Ash dieback gives us ‘no alternative’ to removing dying trees

A devastating disease that could wipe out thousands of trees throughout the city is forcing us to remove them for safety reasons before they collapse or fall down.

Although many of the trees we’re removing look healthy, and some residents are concerned by the works, they are mainly riddled with the fungal infection Ash dieback (ADB) and could cause serious damage to people and property if left alone.

The disease is not only affecting ash trees in Brighton & Hove, it’s also killing the species throughout the country, with the worst affected areas being here in the south east of England.

Although the council has relatively few ash trees within more urban areas, around 20 per cent of all woodland trees owned by the council is ash.

With an estimated 75 – 80 per cent of ash trees throughout the country expected to die within the next five to 10 years, we must accept that our woodlands will look very different as a result.

Communities to be involved in regeneration

To carry out tree removal on this scale, the council must apply to the government’s Forestry Commission for a special Felling License, which must also include plans for the restocking, regeneration or improvements to each site before the commission will agree.

Although the extent of tree removal is extremely worrying, the council’s tree experts will use this as an opportunity to develop areas with a wider range of species and habitat diversity to cope with diseases.

They also believe it presents a positive opportunity for communities to support and influence the regeneration of the woodlands that have been affected by Ash dieback.

Having never faced a situation like this before, we are working with specialists in many areas to ensure everything is taken into consideration before works are carried out.

This includes working closely on-site with expert ecologists to minimise any potential disturbance to protected species like nesting birds and bats.

It also includes deciding when the works should be carried out, the possible disruption to local communities, access issues, and public and private travel concerns.

However, the safety of the public is our main concern and is and must be at the forefront of deciding when works begin.

Ash dieback is impossible to contain

Although we’re also seeing a rise in Elm disease, this infection can be controlled as long as we continue to find infected trees and deal with them in time, although this still results in annual elm tree loses.

Unfortunately, Ash dieback is impossible to contain and we have already been forced to take action as it spreads throughout the city. 

The symptoms first become visible during early June when the leaves are first emerging. These show themselves as wilting, and dark discoloration on the leaves with elongated lesions developing on the smaller branches.

Eventually the whole crown will become infected with a characteristic ‘crown die-back’ developing over the next few years.

The disease spreads via spores caught in the wind from tiny mushrooms born from the main leaf stalk and has the ability to spread over a ten miles radius within one year. Over longer distances the risk of disease spread is most likely to be through the movement of diseased ash plants and foliage.

National concern to a national disease

With the government estimating there are 125 million ash trees in woodlands and between 27-60 million ash trees outside of woodlands in the UK, plus potentially two billion saplings and seedlings in woodlands and non-woodland situations, many of Britain’s leading organisations are also deeply concerned.

On its website, the Forestry Commission states: “If we are to avoid a large-scale deterioration and loss of tree cover in ash dominated woodlands we need to take action, (with) safety works carried out on a scale not seen since the catastrophic outbreak of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.”

The National Trust also highlights the problems on its website: “Historic trees and woodland which provided inspiration for the likes of Beatrix Potter and John Constable face extinction due to a surge in Ash dieback driven in part by the climate crisis.”

The Woodland Trust highlights its concerns, also on its website: “The disease, caused by the fungus ‘Hymenoscyphus fraxineus’, presents a major threat to the UK’s treescape. It is likely to wipe out at least 80 per cent of our ash trees, impacting on both people and wildlife.” 

Minimising impact on natural habitats

Councillor Amy Heley, chair of the council’s environment, transport & sustainability committee, said: “Sadly we have no alternative but to remove a very large number of our ash trees, starting with the ones within striking distance of roads, footpaths and property to ensure public safety.

“We know it will mean a great deal of distress and upset for our residents, but our tree experts, along with other specialists, will try to ensure the effects are kept to an absolute minimum, especially when it comes to the natural habitats of our wildlife.”

Some ash trees are tolerant or resistant to ADB and will be retained where possible to help re-stock our woodlands with native ash trees.

Tree tops will be left on site mostly as a means to feed nutrients back into the cycle within woodland settings and to avoid suppressing ground flora with layers of wood chip. It is also extremely costly to remove felled trees from woodland.

Although this will often result in untidy looking sites, there are benefits in the longer term.

Please be careful in woodland areas

Until ash removal works have been completed within our woodlands, we’re reminding the public, and volunteer and community groups, to be extra careful when in these areas, especially during windy days, due to the potential risk of falling trees and deadwood.

Unfortunately, we will not be issuing any new licenses for Forest Schools until works are completed.

The first two sites we have started are Coney Hill Woods, next to Mill Road near Waterhall, and Coldean Lane.

We are also recruiting a new member of staff who will be dedicated to managing ADB across the city over the coming years.

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