Originally published Spring 2021, by Bob Tanner, Arundel Town Council’s Tree Warden
FOR those of us of a certain age it is sad to realise that anyone under about fifty is very unlikely to have seen mature English Elm trees which once dominated the rural landscape. These tall trees lined farm tracks and hedgerows or stood sentinel on roundabouts and were once the most common tree in the countryside. Dutch Elm Disease caused their demise after it was accidentally imported into the UK in the late 1960s. It spread quickly, reaching Scotland in just 10 years thanks to a small, bark-boring beetle that carried the pathogen. Attempts were made to protect vulnerable trees and the centre of Brighton had notable success with a few elderly trees remaining. Over the last few decades, new strains of Elm have been planted throughout Brighton and Hove which now boasts the National Elm Collection but attempts to combat the plague were mostly in vain and English Elm trees are no more. The Elm Tree Stores in Eastergate had to be renamed and wooden coffins are now made of something else.
Now there is another sylvan scourge throughout the land, already devastating the much-loved Ash trees that we have taken for granted. The name Ash Die-Back Disease clearly describes the symptoms as infected trees slowly succumb to the wind-borne virus which is thought to have already infected every ash tree in West Sussex. There is no cure or preventive treatment possible.
Photo: English Elm Tree, Wikipedia
It is generally accepted that the ADB pathogen will lead to the eventual loss of 80% of all ash in the UK at a cost of around £15bn. In 2020 the National Trust lost 40,000 trees to die-back, with the eventual loss of 75-90% expected over the next 20-30 years.
Peter Knight, the Norfolk Estate Manager, has said that essential felling of diseased trees will cause such catastrophic effects to the local landscape that it will be worse than The Great Storm of October 1987. You could probably add the loss of English Elms in the ‘60s and not reach the likely total loss of what became England’s most common tree.
Ash trees have been used for generations to make countless everyday articles, as well as in building and construction. They also produce the finest logs for burning. Ash trees not only enhance the landscape they are an important commercial crop too.
In December 2019 West Sussex County Council published its Ash Die-back Action Plan which is a substantial and informative reference document. It draws on the enormous amount of information available elsewhere including the Tree Council’s ADB Toolkit and several Governmental advisories covering, amongst other things, the availability of grants.
The County Council, as the Highways Authority, is only responsible for trees on its own property, including adopted highway verges and schools. In almost all cases, trees that are next to roads and public rights of way, such as footpaths and bridleways, are the responsibility of the neighbouring landowner. Where a tree on private land poses a danger to the highway users, the CC may contact the landowner and explain what work needs to be done and by when it should be completed. The tree owner is responsible for the cost of this work and the CC may do the work in default, at the owner’s expense.
It follows that all tree owners face sometimes significant costs in dealing with ADB on their land. Those costs include tree removal and replanting, wherever possible. The Plan states “In order to recover we will need to ensure that as a minimum we aim to replace the trees we lose where appropriate, but where funding can be identified we must seek to improve areas, replace trees with species which provide similar ecological benefits, or identify alternatives which improve the biodiversity of each area.”
These are bold words but they beg the questions – If funding is not available will lost trees be replaced – and inevitably the answer must be no in many cases. If replacement is not appropriate then trees will not be replaced, but who decides?
It should be remembered that, whilst all ash trees in the county are likely to have been infected, they will not show symptoms at the same time but owners should not wait until a tree is clearly dead before it is removed, particularly where there is a risk to the general public.
Photo: New Planting in Mill Road
The widespread removal of all ash trees has been underway locally for some time. The Norfolk Estate has removed trees from London Road, Ford Road and many other places and the Angmering Park estate has done the same, including trees around the Priory Road allotment site.
There are several notable Ash trees in Arundel, other than in private gardens, and the group of three siblings – fused together- in Crown Yard is amongst the best. Another elderly Ash is growing in the roadway just over the Mill Road bridge and a small copse is on private land in Dalloway Road. The time will come when they are all gone and many others too.
No tree lasts forever but it would take decades for the countryside to self-restore as so many trees are being lost prematurely. Different tree species will gradually replace the lost Ash and Sycamore, Birch, Field Maple and Hawthorn will be the first.
Human intervention is essential to accelerate the process and to seize the opportunity to manage re- afforestation, taking into account the wider issues of flora and fauna.
Planting even a single tree has benefits for people, wildlife and the environment and these benefits vastly increase when planting a whole woodland. The Woodland Trust (See www.woodlandtrust.org.uk) is there to help this very worthwhile process. For example, where 500+ trees are planted as woodland on at least half a hectare, the Trust can help with the design, create a bespoke species mix, supply the chosen trees and tree protection and cover up to 75% of costs.
The general public’s love of trees and its desire to see more tree planting has recently been in evidence in Arundel when an invitation to sponsor new Lime trees along Mill Road was met with an instant response. Within forty- eight hours, the need for over thirty trees was met as residents agreed to sponsor a tree with many doing so in memory of a loved one. The young trees were bought from a West Sussex nursery and planted by the Duke of Norfolk’s team in December. Small Leaved Lime trees (Tilia cordata) were chosen this time in preference to the existing Common Lime (Tilia europaea) as they do not have the annual basal growths that have to be removed and neither do they attract countless greenfly which cause sticky sap to drip beneath.
The original Mill Road Lime Tree avenues were planted by Duke Henry in the late 1890’s when the new road was constructed. These trees have had an interesting life including having messages cut into them by Canadian troops billeted nearby just before they left for Normandy in 1944. Many trees were lost in the 1987 hurricane mentioned above and not all were replaced. Others have since succumbed to extreme weather conditions such as prolonged flooding in recent winters while some have simply died of old age.
Arundel’s historian Mark Phillips has revealed that when the original Common Lime trees were planted, Alder trees were also planted between each lime so as to encourage them to grow tall as they competed for light. Those alder, long since removed, would also have provided some protection for the young trees. That ploy has certainly worked as the Lime trees are now very tall and straight when compared with others of a similar age in the town, in London Road and at the entrance to St Nicholas’s church for example.
Children at our two local schools have also taken part in efforts to preserve our unique double avenue of Lime trees, much loved by residents and visitors. Arundel’s Garden Association funded the purchase of two dozen Lime saplings last winter which were planted in the schools’ grounds by the children themselves. Each tree carries the name, or names, of the child or children who planted it and each school maintains a register of those individuals. Those children therefore have taken possession of “their tree” and when the trees have grown sufficiently and more replacements are required along Mill Road they will be transferred there. The children will be able to follow their trees into mutual adulthood, thus helping to ensure the future of the beautiful avenues and, incidentally, at a much lower cost.
The response to the tree sponsorship invitation has encouraged the Town Council, jointly with the Arundel Gardens Association, to open the Arundel Tree Fund to attract funding for future tree-related activities in the town. And there is no doubt that much more work will be necessary as new threats to our trees arrive with increasing frequency. As I write this article I have received the following notification from the West Sussex County Arboriculturist:-
“England’s Forestry Commission has warned that a pathogenic fungus affecting beech trees in central Europe may have found its way into the UK.”
Oh dear, here we go again!