Protecting Warwickshire’s Woodlands

PUBLISHED: 16:34 22 November 2013 | UPDATED: 10:31 25 November 2013

Oversley Wood - © John Clift 2012. Reproduced with permission.

Oversley Wood - © John Clift 2012. Reproduced with permission.

Archant

Warwickshire’s woodlands are important recreational spaces and sources of biodiversity, but they are threatened by lack of funding, invasive species and disease.

Himalayan Balsam © scyrene 2012, via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licenceHimalayan Balsam © scyrene 2012, via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

I love walking in the woods at any time of year but autumn walks are my favourite. There are few things more liberating than pulling on your hat, scarf and wellies and stomping through fallen leaves!

Living in Warwickshire, we are lucky to be surrounded by beautiful woodlands and countryside. Evidence is mounting to suggest that people who have regular access to green spaces, even small parks in urban areas, have a better quality of life than those who do not.

Our woodlands and countryside are also home to an incredible wealth of biodiversity. Native animals, plants and fungi are all important in maintaining the ecosystems that surround us, not to mention that they are beautiful and fascinating in their own rights.

Ash dieback - Image courtesy of The Food and Environment Research Agency, Crown CopyrightAsh dieback - Image courtesy of The Food and Environment Research Agency, Crown Copyright

Further benefits of trees, if left planted rather than uprooted for timber, are summed up rather nicely in this infographic on the Annals of Botany blog. Yet despite all this, our woodlands are at risk.

Woodlands are expensive to maintain and many swathes of forest have been handed over to organisations such as the National Trust, who rely on public donations or entry fees to keep them running, or to private owners who may restrict public access, or are sold for alternative land uses.

One Warwickshire landowner who has dedicated time and money to restoring some of our lost wooded areas is publishing tycoon Felix Dennis. Last month, in collaboration with the Heart of England Forest Charity, Mr Dennis planted his one-millionth tree in Great Alne, just up the road from my hometown of Alcester.

Another threat to our native woodlands is invasion by non-native species and diseases.

I work at the University of Warwick, where we are lucky to have a beautiful bluebell wood that is a Site of Specific Scientific Interest. Over the summer, a group of volunteers worked hard to try and rid the woods of a pretty, but invasive pink flower called Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera).

Originally imported as an ornamental plant, Himalayan Balsam has spread beyond our garden walls and into woodlands, particularly near rivers or streams.

Because it is not native to our country, its growth is not kept in check by organisms that may eat it, or by other plants that may surround it. Coupled with the fact that a single plant can produce up to 800 seeds, this means that large areas of three or four metre-tall plants can be found in many areas of our countryside, blocking the light and taking up space and nutrients to the detriment of our native species.

Another example of an invasion is Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, also known as Chalara fraxinea. This is a fungus that has spread from Poland across much of Western Europe, infecting ash trees with a disease called ash dieback. It arrived in Britain in 2012 and has been steadily working its way across the country. As of this week’s updated figures, 609 sites around the country are now affected, including newly planted woods and more established areas such as the Midlands’ National Forest.

Ash dieback causes parts of the ash tree to die, and ultimately kills the whole tree. There are approximately 80 million ash trees in the UK, so losing them to this disease could have dramatic effects on our landscape, not to mention disruption to the balance of food chains and habitats for insects and birds.

Thankfully, apart from a few isolated incidences found in nurseries on trees imported from abroad, the ash trees of Warwickshire’s woodlands have managed to avoid ash dieback. However, without an effective way of stopping the spread of the fungal spores, or a treatment for the disease, experts predict that it is virtually unstoppable.

To try and find a way to limit the impact of ash dieback, scientists around the country are pooling resources via an open access website called OpenAshDieback. By sharing scientific data and encouraging open collaboration, they hope to understand more about the disease and how it causes infection. They also wish to understand why there are a few trees that have so far resisted infection.

Members of the public can get involved by reporting sightings of the fungus and/or diseased trees. A handy identification video and guide can be found on the Forestry Commission website.

Alternatively, you don’t even need to leave your computer to join in the research effort. Scientists have developed a Facebook game called Fraxinus; it’s been likened to Candy Crush, but in rearranging the patterns of coloured ‘blobs’ players are actually contributing analysis of the genetic make-up of the Chalara fungus and the ash tree.

With the UK Government’s announcement this week that along with Norway and the US it is committed to protecting the world’s forests, let’s hope our ministers don’t forget the importance of our little woodlands here at home.

Lisa Martin

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