IT might read like the script for a horror movie, but the plight of our treasured ash trees has never been more serious – and that’s now official.

For a start, there remains no known cure for ash dieback and, eight years after its discovery, hundreds of miles of road and traffic could be in danger from the falling trees. And who knows what could happen then?

There is even a danger in felling them with chainsaws. The latest advice from the industry and government is to use heavy-grade machinery instead.

Now, at least, there is some action. It’s called the Ash Research Strategy, described by the government as “consolidating all the evidence on ash trees and their threats to identify future research needs to protect the species and restore it to our landscape”. 

It added the obvious, that dieback “has the potential to cause significant damages to the UK’s ash”.

But the horror doesn’t end there. The statement also mentions “the threat posed by the emerald ash borer”. It was only a passing mention, but it could hardly be more serious.

As the Woodland Trust reports: “Not yet present in the UK, this wood-boring beetle, native to Asia, has been found in Russia and North America, where it probably arrived in imported wooden packing material. It has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in the United States alone since the 1990s, so its introduction into the UK would cause devastation to ash which is already under threat from ash dieback. It is moving west from Russia at the rate of 25 miles per year.”

It adds: “Emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) is a small, bark-boring insect which causes ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) to die within two to three years of infestation. The increase in the global movement of wood and wood packaging means it poses a significant risk to UK woodlands.”

The emerald ash borer has killed at least tens of millions of ash trees so far and threatens to kill most of the 8.7 bn throughout North America. 

Thankfully, the UK is aware of the threat to its ash population. Staged on the very same day the government announced plans to develop disease-resistant trees was a demonstration of machinery using safe felling techniques, which attracted government bodies, forestry and arb contractors, land-owners, estate managers and forestry consultants.

In tree-covered West Sussex, Allan Marshall – UK and Ireland distributor for Westech’s attachments – and Euroforest’s head of operations for England and Wales, Mark Williams, organised the three-day demonstration showing the safe way to take down the infected trees lining the B2141, which was closed during the demo.

As Mark put it, they “demonstrated to existing and potential clients a mechanised option for the safe removal of ash from the highway’s edge.”
He added: “The latest figures suggest there is around 35 million tonnes of standing ash in the UK with an expected mortality rate of 97 per cent.”

And Allan stressed: “It shows you how much ash there is when in just three days we harvested 150 tonnes, and that was just half a mile of roadside trees.”
He added: “It’s a massive problem and that’s due largely to the way it gets so brittle once the disease hits it.”

But why use machines? Mark explained: “The latest industry guidance is that infected ash shouldn’t be felled by chainsaws or dismantled by tree surgeons due to the brittle nature of the trees following infection and potential secondary infection from honey fungus.”

Allan praised Westech for its technical advantages in design, continually improving its product range for customers, with close attention to detail. He said: “They’ve got a very good product range here. Real leaders.”

On the day, the machines – each with their correct attachments – were: a Liebherr LH26 with Westech attachments CS780 (a grapple saw with oscillating suspended saw unit for tree felling, with a cutting diameter of 750 mm), and C450 (tree-shear-efficient cutting head for harvesting trees and bushes, with a cutting diameter of 500 mm softwood and 450mm hardwood); a Merlo 4030 with Westech attachment CS580 Smart (developed to work on a telehandler which can also be excavator mounted, with oscillating suspended saw unit); and a Hyundai 220 with another Westech attachment C450. All attachments were fitted with continuous rotators.

Allan said: “They’re perfect for the job and a lot of people were very impressed with how quickly and safely we were able to dismantle the trees. Also, we had telephone lines running down the roadside, which we worked over and under.”
The operation was sparked off by Simon Brent, area manager for Fountains Forestry. 

Mark explained: “He’d been carrying out regular surveys in the woodland and decided that once most of the ash trees were showing 50 per cent crown dieback, action needed to be taken to remove those trees in order to reduce the liability for the woodland owner.”

Euroforest got a road closure swiftly set up by the local council, and produce from the harvesting, including all lop and top, was chipped on site and delivered to Kent Renewable Energy.  

In a recent report for the website, Nick Atkinson, a research fellow at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, reported that the UK’s not alone with the dieback problem. He wrote: “Ash dieback has spread ferociously throughout Europe due to airborne spores and trade in ash saplings which have no visual symptoms of the disease.”

He added: “There’s no cure and very few trees show signs of long-term resistance. The environmental impacts of the disease are likely to last a long time and they’ll also carry a shockingly high economic cost. Roughly £10 billion worth of ecosystem services will be lost as ash trees disappear.

He concluded: “That loss will also be felt as less carbon dioxide will be absorbed from the atmosphere and the risk of flooding will increase. Studies have also shown that losing trees from a community is linked to poorer physical and mental health among people who live there. Tackling climate change calls for an enormous effort to plant trees, but ash dieback will rob the UK of using this valuable native species.

“More tree pests and diseases have arrived in the last 40 years than at any time before them. Losing most ash trees will be bad enough but what if the UK loses oak next or birch? The idea of a landscape largely devoid of trees is appalling and the economic costs incalculable.”