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.

Herbs on a Hillside

The secret valley close to where I live is encircled by hills.  The steeper slopes as well as the valley floor, which is subject to regular flooding, have not been ploughed in living memory and, quite probably, not at all.  As a consequence, providing the sheep or cattle haven’t grazed them too heavily, the grass sward is peppered with wild flowers.  In the spring there are cowslips and, as the year advances, orchids and the delicate, nodding flower heads of Quaking Grass can be found.

Wild Flower Meadow copyright

over 97% of old flower meadows have been destroyed since 1930

Although the orchids are a joy, the plants that excite me most are the wild, culinary herbs, the scarcest of which is wild thyme, for it grows only on the driest and steepest of the banks.  Thyme can, of course, be readily bought in supermarkets all year round, either dried or fresh, and it is easily grown at home in a pot or window box.  All it requires is sunny spot and a free-draining and not over-rich potting compost to thrive.

Wild thyme copyright

Shakespeare’s wild thyme

Whenever, I see the wild thyme I always think of Shakespeare’s immortal line, I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.  The secret valley is only about twenty-five miles as the crow flies from Stratford-upon-Avon and so there is a rather satisfying sense of connection across the centuries, as well as the miles, whenever the tiny flowerheads peep out from amongst the grass.  In fact, Shakespeare’s words and the secret valley’s meadows were inspiration for an early blog post of mine on creating wild flower meadows way back in 2009!  You’ll find that one by clicking on this link.

Thyme’s cousin, marjoram is nowhere near as diminutive in both its scent or its flowering.  Standing tall on wiry, strong stems it is a magnet for bees and butterflies.  Once again, it is a useful garden plant not just for kitchen use but also good as a front of border edging.  It spreads steadily but is never a nuisance.  In the wild, grasses and other plants prevent it from becoming too dominant but when you discover a good stand of it swaying in a warm, summer breeze the perfume is unforgettable.

Marjoram & Butterfly watermark

A Ringlet butterfly feeding on Marjoram

One plant that is often overlooked although it is quite tall is Salad Burnet.  Its dark red, tightly buttoned flowers can be used in floral arrangements but it is only the young leaves that are edible.  Used in salads and also added to sauces, they have a mild and slightly bitter cucumber flavour.  Sharp eyes are needed to find it growing amongst tall grasses for its rosette of pinnate leaves hug the ground.  Fortunately, once again, there is no need to forage from the wild for they grow happily in the garden.

Salad Burnet watermark

You need to look carefully amongst the taller grasses to spot Salad Burnet

Along the lane that leads out of the valley, and also somewhat surprisingly, growing amongst trees close to our house, chives can be found.  A common kitchen ingredient and native to Britain they have a remarkably widespread range over much of the northern hemisphere, growing across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America.  Although they are plentiful, how much easier it is to pick them from a pot close to the kitchen door!

Chives at Sladhollow watermark

chives growing through the leaf litter of open woodland

It is one of the pleasures of summer to seek out these wild food plants for it is reassuring to know that, if ever the need arose, they are there to flavour my meals.  However, even under lockdown, there is never a real need to harvest a wild plant; how much better to leave it for the bees and butterflies?

Marbled White Butterfly (2) watermark

Marbled White butterflies thrive in old meadows