Surrey woodlands fall victim to Ash dieback disease

New guidelines urge woodland owners to review tree safety

Ash dieback was first discovered in the UK in 2012 and the disease is now affecting all counties in southern England.  It is a disease which can cause Ash trees to die prematurely.

Diseased trees are also more susceptible to a secondary infection called honey fungus, which damages root systems. The presence of both Ash dieback and honey fungus increases the risk of Ash trees dying and becoming unstable.

Surrey Wildlife Trust manages 1,500 hectares of woodlands in Surrey. Surveys across these woodlands have identified that extensive areas of Ash trees are infected by the disease. The Trust has removed over 80 dangerous or fallen Ash trees from areas including footpaths and bridleways from 1 April 2017 to 31 March 2018 and is concerned that these numbers will increase.

As the estate is very popular with local people and receives around 1.3 million visitors per year, public safety is a key concern. The Trust has carried out a review of the woodlands in line with updated guidance from the Forestry Commission. The Trust has also considered the National Tree Safety Group’s Ash dieback guidance.

As such the Trust has determined that the selective felling of Ash trees which stand within thirty metres of public and permissive footpaths, bridleways, roads, boundaries of neighbouring properties and other high risk features is the most appropriate action. Ash trees beyond this range, with a lower risk to the public, will be left for nature to take its course.

Appropriate procedures are being followed by the Trust for the protection of wildlife species. Ecological surveys have been carried out on all the areas identified for selective felling to check for the presence of protected species, such as bats, badgers and dormice, to ensure the appropriate mitigation measures are followed.

James Adler, Director of Land Management at Surrey Wildlife Trust, said:

We are devastated that we have to make this decision to fell infected Ash trees.  But this disease is decimating our native Ash woodlands in front of our eyes. Public safety simply has to be our top priority whilst considering the most appropriate response.

Matthew Woodcock, Partnership and Expertise Manager at the Forestry Commission, said:

“Most parts of the country are now experiencing the impacts of ash tree decline, although the speed and severity of the disease is variable at a local level. We encourage all owners of woodland to think strategically about the management of their ash trees and adopt best practice to help reduce the impact of the disease on our landscape."

Matthew Woodcock added:

“We have visited several of the sites in Surrey, including Norbury Park, and can confirm there is a high penetration of ash dieback disease on these sites. Surrey Wildlife Trust has consulted with us and we support its decision to commence felling operations in the interests of visitor safety.”

As part of the felling programme, the Trust is liaising with interested parties such as wildlife groups, local residents, site visitors and parish councillors, as well as other local land managers.

Selective Ash felling will start in November 2018. Due to the scale of the disease in Surrey, there will be a phased approach continuing over a number of years. The Trust will prioritise felling during winter, outside the bird nesting season, to minimise impact on the environment and wildlife. The initial sites include Norbury Park, Sheepleas, Shere Woodlands and Staffhurst Wood.

Surrey Wildlife Trust has instructed specialist contractors to carry out the work. They are experienced at working on sensitive sites. The work will be carried out using a forest harvester which fells the tree and takes the branches off mechanically. Due to the extent of the disease it is too dangerous to use chainsaw operators for this work.

James Adler added:

The sites will look different as the works will alter views from some pathways. But in time the woodlands will regenerate with a range of species including, hopefully, some disease tolerant Ash trees.  There may be some silver linings for wildlife. Opening rides and glades will bring more light to the forest floor, so we may see more butterflies, orchids and other species benefitting.’ 

Matthew Woodcock, Partnership and Expertise Manager at the Forestry Commission, added:

‘’Since Chalara ash dieback was identified in 2012, Government has been working with a huge cross section of stakeholders and has invested more than £37million into tree health research including funding research into the biology and pathology of the disease. Natural tolerance to ash dieback does exist and the UK is leading the way on work to identify resistant trees. This research is giving us a better understanding of the disease and will help us more effectively tackle it in the long-term.’’

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