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January 2013: The disease unpicking our woodland tapestry

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The disease unpicking our woodland tapestry

The disease unpicking our woodland tapestry

Wildlife artist Robert Fuller Artist and wildlife expert Robert Fuller looks at the impact of ash dieback on our rural landscape as featured in the Gazette and Herald.

MY HEART when I heard the news that ash dieback disease, which has devastated woodland across Europe, is now prevalent across the UK.
And reports that the disease could have been prevented only make me angry. Why did the Forestry Commission, or FERA, not stop the import of live trees from infected countries earlier? Especially since ash is a native tree and grows so easily here?
From my studio window here in Thixendale I have a stunning view over a very typical Wolds landscape: a gentle tapestry of fields and hedges interspersed with beautiful ash woodland.
I wonder how this view will look in 20 years' time? Without the softening effect of the ash woodland, the tapestry could be stark and threadbare.
And it's not just the Wolds that could be transformed. There are more than 80 million ash trees in the UK, most notably here, on the Yorkshire Dales and in the Peak district.
Ash thrives on upland areas and especially chalk lime-rich soil, but it grows so readily in the UK that one third of this country's trees are ash.
In Denmark, where the disease started, over 90pc of ash trees are either dead or dying. If that is what we face here, then what will the country look like without so many of its trees?
As a wildlife artist, one of my main concerns is the effect the loss will have on Britain's wild animals and birds. Ash is such an important tree for so many of our native species.
Its hollow trunks provide safe nest sites for little owls, tawny owls and barn owls. I have spent so many happy evenings watching little owls flying in and out of ash hollows. These birds are a delight to watch. They return to the same hollow year after year.
Ash is one of the last trees to come into leaf and during spring the woodland floor is carpeted with blue bells and red campion.
You only need to stand still in an ash wood for half an hour during spring and summer and you will see so much. Both green and spotted woodpeckers tend to choose ash. And there's nothing quite as magical as spotting their chicks peeking out from their nest holes in June.
Tree creepers also like to nest under the peeling bark of old ash trees. And robins, redstarts and so many other birds also use these graceful trees to raise their broods in.
Ash tree dieback, or chalara, disease has been compared to Dutch Elm Disease which of course virtually wiped out the English elm.
I was a child when this disease really took hold and as an adult I am left with wonderful memories of these beautiful trees.
Dutch elm disease killed off 25 million trees. But elms are made of such tough wood that it took more than 30 years to kill them off and it was even longer before they disappeared entirely.
In comparison, ash dieback disease is likely to wipe out 80 million trees within 20 years. Although a hard wood, the species rots far quicker than elm and the trees and woodland comprising of them are likely to have vanished from our landscape in a frighteningly short time.
Elm trees were elegant, big trees and they died slowly and gracefully. As they did so, their trunks continued to be a feature of the landscape so that people of my generation were able to enjoy them for many years.
Like skeletons, their bark slowly peeling away and the bare wood beneath bleaching in the sun, the trees were also of benefit to wildlife long after their death.
On the farm in Givendale where I grew up, elms were deliberately left to stand for the sake of the wildlife that continued to occupy them.
I always remember one particular elm with a large burr on it which was hollow. I watched a pair of little owls return there year after year to raise brood after brood.
Another dying elm was home to a pair of barn owls and the roots of yet another became home to a stoat family.
Of course ash trees will also provide shelter after their death to the wealth of wildlife that abounds here on the Wolds, but for far less time.
And if the disease really takes hold, my daughter's generation may not even remember the woodlands that once populated this landscape.
I really hope that we can control the disease and that our beautiful woodlands aren't lost from the Wolds landscape altogether.

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