A map detailing 280 million trees is being drawn up to chart how plant diseases could reshape the landscape and threaten native wildlife.
The threat posed by tree diseases such as ash dieback, Dutch elm and acute oak decline threaten to change the look of fields, roadsides and hedgerows for generations.
Away from woodlands, trees form the backbone of countryside nature systems, linking hedgerows and spinneys, roadsides and escarpments, as well as providing nesting sites for striking birds of prey such as the hobby, red kite and buzzardas well as little owls.
The emergence of chalara ash dieback as a threat to one of the greater countryside’s most important trees has compelled conservationists to monitor the fortunes of our standalone trees.
Experts at the Woodland Trust are using data which maps 280 million trees across England and Wales to monitor the effects of any arboreal disease epidemics in both forested areas and across the wider rural landscape.
Some areas have up to half as many of their trees outside traditional woodlands.
With no requirements for such trees to be replaced, the Woodland Trust is concerned that diseases such as ash dieback could spell a “one-way ticket” for trees being lost from the wider countryside.
The charity is launching a pilot planting scheme, with 1,000 subsidised “disease recovery packs”, each with 45 native trees, that landowners can plant in hedgerows, verges, field edges and watersides in the countryside.
Five English counties badly affected by ash dieback – Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent, East Sussex and Northumberland – will pilot the scheme.
Woodland Trust director of conservation Austin Brady said: “What’s interesting about these trees in the wider countryside is that the majority will be native broadleaf trees, typically things like oak, ash, field maple and hawthorn, which are important not just for how the countryside looks but for wildlife too.
“A lot of these trees are quite old, so they are important habitat for everything from hole nesting birds such as owls and woodpeckers, roosting sites for bats, hosting all kinds of butterflies and insects and fungi that require mature trees.
“The difficulty with these trees in the wider landscape is there is no obligation on people to replace them if they die, so it’s a one-way ticket for many of these trees. In lots of hedgerows, field corners and roadsides, it’s difficult to imagine how these trees will get replaced.
“By the time people really notice the problem, we’ve almost left it too late to do something about it.”
All the trees the Woodland Trust using in its recovery scheme are grown in the UK from fully traceable seeds gathered in the UK and Ireland to prevent the importation of diseased trees.