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.

Coppicing Hazel – the how, the why, the where

Lamb’s Tails (as country children call them), the pale-yellow catkins of the hazel, are a familiar sight at this time of year.  A traditional component of our hedgerows, they are perhaps seen in more glory when growing unchecked along roadside verges where they can achieve a much greater height.  There, up to 15 metres tall in favoured conditions, the soft golden shimmer of hundreds of catkins really is one of the earliest harbingers of spring.

Lamb’s tails: their pollen is released by the wind

Catkins begin to form early in the winter, small, stubby and dull in colour where they wait until, quite suddenly, they are as we see them now.  The transition always goes unnoticed.  Even less noticed are the female flowers – for catkins are male.  Whereas the majority of plants are self-fertile, Hazel, Corylus avellana, is one of a number that carry both male and female flowers.  Wind-pollinated, the breeze carries the pollen from the male to the female to fertilise.  However, the pollen has to reach a different plant for it to be successful.  The tiny, female flowers can be discovered by careful searching along the branches a few days after the catkins have fully formed.

The short, stubby embryo catkins form in early winter
The minute, female flowers take a bit of finding…

For gardeners, hazel is one of the most traditional and useful of plants and it is worth growing one or two in an odd corner if you have the room.  There they will quickly create a multi-stemmed shrub.  Visually, as a garden plant, when left to its own devices, it is of limited value (wildlife love it, of course).  However, by coppicing the plant there will be a regular supply of poles for runner beans to climb and the twiggy top-growth is the perfect support for garden peas, mange-tout and the headily-scented sweet peas.  They are also useful for supporting taller herbaceous plants, saving them from collapse and look so much more attractive than canes and string or wire netting.  It’s far quicker to do, too!

A good crop of runner bean poles

So, what is coppicing and how do you do it?  Well, for a start, it’s a dead easy and very uncomplicated form of pruning!  All that has to be done is to cut with secateurs or garden loppers the stems to a few inches above ground level during the winter.  If you do this over three years by removing only a third of the stems each year you will have stems of varying heights and diameters without losing any screening effect.  Although coppicing may seem a drastic form of pruning they quickly regrow and it also prolongs the life of the plant considerably. 

Coppiced hazel can make a good summer screen in the garden

Many years ago, coppicing of hazel (and, sometimes, ash and field maple too) was standard practice in many of our woodlands.  These days it is still carried out as a conservation tool to encourage the breeding of our now endangered dormouse and other wildlife.  Hazel is the food plant of many moths and the autumn supply of nuts are great favourites with jays, squirrels and wood mice – and, of course, humans. In the photo below of long-neglected woodland, the hazel is naturally regenerating as coppice as the old and heavy branches collapse onto the forest floor.

Neglected storm-damaged hazel naturally regenerating as coppice

Hazel can be useful, along with willow, to create living structures such as pergolas, arches, fencing and tunnels.  They all involve regular pruning in much the same way as coppicing although in most instances the number of upright growths is reduced to one or two.  The prunings make excellent kindling for wood burners and, if you’re feeling really creative, rustic furniture.  Why not have a go?  From just one native species we can have fun projects that are ideal for people of all ages.  It can be used as an educational tool too: nature study and conservation, rural history and artistry make it the perfect resource for lockdown and home learning.

This living hazel tunnel makes a fine garden feature and is also good for wildlife
An imaginative and practical way of using hazel branches