the ash tree, ash die back and ash bowls


I love ash trees, in particular weeping ash is one of my all time favourites though rarely planted today. Ash timber is incredibly versatile, strong and springy, over the years it has been used for all manner of things including the felloes (rims) of wooden wheels, axe and hammer handles, all manner of sports goods from hocky sticks to tennis rackets, the chasis of Morgan cars and thin strips can be used to weave baskets or as binding to tie stuff together such as besom brooms. On top of this it is great for furniture and the all time best firewood. Many folk think slow grown wood is better quality this is the case with softwoods but with hardwoods fast grown wood is significantly stronger than slow grown, the optimum for ash is 4-8 growth rings per inch.
The ash tree is the subject of a forthcoming book by this crazy guy Rob Penn who some UK wood fans will recognise as the presenter from BBCs tales from the wildwood.
For Rob’s latest project he felled an ash tree and is setting off to get different things made from it that help him tell the story of the tree and man’s relationship to it. I think it’s a wonderful project and was thrilled that the first items made from the tree were a set of my nested bowls. Rob arrived by train and bike with a very serious chunk of ash in his backpack.

I cut the tree up and then turned a nest of bowls.

Rob with his bowls.

Ash was the most commonly chosen timber for bowls during medieval times, I don’t use it so much today but these bowls turned out nice so maybe I should do it more. Here is a typical ash bowl from medieval London.

Folk may have read doom-laden reports in the press about ash die back disease and how all our ash trees are going to die.

I have been involved in forestry long enough to read the catastrophic prophesies on diseases affecting sweet chestnut, alder, oak, horse chestnut (those all in the last 10 years) all were proclaimed as the next dutch elm disease, all have proved to be problematic but not catastrophic. Ash die back could be different, it could kill a lot of trees or it might not. The comparisons with Denmark where most trees died are not relevant those trees were primarily forestry trees of uniform age and limited genetic diversity, we have yet to see how it reacts in our natural genetic diverse population, in Sweden around 50% of the trees have noticeable damage and 25 percent are severely injured. Even if we accept the worst case scenario and we have let something truly grim loose then running around stressing is not going to help anyone, if all the ash were to die their places would be taken by other trees as the spaces in our woodlands were filled when the elms died, can anyone show me a gap in a woodland where the elms were?
The other idea that is touted about which is silly is the idea that if we can somehow slow the spread down then it gives us time to do something about it. Well this is twaddle. Fungal diseases affecting trees mutate and change rapidly, it is not in their interest to wipe out the host entirely, trees do not develop immunity think about the length of lifecycle of the fungus and the tree and think which is going to change first. The whole delaying spread so we can develop resistant strains thing is about as silly as suggesting we can hold back this years strain of flue whilst we humans develop resistance.
The wise approach to ash die back is to admit that we don’t know yet what it will do, there is nothing we can do about it but that whatever happens the combination of nature and foresters will deal with it without drama. Forestry is a long term game, selling news stories is of the moment. No one will get on the TV for saying let’s sit back and wait and see. Or as leading woodland historian Oliver Rackham has said “What is to be done? Probably nothing effective in the present state of ignorance.”
My last word on the subject must include a rant about the tree planting business. I call it a business because that is what it is, a large scale industrial business with many vested interests making money. People love to plant trees, if you fence stock out of anywhere in lowland Britain and wait it will become woodland surprisingly quickly through natural regeneration with local genetic stock but people are impatient so we buy trees from nursaries. We don’t ask too much about those trees, if we want to hear they are local seed types and ask they will tell us they are and we are unlikely to ask for proof. I have planted “native dogwood” in a hedge only to find it come out in spring with variegated leaves. The nursery trade has grown up with serving an ignorant public who do not ask enough questions and are often not in a position to know if their ash is native or not, we have to trust the nurseryman and sadly we can’t. The result of this is that there is now global trade and movement of tress and tree diseases. Trees and their parasites and pathogens have evolved over millennia together, when we start moving stuff around it causes problems, this has been proven many many times but we have done nothing about it. We have been sending ash seed to be grown in Holland and reimporting infected trees probably for some considerable time.
If there is any intelligent action to be taken over ash die back it would be increased regulation of the nursery trade and re-educating the well meaning public and various woodland charities so that they understand that tree planting is not often a very good thing to do. I say that as someone who has planted  well over 10,000 trees, most of which I now realise would have been better not planted.

11 Responses to the ash tree, ash die back and ash bowls

  1. Tom Greenway April 18, 2013 at 11:04 pm #

    Great article Robin, very informative especially as I am about to start planting some trees in my wood. Cheers Tom

  2. Survival in the Wasteland April 21, 2013 at 12:51 am #

    good article Robin- ash is my favorite wood for making bows- with elm a close second.

  3. Gary New April 22, 2013 at 6:21 am #

    Hi Robin my name is Gary I am very interested in buying one of your besom brooms for my dad for fathers day how do I go about this as I'm not very hot with the Internet and do not have a PayPal account

  4. Robin Wood April 22, 2013 at 8:24 am #

    Gary I am not sure what made you think I make Besoms, try Adam King

  5. Jim Stott April 22, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    Disagree. You are failing to distinguish between native fungi, where some form of harmony with indigenous tree species may be possible and non-native diseases where no such balance exists. We now have close to a dozen serious non-native fungal and bacterial pathogens active in this country and it would be a terrible mistake to take these as lightly as you seem to be suggesting. Dutch Elm Disease has permanently damaged our countryside – you will find plenty of places where the elms have never been truly replaced. You may make very nice bowls but you should get out more – visit some village greens and cricket grounds and talk to the older residents. They will remember what you seem to have forgotten. Looking ahead, doom is not an overstatement – over 70% of our horse chestnuts will die in the next 7-10 years (Pseudomonas syringae) and take a look at what Ceratocystis platani is doing to the Canal du Midi – just two examples. Phytophthora strains are vicious and multiplying. Tree Armageddon is coming – unfortunately there are enough comfortably misguided people around to convince DEFRA and the Forestry Commission that monitoring is the best policy. One final word. The Emerald Ash Borer entered the USA in a cargo of wood packing. It remained undetected for five years. It has since destroyed hundreds of millions of ash trees across an increasingly wide area. Now unstoppable, it will eventually arrive here, if it hasn’t already, and it will be no respecter of the millions we are misguidedly spending on ‘genetically resistant’ strains of ash. Biosecurity? It’s a non-idea and doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever did.

  6. Robin Wood April 22, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

    Hi Jim,I am not sure what we are disagreeing on. I agree with your bit about non native diseases that's what I meant when I said "Trees and their parasites and pathogens have evolved over millennia together, when we start moving stuff around it causes problems". I would disagree that Dutch Elm disease permanently damaged our countryside. It changed it a bit for a short time. Elm disease is not new it runs in cycles that are recorded in the pollen record going back thousands of years. The hedgerows are still full of elm suckers and there are still mature elms that no-one recognises, one of 3 foot diameter 100 feet from where I type. People remember seeing big dead trees, they don't remember seeing the trees growing up slowly in the gaps over 30 years, there are more trees and more woodland in the UK today that there has been for 500 years.I am not saying that ash trees won't die and I agree the effects of emerald ash borer are grim in the USA what I am saying is that most of the hype does no good and is guessing at things that may not happen and if the genie is out of the bag then it's too late to do anything about it. Like grey squirrel and sycamore we have to let it run it's course and find it's balance. That may take 1000 years. I do believe we should be tighter on importing wood and plants and use more home grown, local seed and natural regeneration for lots of reasons. PS my experience is not based on woodturning. Wildlife and ecology has been my biggest life passion, I worked in conservation forestry for the National Trust for seven years and have kept up the interest in woodlands and woodland management for the 20 years since. My main reason for making this post is for posterity, I nearly wrote the same thing 4 years ago when the media was full of phytopthera and alder death, then same again with oak sudden death, I decided to put pen to paper this time so that in a couple fo years folk can point here and tell me that they told me so.

  7. Graeme December 2, 2013 at 2:11 am #

    A lot to agree with here Robin, in particular nurseries have a big role to play in conserving genetic diversity. Unfortunately even if they do source their material locally it is often from the same trees year after year so a very narrow gene pool. How the British Isles manage this new disease is for them to decide but seeking to understand it is not silly as it may well be manageable. Just keep GM out of it.
    Here in NZ Dutch Elm disease has been restricted to Auckland for over 40 years by drastic measures. It does mean though that elsewhere we have woods of elm and avenues of elm planted by the first settlers, so 150yrs or more in age. They are very distinctive with their vase shape so a definite loss to the English countryside if such trees no longer exist. Oaks and birch are so different in shape and stature that even if the gaps are filled the character must be very different.

  8. David Kuegler December 23, 2013 at 8:09 am #

    Robin, I’m in a similar boat, I’ve planted several thousand trees………..& it’s not stopping me, I’m now collecting acorns, growing them on, & replanting for future generations.

    It’s pretty sexy to see an acorn produce a tap root, makes a sperm whale look pathetic, & then to replant a year later in the middle of winter is a pretty good feeling too!

    Yes roll-on better nurseries…………
    ps those ash bowls are great too! & will be around for a very long time.

  9. Jan Krobot February 23, 2015 at 5:49 am #

    Hello Robin. I think you’ve just described perfectly problems of modern forestry. Planting trees of unknown origin, with unknown genetical equipment to places where they dont belong and best all of them in same time. We get nice tree field (not exactly forest in my opinion) with trees of same age, but low resistance to any stress, whether it is disease or for example strong wind. I see it here in Czech republic. Most common tree here is Picea abies. It’s traditionaly planted for ist rapid growth. This tree from mountains is planted everywhere from the lowest altitudes, giving lots of wood. Wood of low quality in my opinion. Plus these forest are quite prone to diseases or wind. We have seen it here several times, but stil didn’t take lesson. Last several years we have “big problem”with bug Ips typographus especialy in Sumava national park. There’s very emotianal debate about how to deal with it. Leave the forest and believe it will do just fine without our help or use various chemical protection, cut all the infected trees, and plant new forest? Two camps fitghting furiously for their truth
    I know what i would do.
    Which remindes me, my favorite parts of forest here by my house are those where they cut all the trees, took logs and disapeared whithout any other treatment like clearing the glade, or planting new trees. And these pieces of forest do just fine without help and i love them.
    Thank you for your blog post and all your work
    You are an inspiration

  10. Laura February 26, 2015 at 1:41 pm #

    Hello! We had to cut down four enormous ash trees yesterday because of the emerald ash boar, and my husband and I are so saddened by it. I’m looking for a way to keep some part of those trees alive and I was wondering if you made products from trees that others have cut down. I’d like to give my husband a gift from the wood. Thanks in advance.

    • Robin Wood February 26, 2015 at 7:02 pm #

      Luara I presume you are in USA and I am in the UK hope you can find someone local to make something from your ash.

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