Ash apocalypse on near horizon

Ash, the second most common tree in Britain, is likely to be completely wiped out right across Europe, according to research just published in Journal of Ecology. The beautiful tree is under twin attack from a disease called ash-dieback, and by an invasive and highly destructive beetle known as the emerald ash borer.

As a result of this double-headed threat, the ash tree—currently a common sight all round the UK, where 2.2 million of them stand in woodlands and within towns and cities, with only oak trees being more common—could become extinct across the continent within a relatively short period of time.

Ash dieback, or Chalara, an Asian disease first seen in Eastern Europe in 1992, currently affects more than 2 million sq km of woodland on continental Europe, and since 2012 there have been confirmed infections in Britain, in the South East, Midlands, Northern England, South Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Dr Keele warns that the blight has the potential to destroy ash trees in the same way that Dutch elm disease devastated elm trees in the 1980s, with 95 per cent of trees at risk of death.

ash die-back
Some cloned ash trees have exhibited resistance to the disease, but that won’t keep them safe from the onslaught of the vandalous  and verdant emerald ash borer. Also originating in the east, this bright green beetle hasn’t quite reached the UK yet, but it is spreading west from Russia at an estimated rate of 41km (25 miles) each year, and recently began doing its dirty work in Sweden.

Mean green killing machine: the emerald ash-borer
Mean green killing machine: the emerald ash-borer

If the recent apocalyptic prediction proves true, it will change the landscape of Britain forever, and the knock-on effects will send a destructive tsunami through the biodiversity of the entire country, with an estimated 1,000 types of flora and fauna being directly associated with ash trees or ash woodland, including 12 species of bird, 55 mammals, 239 invertebrates, over 100 species of lichens and many more fungi and insects.

“Some other trees such as alder, small-leaved lime and rowan can provide homes for some of these species… but if the ash went, the British countryside would never look the same again,”says  Dr Peter Thomas of Keele University, who led the review that resulted in the dire report, told the BBC.

Find out how to spot an ill ash tree, and what to do if you see one, here.

by Pat Kinsella