Ash dieback in the Surrey Hills

Image of path line with trees to onside at Limpsfield Common

Ash dieback disease is now present in most areas of England and Wales and many National Trust properties. In the Surrey Hills, we care for 5000 hectares of woodland from Frensham Little Pond and Hindhead Commons and Devil’s Punch Bowl to the west and Holmwood Commons and Box Hill in the east. Unfortunately, our properties are no exception to the problem.

Ash dieback is fatal and infected trees are prone to failing at the base or to dropping limbs from the crown. Being an airborne disease, we can’t prevent its spread or treat affected trees. Therefore, we need to take appropriate action to protect visitors and the wider public using access routes near our sites. This will involve felling trees across the region. During the period, some footpaths and roads may be closed to ensure public safety and that of our staff and contractors.

Ash dieback and the subsequent loss of trees will have a significant impact on wooded habitats, important landscapes, and heritage assets. We hope that other tree species will take advantage of the light created by the felled trees and repopulate these areas. Where possible, we will adapt our management to protect and conserve the wildlife and landscape qualities provided by ash trees. We do this by considering the wider landscape, its biodiversity, and the needs of particular habitats and species.

What is ash dieback?

Ash dieback (sometimes called Chalara or Chalara dieback) is a disease of ash trees caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. The fungus was previously called Chalara fraxinea. It causes leaf loss, crown dieback and bark lesions in affected trees. Once a tree is infected the disease is usually fatal, either directly, or indirectly by weakening the tree to the point where it succumbs more readily to attacks by other pests or pathogens.

Do you need to work on all the ash trees?

We only carry out safety work on trees that could genuinely affect people if they failed (i.e. they are near what we call a ‘usage zone’), and which have a defect which leads us to believe they could fail. Away from usage zones, however, we don’t need to act for safety reasons and will leave ash standing to find out which specimens display tolerance to the disease – these trees will then be able to reproduce. There are a small number of woodland management projects where we are felling ash away from usage zones, but these are designed to improve the ecological condition of ashwoods in light of dieback.

When and where will the tree felling be taking place?

Autumn and winter is the best time of year for felling as this has the lowest impact of local wildlife. We wouldn’t start felling during nesting season for example. Every tree has a wildlife impact assessment before any work is started. If a bird is building a nest, the felling will be put on hold unless there is an urgent need to remove it.

From 25 Jan 2022, work will be starting at Holmwood Common for approximately six weeks. 

Will the works interfere with my visit?

It may be necessary to temporarily divert footpaths or close off small areas where works are taking place. This should be for no more than a couple of days.

Our tree surgery contractor will use specialist mechanical equipment to remove trees safely and there may be some noise.

Tree felling will inevitably have a significant impact on our wooded habitats, important landscapes, and heritage assets. However, we tidy up as much as possible, removing timber that can be sold, but some will also be left to create wildlife habitats. Over the next few years, this will start to blend into the woodland and will not be so noticeable.

Are you planting any trees to compensate for the ones you’re felling?

No, the trees that have been removed will open up the canopy in the woodland for natural regeneration of new tree species.

Nationally, the trust is running a Plant a Tree campaign where you can plant a tree for yourself or as a gift to someone special or in memory of a loved one. This is not in response to the tree felling but part of our aim of planting and establishing 20 million trees by 2030. Just £5 will plant one new sapling.