Mourn the passing of the ash tree, but for conservationists, there is a silver lining

The deadly Chalara fungus threatens ash trees, but the dead wood will provide a cornucopia of invertebrates for birds to feed on

Share
Related Topics

Jimi Hendrix was right. “Once you’re dead, you’re made for life,” the rock god commented at some point in his short existence. Unlikely though it is that he was referring to dying trees, his aphorism goes to the very heart of the cyclical process of life, death, decomposition and new life that characterises all plants and animals.

We will rightly mourn the demise of ash trees from our woods, copses and country lanes if most of them succumb to deadly Chalara fungus. But the dead wood they will provide will be an enormous boost for Britain’s biodiversity.

Dead wood is the richest habitat in a healthy forest. It supports a huge variety of wood-boring invertebrates – around 1,800 species – a veritable army of little rotters that slowly eat it up: beetles, hornets, weevils, wasp-mimicking flies, spiders and pseudoscorpions, plus a battalion of fungi whose thread-like filaments penetrate deep inside to slowly decompose it, returning its nutrients to the forest soil.

A forest with plenty of dead timber provides a cornucopia of invertebrates for birds such as nuthatches, warblers and woodpeckers to feast on. And large dead trees, because rot holes more easily develop in them, are good places for hole-breeding species like bats, jackdaws and tawny owls.

Britain-wide, we have interrupted this natural cycle. In woods managed for timber, trees are felled before they mature, denying them a chance to senesce and sport large dead limbs. In most other forests, fallen branches brought down by gales are carted away for public safety reasons, to be used for firewood, or simply to keep the place “tidy”.

On a woodland walk, we have become accustomed to a sanitised version of a natural forest. We no longer expect to see standing dead trees. So the borers have precious little sustenance and a fifth of them are now rare or endangered. But natural forests – those left to their own devices – are full of dead timber amongst the living trees, rich in rotting invertebrates and a plethora of fungi.

A survey in the late 1990s led by Dr Keith Kirby, a leading woodland expert, found that, out of 37 English broadleaved woods, three quarters had either no standing dead trees or less than two per hectare. A natural forest (Britain has none) might have more than 50. Belatedly, many foresters and woodland owners have woken up to the need to retain some dead wood. Others haven’t. Our woods still desperately need more of it.

If swathes of ash trees start dying Britain-wide, the policy of fell and burn to stop the spread of the fungus will serve no further purpose. Dead trees mustn’t be squandered. Provided they pose no safety hazard, let’s leave them where they are to decay and fall naturally, and to attract the army of little rotters waiting to do their vital work and enrich our woodland biodiversity.

Dr Malcolm Smith was chief scientist at The Countryside Council for Wales,1996-2004, and a board member of The Environment Agency, 2004-2010

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Technical Manager – Heat Pumps

£40000 Per Annum dependent on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: They ...

Test Job

TBC: Test Recruiter for iJobs: Job London (Greater)

Senior Developer - HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, VBA, SQL

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are working with one o...

Senior Developer - HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, VBA, SQL

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are working with one o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

A long way to go before we reach Dave Eggers's digital dystopia

Memphis Barker
 

August catch-up: dress to impress, words to use more often, and the end of the internet

John Rentoul
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis