More than 90 percent of our 70m ash trees are set to be obliterated in the next few of years by dieback disease
Brexit is currently graphically demonstrating the Law of Unintended Consequences but while our relationship with the rest of Europe dominates the headlines, we are also quietly sleepwalking into another scenario that has potentially far more dire unforeseen repercussions for the country.
Experts have warned that the UK is facing an "Ash Armageddon", and predict that 90% of our 70 million ash trees are set to be obliterated in the next few of years by dieback disease. This will not only irreparably change some of our most treasured landscapes but could seriously alter the natural status quo of the British countryside. According to Natural England, there are 1,058 different species, from bats to beetles, lichens to mammals that are dependent in some way on the humble ash.
The fungus Chlorencoelia versiformis, which is already endangered, is one of them. We have no way of knowing what the knock-on effect the loss of this seemingly insignificant ochre-coloured mushroom may have on the wider natural world. Perhaps none, but more likely, it forms a subtle but vital link in our chain of interconnected environments. What we definitely know is that the ash is the UK's third most common tree so its almost total loss will change rural vistas forever. This is not an idle claim. When Dutch elm disease came to the UK in the 1960s, it wiped out our population of 30m elm trees, which has never recovered.
A new exhibition
To draw attention to the plight of the ash, an exhibition celebrating the tree by 11 nationally-known artists and photographers will be held at the Springhead Trust in Dorset from 10-15 October. The rural centre for creative and sustainable living was established by the family of acclaimed conductor John Eliot Gardiner whose father was a founding member of the Soil Association. The show is a central plank of the AshScape Project, the brainchild of photographer and author Edward Parker, and highlights the tree's importance to civilisation over the millennia.
In British folklore, ash was credited with protective and healing properties, for example ash sap (manna) was given to newborn babies. Today, extracts from ash trees have been shown to have positive affects in the treatment of a number of conditions including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and HIV. Because of its strength and impact-absorbing qualities, for more than 4,000 years ash was the main wood used in weapon and tool handles.
Parker, who specialises in tree portraiture, says: "The disappearance of so many trees will have a major impact on the local landscape. Along with the exhibition and lectures, AshScape will include the creation of a micro tree nursery for nurturing known resistant strains of ash trees to help repopulate woodlands and hedgerows. Our project is designed to operate as a pilot that can be replicated in other counties."
Parker has spent 25 years turning his lens on arboreal beauty, with his stunning images published in more than thirty books including many for The National Trust. Years of studying the tree have given him the skill to capture the ash trees' distinctive lattice of twisted branches to best effect and some of his most atmospheric shots will be on display within the exhibition.
Also on show will be the collaboration of Emma Buckmaster and Janet French, members of the highly respected Arborialist group, who produce delicate etchings of trees printed on paper made from the trees' foliage. Emma and Janet reveal their process: "The leaves are collected and after slowly soaking and boiling them, delicate sheets of paper are created using only the natural constituents of the leaves to bind them together. Whilst the paper is still damp the etched image is printed on to the leaves from a steel plate using a traditional etching press."
Another Aborialist and printmaker is Howard Phipps RWA, a frequent exhibitor at Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions, will also appear at Springhead. Phipps has a particular interest in landscape, especially the downs of Wiltshire and Dorset, with their deep coombes and tree clumps. The prolific artist draws directly from observation to capture a recognisable atmosphere and sense of place and his works reflect this close study of nature.
Plein air painting is close to my heart too, and my work for the exhibition concentrates on the restful downs at risk just half a mile north of the Springhead HQ, with a watercolour montage that highlights the 1,058 associated species under threat from ash tree's decline.
Hampshire-based woodworker Nick Barberton will be exhibiting tactile ash panels and vessels that are precisely faceted with sharp-edged yet beautifully curved patterns and painter and printmaker Liz Somerville's piece focuses on landscape and the forms and structures found within it. She says: "Walking forms a major part of my work and life. I do most of it in winter, a perfect time to see a landscape, really see it; it's bare bones, hard contours, un-obscured structures and un-adorned trees. Once back in the studio I draw what I've seen, using sketches, photos and memory."
The AshScape Project aims to highlight how we need to develop strategies to lessen the impact of this looming crisis and prepare for the possible unintentional consequences of ash dieback. Lets hope that the 1,058 species don't become collateral damage.
Gary Cook is a conservation artist and the Ecologist's Arts Editor. He tweets at @cookthepainter.