Historic trees and woodland which provided inspiration for the likes of Beatrix Potter and John Constable face extinction due to a surge in ash dieback driven in part by the climate crisis, the National Trust has warned.
Spring was one of the warmest and driest on record and placed a huge amount of stress on trees, which has left them more susceptible to disease.
The national lockdown also meant teams of rangers that would ordinarily have carried out felling and maintenance work to ensure tree safety were unable to do the work.
This has created a “perfect storm”, and left rangers playing catch up in terms of tree felling, which is diverting resources from other much-needed conservation work.
Locations where felling will take place include the Lake District and South East; locations that provided inspiration for Beatrix Potter’s much-loved children’s books, as well as 18th to 19th century romantic artist John Constable.
The eventual loss of the native ash tree is also a “catastrophe for nature”, which will have a devastating impact on homes for wildlife and biodiversity, much of which will be displaced as a result.
One of the worst affected areas include the Cotswolds, with the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty facing the felling of more than 7,000 trees in the coming year.
Ash dieback is caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. It originated in Asia and spread due to the movement of plants as part of the global trade. The fungus spreads quickly as its spores are windborne.
It is expected that it will cost the charity – which needs to save around £100million each year due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic – millions of pounds this year alone.
The trust is keen to thank members and visitors for their ongoing support, which is more important than ever, and today, makes an appeal to the public to replace lost woodland by donating to the Everyone Needs Nature campaign via the website.
It is also calling for the issue to be written into the government’s recently published England Tree Strategy, which sets out national commitments around tree planting and woodland creation.
National tree and woodland advisor Luke Barley said: “Ash dieback is a catastrophe for nature. Our landscapes and woodlands are irrevocably changing before our eyes, and this year’s combination of a dry spring and late frost may have dramatically sped up the spread and severity of ash dieback.
“Ash trees like those at Beatrix Potter’s Troutbeck Park Farm are some of our most culturally significant trees and have stood for hundreds of years but will now be lost forever.
“As well as the cultural impact of losing these historic sites, there are also implications for climate change as less carbon is sequestered, homes for wildlife are removed and people’s access to nature diminished.
“We welcome Defra’s commitment to ongoing research into finding a suitable alternative, and attempts at producing ash trees that are resistant to the disease. Early signs are very positive, and we are keen to support scaling of the results of those trials where possible, as it offers hope that we could one day continue to reintroduce ash trees to the countryside.”
But in the short term, a recognition of the problem in Defra’s England Tree strategy would offer a first step in helping to tackle the problem, which is costing organisations and charities millions of pounds a year.
Luke added: “The issue of ash dieback is nothing new, but the speed at which is it spreading seems to have been exacerbated due to the weather, and the time and expense necessary to tackle it contributes to the perfect storm we are witnessing.
“There needs to be some recognition of this as a nationwide issue and an understanding of what is being lost. But also how we replace these lost landscapes.”
Large areas of frail ash trees that are located on or near to publicly accessible areas pose a threat to public safety and therefore require felling.
The charity estimates this year alone will see the removal of at least 40,000 trees on its land for safety reasons – around ten times more than the previous worst year – at a cost of more than £2million.
Between 75 – 95 per cent of all ash trees will be lost in the next 20-30 years –around 2.5 million trees on National Trust land alone.
But hundreds of thousands of trees will have to be removed where they pose a risk to visitors and the public.
In January, Director General Hilary McGrady announced 20million trees would be planted or established on National Trust land as part of ambitious plans to become carbon net zero by 2030.
“Lockdown has meant we weren’t able to undertake regular conservation work and many of our rangers who have returned are now forced to spend time tree felling to manage safety,” said Luke.
“Vital conservation work including tree planting, managing flower rich meadows and important maintenance work is having to go on hold as a result.
“The sort of work we want to be doing at this time of year includes managing woodland for nature and caring for the wildlife that live there, and vital maintenance work to our network of paths and visitor routes.
“While we are still aiming to reach our 2030 target, the sudden acceleration of the spread of ash dieback means we are currently unable to get on with the important job of planting and establishing other woodlands, while adding urgency to the need to do so.”
Header image: National Trust Images.