What do the trees found growing in Dukes Wood tell us of its history and future? Spring is a good time to consider the growth forms of deciduous trees as leaves do not disguise the shape of branches and trunks. Last week it was possible to identify a good range of different tree species. Many of the largest trees were ash, with several significant oaks, but there were also many elm trees and several field maples, goat willows, wild cherries, alders and elders. Many of the older trees had once been coppiced.
Large coppiced ash, CW, 2/3/2013
This large ash tree has six main stems and was probably last coppiced in the 1960s. We know that traditionally ash was favoured and planted in Dukes Wood and the neighbouring woods to grow hop poles on a coppice cycle of 15-20 years. In Robert Monteath’s book The Forester’s Guide and Profitable Planter of 1824 there is an engraving which shows the growth of ash coppice at 15, 20, 25 and 30 years following coppicing:
Robert Monteath 1824, Plate VII, Coppicing
Coppicing also produced firewood and many useful wooden products. But by the beginning of the twentieth century the markets for most of these products had disappeared. Many of the characters in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887) gained their living from coppice trades. In a new introduction to the novel of 1912 Hardy wrote: ‘in respect of the occupations of the characters, the adoption of iron utensils and implements in agriculture, and the discontinuance of thatched roofs for cottages, have almost extinguished the handicrafts classed formerly as ‘copsework’ and the type of men who engaged in them.’ The final collapse of coppicing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was brought about by the further substitution of wood products by new metal and chemical products and changes in agriculture. Many woods like Dukes Wood became uneconomic and tended to be more important for preserving game than producing income from coppicing. Once abandoned the growth of large stems from old coppice stools often makes them unstable, and eventually some or all of the stems are likely to collapse. One way to encourage the longevity of such stools is to re-coppice them, and this has become a standard nature conservation practice. Moreover recently the market for ash firewood has become more buoyant than for many years.
Young ash natural regeneration, CW 2/3/13
There is also an enormous number of young ash trees naturally regenerating throughout Dukes Wood. Ash trees produce many ‘ash keys’ in the summer, and these germinate and grow easily in the clay soils here. The ability for ash trees to regenerate freely, the increase in the demand for firewood and the potential for growing high quality ash timber meant that the future for ash silviculture was very optimistic until very recently. However, with the identification of ash die back disease (Chalara fraxinea) for the first time in the UK in the summer of 2012, the future of the tree is a matter of some trepidation. The disease was first noticed in Poland in 1992 and it spread rapidly. The Forestry Commission note that it ‘is believed to have entered Great Britain on plants for planting imported from nurseries in Continental Europe.’ But now that they have ‘found infected older trees in East Anglia, Kent and Essex with no apparent connection with plants supplied by nurseries’ they also think it might have ‘entered Britain by natural means. These include being carried on the wind or on birds coming across the North Sea and English Channel, or on items such as footwear, clothing or vehicles of people who had been in infected sites in Continental Europe.’ A complete history of spread of this disease and its identification, with a distribution map is at http://www.forestry.gov.uk/chalara
Confirmed infection sites, Chalara fraxinea 4/3/13 Forestry Commission
The map shows that Nottinghamshire has so far been little affected by the disease. The red dots show areas where infection has been confirmed in the wider environment while the orange ones show where the disease has affected young, probably imported trees in new plantations. No one knows how the spread of the disease will develop later in 2013, but taking into account what has happened in other countries, it is highly likely that the spread of Chalara fraxinea will be rapid and affect many trees. But there is some hope as the Forestry Commission considers that ‘not all trees die of the infection, and some are likely to have genetic resistance.’
Elm trees are frequent in Dukes Wood today; most are fairly young, around 20-30 years of age, and many appear in rude health. But these trees are also subject to a virulent disease. Those growing today have sprung up since the arrival of Dutch Elm Disease in Nottinghamshire in the early 1970s. By the late 1970s almost all elm trees, whether in hedgerows or woods, or whether the English Elm (Ulmus procera) or the Wych elm (Ulmus glabra) were dead or dying. But since that time many elm trees have regrown, as at Dukes Wood.
Healthy elm trees, CW, 2/3/13
The disease has by no means disappeared however: it tends to reappear once the new generation of elm trees has become large enough to support the breeding of the beetles which carry the disease. This is what is now happening at Dukes Wood. A fair number of the new generation of elm trees are dead or dying and there is clear evidence of the tunnels bored by elm beetles in bark which has fallen away from the trees.
Dead elm with characteristic bark loss; bark, CW 2/3/13
The recent history of two of the principal tree species in Dukes wood emphasises the complex relationship between humans and trees. People select and plant trees for particular markets and shape the form of individual trees through management but they also help spread virulent tree diseases. Clive Brasier has pointed out that ‘woodlands and landscapes in the UK and across the world are suffering from pathogens introduced by human activities’ and there is little that can be done to stop this spread. The death of most ash trees in Dukes Wood would bring about significant changes in the short term, but in the longer term it would provide space for other species such as alder, birch, field maple and oak to regenerate.
School of Geography, University of Nottingham, 11 March 2013
 Clive Brasier (2008) The biosecurity threat to the UK and global environment from international trade in plants, Plant Pathology, 57, 792–808