False Economy: The wood’s in trouble

The Ash fungus is out:  Chalara fraxinea is in several parts of England.  The Government has banned imports and movements of saplings, but it’s too late:  this is just shutting the door after the horse has bolted and is smugly grazing in the next county.

The C. fraxinea crisis could be as dreadful as the outbreak of Dutch Elm disease:  it comes not long after reportings of cases of sudden oak death and the discovery, in Kent, of the lethal Asian longhorn beetle.  To use Housman’s words, ‘the wood’s in trouble’.  Ash is everywhere.  Were we to lose, as Denmark is reported to have done, 90% of our ash trees, our landscape would be unrecognisable.  I am not old enough to know what England was like before the Dutch elm crisis, but Constable’s landscapes – the quintessence of the English countryside – are full of them, and every farmhouse kitchen has an elm-seated chair.  I long to see mature elms.

The Dutch elm crisis has the same features as this potential ash massacre. It was first seen in Europe in 1910. Dutch elm disease is caused by a fungus, Ophiostoma ulmi, spread by elm bark beetles, and also because elm propagates itself by producing suckers from the root – a row of elms, therefore, are the same tree. This fungal disease seems to have been imported from Asia (where most of our really deadly diseases, human and non-human come from) and had largely gone by 1950, having merely decimated our elms. But then, in the late 1960s, a different, far more deadly, member of the elm fungus family was introduced on infected elm logs. The Forestry Commission estimates that nearly 90% of our elm population died over the following decades, and will probably never recover at all. Even the lovely Scottish wych elm, although it regenerates in a different way and is not so favoured by the elm bark beetles, is not immune.

This disaster was entirely man-made, and, worse still, entirely unnecessary (as is the ash disaster). It was caused by the import of elm. Similarly, sudden oak death is disease imported on foreign oaks. Elms, oaks, ash: they were all ten-a-penny in Britain, and there was, and is, absolutely no need to import them dead or alive from anywhere. Well, obviously, we have to import elm now, but let’s take ash. Where I live, ash saplings grow as prolific weeds. If any municipal car park needs ash saplings, they don’t need to buy them from a Dutch nursery – they can have mine for free. (I’m now optimistically going to cultivate them, although I fear it’s futile.) Finally – and too late – the Government has put a ban on live ash imports, but not timber. Why, why, why have we ever imported ash saplings? It’s head-bangingly crazy. But we import oak saplings, too.

Our dire dendro problems are entirely economic. We are so in love with the global economy and having more and more for less and less that we do not consider any consequences other than financial. What’s happening to our trees is, of course, an example of what’s happening to the broader environment. Our problems have come from importing infected wood, alive or dead. The municipal car park mentioned above bought saplings from the Netherlands, where C. fraxinea has been well-established for years. It’s like importing a dog from a rabies-riddled part of the Continent without quarantine. We have plenty of ash here and we have plenty of nurseries. Why import ash? We will probably find that it’s a) because the Dutch do it cheaper, and b) because there’s an EU quota ruling that we import so many things from the Continent in return for exporting so many other things.

Live ash is only part of the problem. In my days as a furniture restoration student, I’d see furniture design students always holding bits of ash. Ash is great for furniture. It’s very bendy (that’s why it was used for barrels and cart wheels), strong, pretty, fairly light, and cheap. But the ash they used was not our native, abundant ash (Fraxinus excelsior), but the American ash, which is not so attractive (the grain is, unsurprisingly, bigger and less subtle). Even a hundred years ago, most of our timber was home-grown. At least, most of the timber from native species was home-grown. Sometime in the early 20th century we embraced modernity, stopped age-old coppicing practices and started imported coals to Newcastle. Since then, it has been ‘uneconomic’ to grow our own hardwood timber. As local trades such as coopering have ceased, owing to the rise of factories churning out plastic or metal substitutes, owners of woods have not bothered nurturing formerly useful trees. Indeed, much woodland nowadays (although things are improving) is militaristic pine plantation.

The resurgence of the old house movement has seen the demand for English oak grow, but there is no demand for native ash timber. This is the real reason why the Government has been too slow to act. There’s no money in it. In order to save other species – for it’s too late for the ash – we must make them economic. Or, better still, we must change our economy.  We must examine our priorities. Is it more important to have a healthy import trade or a healthy ecosystem? Do we really need timber and stone from Asia, or even mainland Europe? And when will we realise that cheapness is a false economy?

Further, distressing, reading:


Post Scripts:  Latest surveys show manifold outbreaks in Kent.  I don’t give our ashes long here in Sussex.  There’s a very good letter in the Guardian (5th Nov) by Donald Barker, the CEO of the Broadleaf Trust.

PS 9th November – I’ve just blogged about plane trees and the EU.

PPS December:  The excellent Tom Heap has done a Costing the Earth episode on this, and Tim Harford has subjected it to statistical rigour:  More or Less.



Filed under Streams of Consciousness

4 responses to “False Economy: The wood’s in trouble

  1. In the end, the money “saved” today will be paid at a far greater price in the future, in many more ways than possibly can be imagined. Excellent article, very well-done. Dolefully been observing similar stories all around the world, a major problem. Very informative and lucid, excellent write.

    Autumn Jade

  2. Pingback: UK bans ash tree imports to stop disease spread | News Watchers

  3. Pingback: Plane speaking | Hawksbox Blog

  4. Pingback: Tree-U | Hawksbox Blog

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