Tackling ash dieback in Dovedale

Dovedale valley in the Peak District

The steep sided dales of the White Peak are host to some of the most atmospheric and important woods in the country, known as ‘ravine woodland’. Some of these woodlands have been here since the last ice age but ash dieback is already impacting on the health, character and ecosystems of these precious places - such as in the iconic valley of Dovedale. We’ve got a plan in place to promote species other than ash to make sure these inspiring woodlands thrive into the future.

The dales of the White Peak contain some of the most atmospheric and important woodland in the country. Known as ‘ravine woodlands’, the best bits are on the most daunting crags and the steepest slopes; because they’re so inaccessible, they’ve not had much interference by humans or livestock, so they’re some of the few places in Britain we can say are truly wild, existing in much the same state as they have done since the last Ice Age.

Woodlands on the steep valley slopes of Dovedale
Dovedale features important woodlands
Woodlands on the steep valley slopes of Dovedale

These core areas of ancient woodland contain fascinating and unusual tree species like small-leaved lime, which can’t reproduce by seed in this climate and propagates itself by ‘walking’ through the landscape, laying down branches which root into the soil and become the next generation of trees. It exists alongside its even rarer cousin, large-leaved lime, and other uncommon species like rock whitebeam. The lower levels of woodland vegetation are also incredibly species-rich, with colourful displays of wildflowers in spring, while rare lichens and ferns cling to the crags and screes. Birds like spotted flycatchers, wood warblers and willow tits flit amongst the canopy.

The White Peak woodlands are a key component of the Peak District Dales Special Area of Conservation (SAC), a designation which means they are considered to be of European importance; they’re also Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) for their high conservation value.

Around these small, steep, core areas, the woodlands have expanded and contracted throughout human history with changes in agriculture. The bulk of the woodland is ‘secondary woodland’ that has re-colonised bare ground; this is now dominated by ash and isn’t as diverse as the core areas. It’s also now under threat from ash dieback, a fungal disease that has spread from Asia and is likely to affect many of our ash trees over the next few decades – you can already begin to see its impact in our woods.  

We’ve developed a detailed five year plan to begin to manage our woods in response to ash dieback and to ensure they continue to act as thriving ecosystems and beautiful landscape features despite this threat. Our long term vision is for the large areas that are currently dominated by ash to begin to reflect the more diverse core areas, with more locally native species of tree in the canopy, and a better age structure where you’ll be able to find trees at different stages of growth – ensuring the health of the woods into the future.

Oak leaves in September in the garden at Florence Court, Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland

We’ll do this mainly by selectively felling small areas of woodland. Where native species other than ash are already present, we’ll open them up to give them the best chance of reproducing naturally and becoming a greater part of the canopy. Where we’ve only got ash, this work will favour the best specimens and also increase genetic diversity, meaning some trees should have a better chance of resisting dieback or at least resisting it for longer, allowing the woodlands to adapt. Creating some open areas in our woods is also simply good woodland management, mimicking natural conditions and benefiting the many woodland species that need light, open areas in order to thrive – such as the birds mentioned above.

We work to improve the habitats for dormice in the Peak District
We work to improve the habitats for dormice in the Peak District

We’ll improve the woodland infrastructure with new boundary fences in some places to keep livestock out, and nestboxes for dormice and endangered birds like willow and marsh tit.