Ash to Ashes?

On the farm where we keep our horses there is a venerable, old ash tree. ‘So what?’, you might ask, for around much of Britain ash trees are two-a-penny; in fact, their self-sown seedlings can be quite a nuisance. Well, firstly, this particular ash is very special.

Growing halfway along a scrappy old hedgerow dividing two fields, the ash has seen generations of farmers, farm workers and, perhaps, lovers all sheltering from the sun and the rain. It would seem the obvious place to rest when taking a break from toil in the heat of summer harvest and haymaking. Perfect, when its branches spread widely to cast shade but not when the trunk stands bare, its branches freshly pollarded. Years of pollarding have created a relatively short trunk full of cracks and fissures, the home of bats, owls and the occasional nesting kestrel. Its branches show the characteristic shape of old, abandoned pollards.

Pollarding, the removal of branches, is an ancient country method of producing straight poles. These would be used in many different ways from sheep hurdles and fencing, for building material and posts, to pegs and walking sticks. I have quite a collection of the latter, my favourite being a five-foot ash stave that I cut as a sixteen year old. Over 50 years of continual use it has become as smooth and as polished as if it had been carefully honed.

Willow coppicing. The branches, known as cordwood, stacked ready for transporting

Pollarding is carried out every few years, the time period varying with the timber size requirement and the rate of growth. Contrary to what one might expect from such drastic treatment, pollarded trees have a much greater lifespan than those left unpruned. Or they did have.

Ash Dieback disease, Chalara, was first seen in the UK in early 2012 on trees imported from Europe. A total ban on importing new trees came into force later that year but, by then, the disease had begun to spread. A classic case of ‘too little, too late’ for Chalara had been known on the Continent since the early 1990s. Now it is to be found in many regions of the British Isles. Here, in the Cotswolds, it has been slow to show its face but this year, the effects are noticeable with dead and dying trees standing alongside others that appear not to have been infected.

Stunted & sparse leaf growth on diseased ash trees
A severely infected ash tree with a healthy tree behind

It is thought that probably 90% of all ash trees will succumb to the disease, the loss of such a great number dramatically changing the appearance of the countryside. As a boy I lived in a road that was lined with elm trees. Like the ash, those in our garden my father regularly pollarded and I would be sent up to climb onto the lighter branches to saw them off. No health and safety issues in those days! A favourite old photo of mine is the one below showing my father and I in what now looks an idyllic rural scene. It also shows how old elm trees were once the dominant feature of English lowland landscapes; all gone due to the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease that arrived in the 1970s. It is hoped that by not clear-felling the ash, as they did with the elm, disease resistant trees may be found. If not, once again our treescape will change just as dramatically.

My father & me with elm trees dominating the landscape c.1956

Ash, Fraxinus excelsior, is more often allowed to grow unchecked to its full glory. The pinnate leaves and wide-spreading branches create a light shade under which many of our native flowers thrive. It is also home to bats, birds and numerous insects including six of our rarest beetles and flies. It is especially associated with the scarce Brown Hairstreak butterfly (source: Devon Wildlife Trust) – only time will tell whether this butterflies breeding success will decline even more.

A healthy ash tree in spring

In the spring, before the leaves open, the ash bursts into flower, all too often overlooked. Make a note to take a closer look next spring, for it may be one of the last chances you have before, like the elm, it too fades into history.

Ash flowers in early spring before the leaves open

If you have a favourite ash tree in your own area why not photograph and upload it onto a nature recording website such as iRecord? That way, you will be preserving it forever and help to create an historic record for the future. Perhaps one day there will be disease resistance and ‘your’ tree can be replaced. You can find the link here.

Courting Ravens

Before Storm Alex hit us this weekend, bringing with it over a month’s worth of rain in less than 24 hours, the weather had been exceptionally benign.  For several days the skies were clear, the sun shone and there was just enough of a cool breeze to remind you that autumn has arrived and revving up to take us into winter.  In short, it was perfect conditions for walking and, so it seems, also for courting.

The secret valley in the Cotswolds

No, I haven’t committed to a new relationship for I’m quite happy with my old one!  I’m referring to our local pair of ravens, recently joined by several others.  They have taken up residence in the shelter belt of conifers, mixed softwoods and brash that stand sentinel on the ridge.  From there they have a commanding view of the full length of the secret valley.  On my walks, they have been chattering noisily to one another in their croaky, almost primeval sounding voice.

First signs of autumn in the secret valley

Whenever I hear the sound of a raven, I’m transported back to Exmoor for it was there, as a sixteen-year old, that I saw my first one.  In those days (the 1960s) ravens were rarities only found in the remotest and wildest parts of the British Isles, taking refuge there after decades of persecution had exterminated them from kinder landscapes.  I was resting on the heather moorland high above Farley Water, a narrow and very beautiful river valley inhabited only by sheep and the wild Exmoor ponies and red deer.  Watching a black bird flying lazily along the valley far below me it suddenly body rolled and flew on its back for a few yards before righting itself to fly on until out of sight. 

Farley Water, Exmoor National Park in 1968 – not that it’s changed at all since then!

These body rolls, along with a wide range of acrobatic swoops and dives, are indicative of courting displays, usually seen in spring.  I’m sure my lone raven in Farley Water was doing it for pure pleasure, or perhaps it was practicing them just to ensure it got it right in order to impress the gals when they appeared!  Ravens do, in fact, pair for life and can live for ten years in the wild, sometimes as long as fifteen or more.  This longevity, as well as the millennia they have been on Planet Earth, has given rise to many myths and traditions.  Here in the UK, there is a long-held belief that if the ravens that live at the Tower of London should ever leave, both the Crown and Britain will fall to a foreign invader.  They are cared for and protected by the Royal Ravenmaster of the Yeoman Warders.  A much older belief common to the Abrahamic religions is that the raven was the first creature to be released from Noah’s Ark.

Ravens are now very much more common in the UK, having reclaimed much of their former territory and it is estimated that there is now well over 7,000 breeding pairs.  They are also one of the most widespread of bird species being found throughout the Northern Hemisphere.  It has recently been discovered, however, that when ravens colonised America those on the California coast became isolated – probably due to an Ice Age.  As a result, they have evolved into a distinct race genetically, whereas the other US birds are more closely related genetically to the birds of Europe and Asia.

Chris Skaife, Ravenmaster in front of Traitor’s Gate, Tower of London [photo credit: DebashisM]

So how do you recognise a raven from any other black crow?  Well, firstly, it’s size.  It is enormous in comparison.  Secondly, it’s voice which is quite distinctive once you’ve learnt to recognise it.  The raven is, however, a great mimic of other sounds:  twice I have been confused by the sound of a fencepost being knocked into the ground with a heavy mallet and by a small terrier dog yapping from high up in the top of a tall Scot’s Pine tree!  It’s tail, if it should fly overhead, is also another way of telling it apart for it is quite diamond shaped in appearance.  Finally – and not one I have seen mentioned in bird books – the wings make a distinct flapping noise much in the same way as a swan’s does.  Good luck with your raven spotting and don’t be alarmed by all the stories of them being birds of ill omen.  If you see one, it will make your day.

Raven at the Tower of London [photo credit: Drow male]
Depiction of ravens at the Tower of London 1883 [Source: Wikipedia]

Visiting The Exmoor Society

Devotees of Exmoor, a National Park in Britain’s West Country, who want to learn more of its past and wildlife will find a friendly welcome at the Exmoor Society’s new headquarters.  Closely associated with Dulverton since its inception in 1958, it has recently moved to its new location within the town centre.Exmoor Society HQ (13)   copyright

A pictorial map filling the whole of one wall draws your attention as you enter the building, beautifully illustrated with iconic Exmoor animals and birds: Red Deer, Exmoor Ponies and Buzzards to name a few.

Exmoor Society HQ (3)   copyright

Leading from the map is a room where visitors are able to look at old copies of the Exmoor Review, published annually and other archive material.  A timeline charting the period from the 1950s to the present day stretches along a wall lined with seats and work tables and makes fascinating reading in its own right.  Exmoor Society HQ (4)   copyright

The library’ shelves are stacked with books, many rare and out of print and covering every aspect of Exmoor life.  These are a great resource not just for the serious student of Exmoor but also for those that just want to dip into the pages of one that catches the eye.  Some titles, where there are several copies, are for sale.Exmoor Society HQ (12)   copyright

With over fifty years of collected material, the Exmoor Society has a wealth of information some of which, in the past, has not been readily available to see.  In 2014 funding was acquired for an Outreach Archivist, Dr Helen Blackman, to catalogue and resolve these issues.  Her progress can be followed on Twitter @ExSocArchivist.

Exmoor Society HQ (11)   copyright

One of the greatest bequests to the society was all of the papers, drawings and paintings of Hope Bourne who became world famous for self-sufficient living in a caravan in a remote part of the moor.  Much of the material is in a fragile state but reproductions commissioned now show the beauty of her work.  The society has recently published a book showing some of her paintings, many for the very first time entitled Eloquence in Art and this can be purchased either at Dulverton or online.Exmoor Society HQ (14)   copyright

The Exmoor Society aims to reach everyone with an interest in Exmoor, including the landowners and people that live and work on the moor.  It takes its message to numerous shows and exhibitions and also leads walks throughout the year.Exford Show 2014 (9)   copyright

To find out more about the Exmoor Society drop into Dulverton or take a look at its website by clicking the link here.