Why mature forests matter..more trouble for the Ash tree.

I wrote a few weeks back about the fungus which is infecting Ash trees in Europe (HERE)

At the time I wrote that  “So far, it seems that the fungus has not managed to infect “wild” trees in the UK, and the government has begun a consultation, which will end on the 26th of October, which could lead to a ban on imports of Ash (and given the severity of the threat, I would hope that a ban is imposed).”

Well, this week it has been announced that the disease has been discovered in  mature forests in the UK, as this Guardian article discusses (HERE).

My last post about this was a bit technical and clunky, so I will try to keep this easier to read.  I want to try to explain as much of the specifics as I can though, because, when I am finding anything out, I like knowing all the details if possible, rather than just understanding the gist of something.

We are going to take a little detour, as I could just tell you that “Mature forests are important” and let you just take that as read, but I would rather run through the reasons behind my claim.

So, firstly, what is a mature forest?

To most of us, a forest is a forest is a forest, but to biologists, and specifically botanists, there is a difference in the type of forest, and it has to do with a term called succession.

Succession can be thought of as the stages of life of an area, whether that is to do with a wetland, a forest, a field etc.

My ecology textbooks define succession as “Replacement of one community by another, often progressing to a stable terminal community called the climax

To illustrate this I will use the example of how a natural forest progresses, as it is one of the simpler ones to picture, but this also applies to planted forests, although the starting point is different there, as we actually initiate tree growth.

Diagram showing forest succession. Image from the encyclopedia of New Zealand

So, we start out with our bare ground on the left of the diagram, which usually consists of some soil, maybe some grass species (those little guys get everywhere).  This bare ground may be the result of a big event like a glacier retreating, or it could be from the drying up of a lake, or the spread of grasses along a sand dune area.  It can also be derelict land which was previously used as an urban area, things are a little more complex in that case, but the basic order still follows.

If we imagine that we have some rocks on the bare ground, and a few tough grasses to start with.  The rocks provide a nice cosy place for some lichen to start living, whilst the grass roots prevent what little soil or sand there is from blowing away.

The lichen cause damage to the rocks, and small particles of rocks fall off and get trapped on the ground by the grasses, and other particles flying around in the wind also become trapped.  As the lichens and grasses die, or get damaged, they fall to the ground, and begin to form a layer.  Eventually, there is enough of this layer (known as humus) to allow mosses to take hold in the area, and as these die off, they too add to the growing layer of dead stuff on the surface, which allows for bacteria to come in and decompose them, adding nutrients to the new soil.

Over time, the nutrients and soil layer builds up, and small, tough plants can begin to grow there.  These are often other grasses, ferns and very small bushes (Box 2 in the diagram). Microbes, insects, worms etc begin to colonize the young soil.

As the soil quality improves (because the plants there die, and are broken down, and nutrients build up in the soil), and the stability of the soil increases due to the growing number of plants, seeds which are blown in the wind, deposited by animals etc begin to be able to grow, and some of these will be from trees.

Initially, only small, hardy trees can grow, but new species come in and as the conditions continue to improve for plants, taller trees begin to take hold.  These do not grow in the earlier stages as tall trees usually require higher levels of nutrients than bushes, or dwarf trees.

Now we have a young forest, and species of animals and birds begin to colonize the area. Trees begin to grow taller, and form a canopy, this leads to a change in the communities of plants which are on the forest floor, and the ones which die off further improve the soil quality.

Finally, we reach the mature forest stage, where the animal and plant communities are stable, and as a tree dies, a sapling takes its place.  In some ecosystems, trees can stay short, like a new tree, for years until a gap opens up in the canopy, then they all race to be the one to take the place in the sun at the top.  Whilst individual trees may change, the overall structure of the forest stays the same at this point, which provides stability for the animal, bird and insect populations, and leads to the forests which we love to walk in.

Whilst the exact age at which a forest is defined as mature varies (depending on the types of trees which are present), a mature forest is several decades old.  If these forests are able to continue developing, they eventually are classified as Ancient Woodlands, which in the UK means forests which have been there for 400 years or so (the current definition of an ancient forest in the UK is forests which have existed since 1600).

EDIT FOR UPDATE: I have found out that one of the woodlands affected is actually an Ancient Woodland, which is believed to have been in place for around 1000 years. Info about Ashwellthorpe HERE

Ok, so now you know why I feel that mature forests are important.  They provide a stable habitat for wildlife and other plants, and due to the length of time which it takes for them to develop, they are not something which is easily replaced.  They also play a role in preventing soil loss from rain or wind erosion.

Now, you are probably wondering why Ash trees are so important, and why the media have been giving this so much attention.

Ash is the fourth commonest tree in the UK, and many forest areas have it as the dominant species. (source: Woodland Trust). Birds such as woodpeckers and owls live in Ash trees, as they are easy for them to hollow out, and they provide food and a habitat for a diverse range of animals, insects, mosses and lichens (For more info, see the Royal Forestry Society link HERE)

Ash woodlands are part of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, and are listed as a priority habitat in the plan. (See page 60 in this PDF), and they say:

“Mixed ashwoods are amongst the richest habitats forwildlife in the uplands, notable for bright displays of flowers such as bluebell.. primrose..wood cranesbill and wild garlic . Many rare woodland flowers occur mainly in upland ashwoods, such as dark red helleborine.., Jacob’s ladder.., autumn crocus.., and whorled solomon’s seal … Some rare native trees are found in these woods, notably largeleaved lime… and various whitebeams…. Upland mixed ashwoods also harbour arich invertebrate fauna, which may include uncommonor declining species. The dense and varied shrub layer found in many examples can in the southern part of the types range provide suitable habitat conditions fordormice… The alkaline bark of old ash (and elm where it still survives) supports an important lichen flora…. ”  (Latin names have been removed, hence the dots)

Aside from the ecological importance, it has a long history in the UK and Northern Europe, it is suggested as  the “world tree” from Norse Mythology (Yggdrasil) and Ash has been used in the UK since early history, as everything from spears to walking sticks, furniture etc.

So, seeing as these woodlands are on the Priority habitat list, you are probably thinking that the government has taken immediate action on this, and had in fact begun to assess this threat as soon as they heard of it.  Well….not quite.  George Monbiot over at the Guardian has pointed out that the government were made aware of the threat to the Ash tree in the UK some time ago, before the imported infected trees were discovered, and that even importers of Ash trees were recommending that action be taken (link HERE)

So, what is the government in the UK doing?  They have announced that a ban is being implemented starting Monday (link HERE).  Bear in mind this fungus was first found in the UK 8 months ago (February)…. Would it have taken so long for action to be taken if we were talking about infected livestock?

I apologise for the very long post, but I feel it is important that I explain exactly why we need to make sure that we do not lose our Ash trees the way we lost our Elms, and I am very angry at the government response.


3 thoughts on “Why mature forests matter..more trouble for the Ash tree.

    • At present there is no “official” advice from DEFRA or the forestry bodies in the UK, although the woodland trust has called for urgent information for the public and woodland managers. (LINK HERE)

      I would, unfortunately, probably not visit forests which have been infected, and if I was there, then I would probably give my shoes a quick rinse in disinfectant, like you do if you walk through farmland during foot and mouth, especially if I was travelling between areas.

      My main concerns about this, apart from the government inaction over the last few months, are that it took so long for this to come to public attention (I first saw news reports in September, despite it first being confirmed in February, which means people may have been buying Ash unknowingly in the period between outbreak and publicity). The second concern is that as Ash is such a huge part of our forests, that losing any quantity would be devastating to our forests. The UK has the 3rd lowest coverage of forest in Europe (13%). I had no idea it was so low, as I grew up in the country, and assumed most places had the forest coverage I did.

  1. Pingback: A new fungus is affecting ash trees | Science on the Land

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