24 November 2012

Ash Dieback: A Lesson To Be Learnt

Ash dieback devastating our native woodlands: the fault of nurseries importing infected saplings, or the government not acting quick enough? The truth is probably more complex. Despite the bemoaning of the media, it appears they were minor players in the story. The disease was going to arrive here whatever we did or didn’t do. Chalara fraxinea is a naturally occurring fungus; its destructive power is distressing but not unknown in the natural world.

Although humans have not caused it, the appearance of the disease in Britain has shone a torch on our attitude towards trees and woodlands.

Everyone is asking why the ash, of all our native trees, is being imported when it grows here like a weed; a fact I ironically discovered for myself this year. The answer is no doubt complicated with all sides of the argument having their own justifications. In this post I want to look at the practice of mass tree planting. Has the current fashion for planting new woodlands created such a high demand for easily transported and planted trees that we have to import them to meet the need, and has it also simplified our understanding of what a wood actually is?

A wood is not simply a stand of trees, and yet this is what charities are urging us to plant. If we want to do the right thing by the environment, increase biodiversity and reduce carbon footprints, the easy and impressive answer seems to be to plant some trees. After a day's planting, sanctioned and financed by a charity, we look at our field of sticks protected in plastic sleeves and we feel we have done some good.

There are some people, however, in the conservation profession who disagree with this. Although tree planting is well intentioned a more creative and subtle approach to the natural world could be more successful.

A blog post by Habitat Aid, a company selling trees and plants sourced from British nurseries, outlines the concerns:

“1. There is always a tremendous hurry and lack of adequate cash about grant aided planting which means trees are often imported, increasing the danger of spreading pathogens and parasites and reducing the genetic variation of the plant population.

2. Inappropriate tree species are routinely introduced. There’s a “one size fits all” mentality about native tree selection, which seems very odd. In the world of wildflower plants, which shares many of the same problems, we always try to supply seed mixes appropriate to the sites where they will be sown, for example.

3. The groups of trees which are planted do not constitute woods. In particular, no-one bothers to establish an understory, which means they have less value for biodiversity than they should do. Demand for woodland bulbs is amazingly small and their purchase is never covered by woodland planting grants, for example.

4. This issue is compounded by planting densities being too high, which blocks out any light reaching the plants on the ground.

5. We sometimes establish these plantations, with limited ecological value, where more interesting habitat previously existed.”

Andy Byfield in the Guardian talks of the money involved in woodland making:

“An industry has developed around the creation of new habitat in the countryside, yet sometimes it seems more about meeting targets, and holding on to members, selling ecological advice and marketing tree saplings, and rather less about effective conservation.”

And here is dear Richard Mabey being wise:

In this talk he was talking specifically about the current situation of ash dieback. It is here, he says, and there is nothing we can do about it, but there is no need to over-react because ash is “cleverer than us”. Some trees will have a natural resistance to the disease, and through time nature will readjust and accommodate the changes. He believes that relying on stock from uncontrolled nurseries to revive woodland results in plants with a narrow genetic range that makes them more susceptible as a population to disease. He calls them ‘battery saplings’. His answer is to allow natural regeneration to take place. In this way “a self-willed natural woodland” would develop over time.

I understand a conservation industry has to exist. If any good is to be done money has to be involved. Hence there are charities with a need to justify their existence offering easy and attractive solutions, and there are nurseries with a need to make money quickly and cheaply supplying plants. They both improve the environment in some way.

I'm getting that twitchy feeling again though. When money and reputations are involved respect for nature declines. If ash dieback was a fictional story of government neglect, corporate greed and naive hope would the underlying theme be mankind's separation from nature?

I'm going to make a bold move and cancel my monthly donation to The Woodland Trust. It was miniscule. They won't notice the loss. The thinking is that although I fully endorse their work in buying and managing ancient woods I have my doubts about their encouragement of willy nilly planting.

The charity that gets my tiny contribution next year will either be Plantlife or Buglife. What do you think?