National Trust warns over loss of trees and woodlands as ash dieback surges

Trees and woods which inspired the likes of Beatrix Potter and John Constable could be lost due to a surge in a disease affecting ash, the National Trust has warned.

The conservation charity said it faces its worst year on record for felling trees due to ash dieback, in part because of one of the warmest and driest springs on record.

Increased prolonged hot and dry conditions driven by climate change are putting trees under stress and making them more susceptible to disease, dramatically speeding up the impact of ash dieback, the trust said.

Ash tree disease
Ash tree disease

And lockdown meant ranger teams which would ordinarily carry out felling and maintenance work to ensure tree safety could not do so – leaving them playing catch-up now and diverting resources from other conservation work.

While the National Trust has been felling around 4,000-5,000 trees a year in recent years, largely as a result of ash dieback, this year it faces having to cut down around 40,000 trees, with a bill of £2 million.

It means “vital” conservation work, including planting new trees, managing flower-rich meadows and maintenance activities, is having to go on hold, the trust said.

Ash dieback is caused by a fungus from Asia which was first recorded in the UK in 2012, which blocks its water systems and causes leaves to wilt, shoots to die back, lesions on branches and eventually the death of the tree.

Set to kill between 75-95% of the UK’s ash trees, the disease is expected to wipe out around 2.5 million trees on National Trust land alone, with hundreds of thousands having to be felled to ensure public safety.

The death of ash trees are expected to change the UK landscape (Peter Tasker/National Trust/PA)
The death of ash trees are expected to change the UK landscape (Peter Tasker/National Trust/PA)

Beautiful landscapes under threat include the Cotswolds, where more than 7,000 trees will have to be felled in the coming year.

Woodlands around the home of painter John Constable in Flatford, Suffolk, are also under threat, while dozens of trees will have to be felled this year in Borrowdale in the Lake District, which the artist travelled to paint.

Elsewhere in the Lake District, sites that inspired the work of children’s author Beatrix Potter, including Troutbeck Farm near Ambleside which she managed in 1923 and High Oxen Fell, near Coniston, are also at risk from ash dieback.

The National Trust is warning that other woodlands, including the ravine woods of the White Peak in Derbyshire, which are 80% ash, and in the Yorkshire Dales, will change beyond recognition because of the disease.

National tree and woodland adviser 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 being removed and people’s access to nature is being diminished.”

He also warned: “The issue of ash dieback is nothing new, but the speed at which it is 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.”

The charity, which needs to save £100 million as a result of the pandemic, is making a direct appeal to the public to replace lost woodland by donating to the Everyone Needs Nature campaign via its website.