Ash Dieback on the Isle of Wight

A healthy tree

Along with many other organisations, we're concerned about ash dieback, a fungal disease that's affecting many woodlands across the country. We're doing all we can to manage the disease on the Isle of Wight.

There are an estimated 80 million ash trees in the UK, helping to shape some of our best loved landscapes. They make up a third of our entire tree population. It's thought that over 90% of these trees will be lost to the disease, having a devastating impact on the countryside and biodiversity of our woodlands. 

Ash dieback on the Isle of Wight


On the Isle of Wight we care for hundreds of hectares of woodland. Ash trees are a common feature in these woods as well as in the wider landscape. Sadly ash dieback is now present in all the woodlands we manage on the Island.

Young buzzard perched in an ash tree
Young buzzard perched in an ash tree
Young buzzard perched in an ash tree

What is ash dieback?


Ash dieback, Chalara or Chalara dieback is a disease that affects ash trees and is caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. The disease originated in Asia and its spread attributed to the movement of plants as part of the global trade. The fungus spreads quickly as its spores are wind-borne. 

Symptoms


Ash dieback can affect ash trees of all ages, although younger trees succumb to the disease much quicker. As the name suggests, the disease causes ash trees to slowly die, drop limbs or branches, collapse or fall.

Signs of the disease include;

  • Leaves developing dark patches in the summer. They then wilt, turn black and begin to fall to the ground
  • Dark brown lesions develop where branches meet the trunk
  • Shoots, especially those on the crown dieback during the summer
  • Once a tree is infected the disease is usually fatal. There is no cure, but some trees are less susceptible than others.
Ash tree flower
Ash tree flower
Ash tree flower

Our response


Over the spring and summer, the ranger team assessed and monitored the health of the ash trees on land that we manage. As a result of these surveys, we have identified a large number of trees across the portfolio that pose a risk to public safety and unfortunately are now in urgent need of felling.

Tree felling as a result of ash dieback
Tree felling as a result of ash dieback
Tree felling as a result of ash dieback

Not all affected ash trees will be felled. Wherever it's safe to do so, we'll be leaving both standing and fallen deadwood so that wildlife can benefit. The felling will only take place before the tree has suffered 50% die back in the canopy, and in high risk zones where infected trees pose a risk to public safety. This includes those that are along public highways, rights of way, well used paths, permissive routes and near residential areas and car parks. The work will be done in the winter by specialist contractors with equipment that will get the job done as efficiently as possible to cause minimum disruption. The plan is to start in February 2022 provided all permissions are in place but we’re not able to issue specific dates at this stage. There will be more information on at our places, through our social media and on this website page nearer the time.

Restricted access and diversions

There may be temporary road closures and restricted access along some routes and pathways during these essential works. Where this is the case, we'll ensure that temporary diversions are in place to keep residents, contractors and visitors safe. We'll keep the disruption to a minimum. Where the felling is next to public footpaths and bridleways (the north side of Tennyson Down and the bridleway from Cowleaze to Luccombe Down), we have applied to the Isle of Wight Council for these public rights of way to be closed for the duration of the work for safety reasons and where possible a path diversion will be arranged. These closures are likely to last just over a week each.

The works in detail

  • At the Tennyson Down site trees will be felled in a strip up to 35 metres wide to ensure the public right of way, footpath T24 from High Down pit car park to Moons Hill quarry, is safe to use afterwards. The footpath will be closed for a week from the 21 February. Large machinery will be used to enable efficient processing of timber in just a few days. In places a level track will be excavated for safe passage of machinery. Some sycamore will be felled as well and after felling we will be reverting the area (approx. 2 ha) to open chalk grassland habitats by scraping off some areas to bring the chalk nearer the surface and give rare chalk grassland plants a better chance of becoming established. This is one way of turning round the loss of ash trees to become a nature conservation opportunity, albeit a different habitat, however it is one for which the SSSI is notified. Cord wood will be stacked near to the path and extracted at a later date when ground conditions allow.
  • Bridleway SS9a from Cowleaze to Luccombe Down, from the 7 February, will be closed for up to 5 days while felling is taking place. The tree felling will be done by a tracked machine positioned in the field to the south of the Bridleway. The machine will have sufficient reach to fell and process the timber without having to drive in the bridleway itself. 
  • Where the felling is adjacent to a public highway (Luccombe Copse and Walters Copse Newtown), our contractor is applying for official traffic management measures. The A3055  between Ventnor and Shanklin at Luccombe Copse will be closed for a week from the 14 February with diversions in place. The contractor’s method statements mean that they need the whole width of the highway to safely and efficiently position machinery and process the timber. Access for residents affected by the closures will be via the diversions.
  • The road at Newtown will have traffic management (traffic lights or stop / go boards) in place while felling is taking place.In Luccombe Copse a temporary track way will be excavated on the steeper slopes to allow safe passage of machinery. After the felling the ground will be reinstated and we will be encouraging the natural regeneration of woodland.
  • Other smaller areas of felling in Ventnor and at St Helens will just have traffic management in place for the time when felling is taking place.
Ash Dieback felling Cowleaze to Luccombe Down
Map showing Ash Dieback works at Luccombe
Ash Dieback felling Cowleaze to Luccombe Down
As Dieback work at Tennyson Down
Map showing Ash Dieback works at Tennyson Down
As Dieback work at Tennyson Down
Proposed ash dieback felling Bonchurch Road
Map of proposed ash dieback felling near Bonchurch Road
Proposed ash dieback felling Bonchurch Road
Map of proposed ash dieback felling at Newtown
Map of proposed ash dieback felling
Map of proposed ash dieback felling at Newtown

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Ranger working in Borthwood Copse
Ranger working in Borthwood Copse
Ranger working in Borthwood Copse

Woodland recovery


Despite the tragic loss of trees, we'll be seizing the opportunity to increase the biodiversity in areas hardest hit. Where we've removed dying ash trees, we'll leave most areas to naturally regenerate as woodland or in some cases using the clearance as an opportunity to restore rare chalk grassland where the soil type is suitable.

Regenerating woodland vegetation at Borthwood Isle of Wight
Regenerating woodland vegetation at Borthwood Copse
Regenerating woodland vegetation at Borthwood Isle of Wight

Our long-term aim is to improve the resilience of the woodlands against threats such as climate change and disease. By increasing species diversity alongside improving the natural age structure of the woodlands we can help their long-term survival.

Our work on Tennyson Down

On the Isle of Wight we care for some of the best areas of open chalk grassland in the country, such as Tennyson Down. Chalk grassland is one of the richest habitats in Western Europe, supporting a huge diversity of wildlife including wildflowers, insects, mammals and birds. Many of these species are unable to live anywhere else. Sadly though, it is also one of the rarest; since the Second World War we have lost around 80% of these grasslands in Britain. 

On Tennyson Down our countryside team has been working on the first stage of a conservation project that will turn the loss of ash trees through Ash Dieback disease into a nature conservation opportunity. It will see the restoration of a large area of chalk downland and the return of rare plants, butterflies and birdlife. It will also help combat climate change as carbon is stored in the soil.

The helpful signpost shows the way to the monument on top of Tennyson Down
A signpost on Headon Warren points towards the Tennyson Monument
The helpful signpost shows the way to the monument on top of Tennyson Down

The landscape many people are familiar with today is a relatively new one, which has developed since the 1920s when grazing ceased. Since the end of the Ice Age it has mostly been an open chalk downland with scattered scrub. They’ll see a dramatic change, as the majority of trees have been felled in response to Ash Dieback. The primary reason for this is safety, where trees are adjacent to the bridleway and private property. Many trees don’t look very infected but it progresses quickly. For a nature conservation organisation like the National Trust it is a painful thing to have to do.

Restoring Tennyson Down's rare chalk grassland

The secondary outcome of the felling is to take the opportunity to restore some more of the species rich chalk grassland. This is why the down has SSSI status (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and why we have felled sycamore. Secondary woodland with a ground cover of ivy, gooseberry and privet does have its place, but it has limited value for wildlife. The soil is still relatively thin on the slope and there are likely to be chalk grassland seeds in the seed bank. Most of the stumps will be ground down to prepare the ground for the best chance of colonising chalk grassland flowers and grasses over the next 10 years. It is quite likely that taller plants, bramble and privet will grow first. However, with cattle grazing and follow-up tractor cutting, the less competitive chalk grassland plants will gradually re-establish. 

There are some more ash trees adjacent to the footpath going east that we will fell next winter, but these will be done by hand, not big machinery. At the west end of the clear-felled strip we will clear a block of trees to connect this strip with the chalk grassland on top of the down. Connecting the cleared areas allows the chalk grassland seeds to spread. This has worked well at the Moons Hill end where we connected Moons Hill with the top a few years ago.

The bridleway and path had to be re-profiled to allow the machinery to gain access. The re-grading that was done as the machines left the site has created a much better surface to the public right of way. In years to come the adjacent banks will be covered with primroses, orchids, violets, butterflies and many other insects.

All the work we have done has been undertaken with the necessary consents from Forestry England, Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Council.

 

This Historic England aerial photograph shows how Tennyson Down looked in 1920

How is the land going to be restored following the works?

The ground will take time to establish, but it’s better to let that happen naturally than re-seed; it is very hard to find enough native seed of local provenance. There is plenty of native seed close by and grazing cattle will help it to spread. This restoration will provide more joined up grassland habitat, and when established, it will be a beautiful landscape full of wildlife, including many rare and threatened chalk grassland flowers, butterflies and other insects.

Will the removal of the trees cause soil erosion?

The chalk soils on Tennyson Down are highly porous and rainwater soon soaks in, so soil loss is much less risky here that on sand or clay. Once grassland is established it helps to retain rainwater and prevent runoff. The north slope of the Down is in the lee of the prevailing winds which further reduces the risks.

Will the chalk grassland be as good for the planet as trees?

Established grassland is a highly efficient store for carbon, and where chalk grassland is much rarer than secondary woodland with an ivy and privet understorey, we believe it is the right decision to favour chalk grassland restoration in this instance.

What will Tennyson Down look like in the future?

In ten years time Tennyson Down will have a mixture of flower and butterfly-rich grassland, scattered scrub with breeding birds, and secondary woodland with a range of woodland birds like mistle thrush, song thrush and great spotted woodpecker. Although the work we have done here is a big change, we strongly believe that we are helping Tennyson Down to become more species-rich and beautiful place, as it has been for hundreds of years.