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Ash Dieback: Season Two

Tuesday 23rd April. Cold sea, warm sun. Morning mist takes a while to clear, down here by the seaside, but when it burns off the skies are blue, the afternoons pleasant enough for people in the street to shed layers. The meal worms vanish swiftly, the goldfinches flirt about, and the blackbirds sing and sing. My tadpoles are doing well.

Spring at last, and the waiting is over, the seeing has begun. What's going to happen to the ash trees? Will they be gone in a decade, devastating our landscape?

Over the winter the defra scorecard has shown a steady increase in infected sites (484 currently): but outside East Anglia these sites are still, almost without exception, infected new plantings, ie, nursery reared saplings imported from infected countries in continental Europe, or else (which is the way the Woodland Trust got caught out) seedlings from the UK, exported to continental European nurseries; infected while reared there and then imported back here). How are things going to change, when the buds begin to break? Maybe not at all. Maybe chalara fraxinea doesn't actually spread like wildfire over here? Maybe the infection hits resistance as soon as it leaves East Anglia? Or some other kind of obstacle? Or maybe, and more likely, alas, the defra survey is just very limited... I have no idea.

I was reminded, up in Cumbria, how important these trees are to me. The lovely wayward growth of their branches in winter, their place in folklore (ash will be late this year, held back by the long, cold winter). Those iconic black buds, and the individual trees that have become part of my psychological landscape. I wish there was something I could do. A few weeks ago I asked the Sussex Wildlife Trust what plans they had for responding to the outbreak. Monitoring the ash woodlands on their reserves? Identifying and reported infections, and keeping an eye out for resistance? Maybe training volunteers to help with that task? Or with clearing away infected leaf litter, so the trees don't get re-infected? (It takes several doses of the fungus to overwhelm a tree of any size, & the spores lurk in fallen leaves) I got a cheerful "no not really! We just plan to let it happen" response. And the advice that, though it will be "frustrating" to watch so many trees die, I'd better get used to it. The same message is repeated in the latest SWT mailing to members. A little frustrating, indeed: but understandable, I suppose. There's an awful lot of ash trees in Sussex, especially in the West. In West Sussex, second most wooded county in England, holding 40% of our surviving ancient woodland, the dominant broad-leaved tree is ash, and they're all over the place, not neatly concentrated.

On the other hand, information is power, or sometimes consolation.

I was bemused at first by news that the Forestry Commission plan to combat chalara involved planting 250,000 young ash trees. What's the use of that? They'll just die! But the saplings are to be planted in East Anglia, native stock, genetically diverse, they will be exposed to infection and hopefully some of them will prove resistant.

I've learned from other sources (actually, a Gardener's World article, which I take to be fairly trustworthy), that it's not a complete wipe-out. Young trees will certainly die if they get infected, and in months not years. Trees from 10-20 years old will probably succumb, a little more slowly. Trees from 20-40 yrs have a better chance of fighting off the infection, they will get sick, but survive for years. And "There is little evidence that mature trees, over 40 yrs old, will ever be overwhelmed by the disease alone..."

So that's good news. With the caveat that a tree struggling with a serious fungal infection is far more vulnerable to other pests and trauma.

Anyway, here's what the National Trust has to say:

& here's a report from Plant Science


In Cumbria a couple of weeks ago we met the larch tree killer, phytophthora ramorum, face to face: there's an infection in the Japanese Garden, Eskdale Green. But all the larches are on their way out, along with most of the mature conifers, no matter what. To be replaced by native woodland (leaving an awful Paschendale landscape of stumps in the meantime; it's not a pretty process) Ironic, huh? Wordsworth fulminated against those larches, but by my time they were beautiful: vivid green in spring, red-gold in autumn, haunt of red squirrels, goldcrests; silence. . . It's natural, it's normal, all things must pass, pests will come and go, and occasionally we must expect a devastating disease (cf the Great Wine Blight): the "nature" we have made will recover, with help.

The threats just mustn't come too thick and fast, or our managed, anthropogenic "nature" will not change and move on. It will become degraded, impoverished and unrecognisable. Intervention needs to be stepped up, on every scale, to deal with the world we live in, not the "let nature take its course" world we may fondly remember.

Occupy Sussex

Monday 21st April, light rain overnight, followed by another fine day, chill breeze, honey sun, soft cloud. It is definitely Spring. As we walked up through Stanmer Park on Friday evening, bud-break was all around us in the young trees, including the threatened ash, and looking richer than in other years; and while we were eating at Stanmer Pub, a bat flitted over the cricket lawn outside, in the calm evening.

To the Magistrates Court last Thursday, in solidarity with the four students arrested during the heavy-handed police action to break up the Occupation of Bramber House (a protest against privatisation: you can read about it here: and here: Conversation turned to colour-bagging. Red is the People's Flag; True Blue is Tory. Orangey gold is (among other afiliations) whatstheirnames, the didn'tyouusedtobetheLiberals. Green is the Party of Social Justice, and the Environment (Davy Jones, prospective Green Party parliamentary candidate for Kemptown, had turned up too. Good for him). Pink is spoken for, the Rainbow is spoken for. Can we have yellow as the colour of Protest? It's not going to work. Yellow is the colour of nondenominational warning, watch out; the police and others have got dibbs on it. It's the Imperial colour in China, anyway.

But I commend these young people. It's heartening to know (from #Occupy Sussex that the University of Central Lancashire sity today decided to drop privatisation plans. So, not quite in vain, kids. Even if you do get criminal records.


Most of Zefirelli's Hamlet movie last night. Pretty dire! (despite Glenn Close's sprightly, manic Gertrude: clearly maxed-out on mother's little helpers). But at least Peter now knows that this elusive play is indeed stuffed with quotations.

And Broadchurch. Who did it, eh? If this had been the real world, my money would have been on that strange bloke who has popped up from time to time, proffering messages from the beyond, but I must have missed the episode where he is put out of the running. Also Scott and Bailey although I'm getting a bit tired (already, two shows in) of the Ooop North stereotyping. I don't even like Manchester, I was just born there, but there's more to the old Blingsville that this. London is not the only great city in the UK, or even in England, thanks.


Sorted out the palm oil free soap. If you feel like splashing out look no further than the RSPB Dipper range:

We are currently using Aleppo Gold, the entry level one, and it's fine. Thick primitive chunks, smelling of bay laurel, very long lasting. Oliva is also good, and you're likely to have a local stockist.


Just finished Mark Crocker and Richard Mabey's Birds Britannica, that Peter got me for my birthday. I loved this book, mighty tome that it is; you wouldn't want to drop it on your foot. Not enough pictures, though. & it's chilling to realise how many more household name bird populations have plunged, just in the last few years (since this quirky catalogue was compiled ie). The swift, the skylark, the lapwing, the cuckoo. . . I could go on. I won't.

Sword at Sunset & The Once And Future King. Arthuriana classics I bought 2nd hand for Peter, when I thought his birthday books wouldn't arrive. Was meaning to buy them for his ereader, but got warned off by reviews of the quality of the transcription (I keep running into this issue). Sword At Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff (1963), richly supplied with gory, set-piece battles, lovingly worked out; an unexpected wealth of heart-catching, nature writing. Tiny bit fascist. It's absorbing, but grim, far grimmer than I remembered it The certainty of doom and of personal disaster are ever present. Sort of Arthur as Macbeth. (I probably didn't mind this when I was a teenager, probably just found it romantic). The Once And Future King, T H White. Some people swear by this one, but the famous love affair doesn't half go on a bit. I'll think I'll stick with The Sword In The Stone. And memo to self, re-read The Goshawk.

It's Only A Tree. But. . .

Wednesday 17th April, mild windless air; a soft overcast, downy grey and white quilted and threadbare blue. Forsythia and Almond blossom spring-flower gardens and birdsong outside my window. Coming down from Cumbria, having been, for a week or two, as offline as humanly possible if you leave all the chargers at home, we were quite shocked when the trees remained leafless as we hit the sunny south, but now I do believe Spring has sprung. Yesterday I brought in the traditional bowl of tadpoles, and placed a rather over-powering sugary hyacinth bouquet by my bed, to replace (at last) the chaste ivy and pine of the New Year.

I kind of miss the ivy and the pine, but their turn will come round again.

With some trepidation I checked SaveOurTree, and I'm glad to report the Seven Dials Elms (although there's some controversy about "root-trimming" going on today) seems to have made it through the B&H Council's lengthy deliberations. . . So far. Don't count on it. But a small triumph, as I have said, over Mr Gradgrind, and the whole brutal project of the so-called profit-motivated, so-called aspirational mindset: the sensible life, whose only passion is hatred, and a local news story that's been a useful corrective to popular assumptions. Everybody was having fun, last month, about the spluttering and shuffling of the "Green" controlled Council of Brighton&Hove. Greens caught in the act of planning to chop down a hundred year old elm tree! One of the sacred urban elms in this last stronghold of the English Elm, for no very good reason at all! What were they thinking!!. .
Many feeble excuses and much flailing about later, the genuine explanation seems to be that our Council, lead by our Green Council leader, looked at the tree, saw nothing of particular value, and didn't realise there would be a fuss. Fine. But why didn't they realise the tree was valuable all by themselves?

Maybe the answer is that the Green Party is not now, if it ever was, the party of the Natural World. Social Justice, yes (and a very necessary role too!). But trees, now: trees have to come last. A caring, inclusive and democratic Green society will enable everyone to do valuable work, follow their interests, interact with their community and enjoy nature. A Green government will have the courage to pursue responsible solutions to our social, economic and environmental crises through its commitment to fairness, citizen participation, shared responsibility, peace and environmental protection.

I don't want to be mean, I hope the Green Party is a little more sincere than the "greenest government ever" but Dave Cameron's copywriter could easily have penned that lot.

Nightingales may still be silenced at Lodge Hill, whichever Party is pulling the trigger. Trees and little brown birds really cannot be at the forefront or in the foreground for any party aspiring to govern. There's only one way to minimise the losses: to keep these people on their toes, we have to convince them, and keep on convincing them, that trees, and little brown birds, can vote. That there IS a party of the Natural World, and honestly, it isn't altogether, or even mainly, about "Green Jobs" or "Sustaining Economic Growth Responsibly". It's about the natural world for its own sake, it's about things many people aren't prepared to sacrifice; it's just for love.

PS Dear Plashing, thanks for the electroluminescent paint link. I don't think you could get straight from this stuff to Aoxomoxoa's neurologically controlled skull mask, but it's definitely a step on the way.