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Char Valley Parish Council

Venus of the Woods

By Carolyn Peck - Councillor for Char Valley Char Valley Parish Council

Sunday, 11 February 2018


Venus of the Woods
Looking back over the minutes of a Parish Council meeting at the back end of last year I feel I need to expand on what looks, in print and with hindsight, like a rather intemperate outburst on the subject of trees. I was giving voice to my concerns about what seemed to me to be a lack of respect for the natural environment in general and trees in particular. As Char Valley Parish Council's Tree and Hedge Officer my fellow councillors are used to my periodic rants on the subject but I think, on this occasion, I need to add some context.
I am occasionally called in to advise on tree work planned within Whitchurch Canonicorum's conservation area and am sometimes asked to approve the removal of a mature tree because it is too big or it is in the wrong place. I find this particularly hard at a time when so many of our native tree species are threatened by pests and diseases arriving from afar and now that here, in West Dorset, the arrival of ash die back has been confirmed.
Consider the ash: the third most common tree in Britain, it is easily recognizable by its bundles of brown keys, grey bark and pointed black buds. It is one of the toughest of hard woods and is used in furniture making. It is an ideal choice for tool handles because it doesn't splinter and it burns well. An ash tree can grow to up to around 35 metres in height and live for over 400 years, more if coppiced. In Norse mythology it was known as the Tree of Life with massive roots and branches that extend over and unite the various kingdoms of gods and giants. It has long been revered for possessing medicinal and mystical properties and the wood was burned to ward off evil spirits. It is also knows as Venus of the Woods. Like all trees, particularly native species, the ash provides a rich and varied habitat and is an invaluable addition to the ecosystem.
We often don't think twice before chopping the odd tree down to improve the outlook, open up a shady corner, create a bit of light and air or fill up the log store. We are blessed. We live in a part of the country with lots of trees but perhaps this causes us to underestimate their landscape and environmental importance. We should be aware of the large number of ash trees in our woods and hedgerows and consider the enormous change their loss will bring to the countryside. An article in latest edition of Broadleaf (The Wooodland Trust's magazine) reports that 955 separate species rely on the ash: mammals, birds, insects, fungi and lichens. Over 100 species either rely on ash completely or are heavily dependent on it. Oak and beech can support 90% of the same species but, compared to the shady canopy of an oak, the lighter shade beneath an ash gives rise to a greater variety of wild flowers and some niche species like the spotted fly catcher will likely see its numbers decline as we lose the ash woods it loves.
There seems to be little we can do to save the ash. Broadleaf goes on to report that the beautiful native bird cherry is threatened, along with English oak and wych elm by xylella fastidiosa, a bacterium first detected in Europe in 2013. Sycamore, willow and horse chestnut trees have fallen prey to the voracious Asian longhorn beetle. In addition, we are facing the prospect of sudden oak death; bleeding canker and leaf-mining moth threatens our horse chestnut trees; the effects of larch and ash die back are already evident. Sadly, die back is not the only threat facing our ash trees. The emerald ash borer appeared in the US some 20 years ago from East Asia in wooden shipping pallets. Since then it has munched its way through some 30 million ash trees. Should we be gloomy?
Certainly, the landscape healed itself after the loss of our native elms and its continued survival in our hedgerows should be celebrated. Some trees may survive to provide a resistent strain of ash from which new trees can be grown. Work is also being carried out to test foreign ash species such
as the American white ash to see if they might be resistent and therefore suitable to hybridise with our native ash. In addition, DEFRA is working to stop import of plant material from parts of Europe affected by xylella fastidiosa but tonnes of plants are imported into the UK each year and diseases to which our native flora have no resistence are imported as well.
This was the scenario that formed the back drop to my outburst. It seems to me that trees face enough trouble from natural pests and diseases without having to fight off a man with a chain saw intent on opening up a vista! I wonder what makes us so careless of the natural world? What makes us believe that it is capable of endless regeneration however much we abuse and over use it?
I hope I've said enough to make you think before you decide to take out another tree. There are alternative, less drastic measures that may give you what you want and give the tree a stay of execution. Tree canopies can be reduced and thinned; crowns can be raised. It is possible that these measures will get you that view at present obscured by branches or bring much needed light to the sun room. Think of the habitat you are destroying and the effect the tree's removal will have on the landscape and local treescape beyond your garden, consider the decades that tree has stood silently observing the comings and goings beneath.
But, if you are determined to go ahead, perhaps you could consider a replacement. Plant anything with flowers, fruits and berries and see what happens! There are few sights so lovely as a flock of redwing blowing in from the frozen North in Autumn to feast on crab apples. And if you feel you haven't got room for a new tree in your garden, what about your neighbour? Or, you could consider contacting any one of the UK's numerous wildlife and nature conservation organisations and make a donation to one of the UK's various re-forestation programmes. It's a bit late for New Year's Resolutions, I know, but how about undertaking to plant a tree in 2018? Better for the soul than giving up chocolate!

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Carolyn Peck

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