Ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) were one of the first species I took notice of. Where I grew up in south London they forced their way in between the cracks, against fences and walls, some managing to make it all the way to maturity, escaping the insurance claim and chainsaw.
In my job as a woodland officer one of our tasks for volunteers was to remove ash saplings from grasslands to stop it from turning into woodland. That changed with the coming of ash dieback disease in 2013, when the invasive fungus reached the UK mainland and began to kill off young ash trees. Ash is a pioneer species and its place in the natural process of the landscape are for it to create a window of shade for other species like oak to move in on and establish.
One of my favourite places to go walking is the Yorkshire Dales, where ash trees are icons of the open landscape. This is not only because ash trees are so prolific and able to squeeze their way in. Their leaves were once commonly used as fodder for livestock. As a heavily grazed landscape, the Yorkshire Dales farmers relied on ash branches as a back up for a lack of other food sources in summer, especially when hot, dry weather affected plant growth.
Now ash trees are threatened with what some call ‘obliteration’ in the UK and parts of Europe. The situation is complex and signs are that many ash trees and ash woodlands will be lost because of ash dieback. However, the genetic diversity of ash trees in the UK means that there are likely to be strains of the tree which will show resistance. Evolution may be the only way to save the ash in the UK.
In the meantime I want to try and capture these beautifully light and iconic trees of the European landscape.