sadness,” Ted said, “along with enormous frustration and annoyance because this is a human-induced tragedy.”
Originating in Asia, where local ash species have adapted to the fungus, it’s believed the disease arrived in Europe and the UK through global free trade in garden plants, and its fungal spores have since spread on the wind.
Walkers this October will hear chainsaws across Dovedale, as two Sheffield tree companies clear dead or dying ash trees dangerous to the public: visitors are asked to check National Trust social media for path closures.
“I remember working with my dad as he cleared woodlands of elm trees in the 1970s,” said Richard Anderson of Anderson Tree Care. “This is potentially an epidemic on a similar scale, and I find it very distressing. Elms and ash trees are both fine trees, and I’ll be very sad to see ash trees go the same way as elms.”
Colleague Nick Boden of Sheffield Tree Care agreed: “Tree workers are just as sensitive about these issues as anybody else.”
Over the last three years, afflicted ash trees felled in the White Peak for public safety by the National Trust have jumped from 10 to 80 to 200, and Ted believes the scale will increase.
His teams are only felling trees near paths or trails that could be dangerous, while in 90% of the woodland “nature will take its course” Ted said. If 15% of ash trees do survive the disease (or manage to live with it), rangers hope they’ll eventually set resistant seed to restore and maintain a healthy ash population. But that could take 70 years, Ted warned.
“I’m afraid looking across the valley, these woods will start to look like a dear old friend who’s suddenly got alopecia,” he said. “There’ll be gaps and holes and patches of dead trees, and because this is predominately an ash woodland, if only a few trees are left, emotionally and physically and practically, the danger is that this will no longer be a woodland.”
A study by Oxford University and the Woodland Trust estimated the cost to the nation of ash dieback is likely to reach £15 billion in public safety costs and the loss of ‘ecosystem services’ like carbon capture, water retention and air purification. The National Trust charity in the Peak District will spend close to £50,000 just this year for tree removal work in Dovedale, money that could have created new woodlands elsewhere, said Ted.
The public can help by organising an event or donating to the National Trust’s ‘Woods for the Future’ Peak District Appeal to fund planting of other native trees in the White Peak, not least to mitigate the effect on woodland wildlife as thousands of ash trees slowly die.
New trees are already growing among the ash in Dovedale, and the hope is that species like lime, hazel and wych elm will take root alongside more resistant ash trees, and the White Peak’s woodlands will survive.
“I’d say let us as a nation try and create more woodland,” said Ted. “They help us deal with the climate crisis and are good for us as well as many other species. And planting a tree is a symbol of hope for the future.”