By Neil Reeves, Head of Countryside and Recreation 

As the focus sharpens on Ash Dieback and we turn our attention to the massive loss in tree stock, landscape value, shade, screening and associated biodiversity that looks inevitable, I couldn’t help but exhale deeply with a breath of “We have been here before”.

That dreaded email in 2010...

“Dear Mr Reeves, we have undertaken some aerial survey work and suspect that Phytopthera ramorum is present in your Larch plantations at Burrator Reservoir. We will let you know, but prepare for the worst. Yours Sincerely, Forest Research” or words to that effect.

Within a week or two we were confirmed as the first private estate in South West England to have received a statutory plant health order to remove all Larch species on site (totaling 42 hectares in pure and mixed stands) within a six month window!

We knew we needed to ramp up the bio security straight away. We are on the edge of the Dartmoor SAC and whilst Burrator is an easy access introduction to Dartmoor there are plenty of people that could potentially carry this disease between the forest, the moorland and its Bilberry.

Six months though? Six? Months? There might be one or two issues with that...

  • Nesting Hobby, with chicks still to fledge
  • Greater and lesser horseshoe bat hibernation sites in old tin workings, that are about to become a no-go area.
  • Archaeology spanning 3000 years that is a little sensitive to large scale forest operations
  • Oh... and Plymouth’s water supply, which is a little sensitive to all that run off associated with large scale forest operation

Not only were we going to lose that vivid, lime green flush of needles in spring and the rusty rich ochre as they fall in autumn, we will also end up with a few holes in our forest...that was not the plan.

In fact our plan was quite different. We were very much in the transition from a traditional clear fell system to continuous cover forestry. We were starting to achieve some natural regeneration and a great mix of structural and species diversity.

A quick rallying of the troops was needed. A crack team of specialists in forest operations, landscape, bats, birds, historic environment and water quality were assembled and we began to hatch a plan. A plan that went on to be praised by the Royal Forestry Society as an exemplar of how to deal with Phytopthera in a complex setting. Many thanks to Dartmoor National Park AuthorityNatural EnglandHistoric England and South West Water.

Granted, we had a small extension on the order from the Forestry Commission, but the logistical nightmare of balancing a plant health notice and European protected species with no clear hierarchy of priority, harvesting around bronze aged burial cairns whilst protecting delicate river systems from the inevitable mud was no mean feat.

We were lucky in some ways (if “lucky” is an appropriate word). We were able to sell our Larch, albeit using licenced hauliers and sending it to licenced sawmills, but a monetary value non the less. The market was yet to be completely saturated as Phytopthera ravaged the country very, very quickly. I think we just about broke even across the entire operation. Saying that, we had lost 42 hectares of trees in the process, some of which had been growing since 1927! The ongoing implications, we were soon to discover.

In 2019, we are still witnessing the knock on effect of this operation. The holes we created in 2010 let in the famous Dartmoor winds. These vicious winds have laid waste to block after block of previously sheltered Spruce, Fir and Pine. It feels like we have only just finished tidying up, nearly ten years down the line.

Not being an organisation that sits back and sulks, we started to see the positives. The operation had exposed views and vistas to die for, let’s not lose those as we redesign the forest.

It had exposed archaeological sites, previously hidden from public view, ruthlessly planted over in the 1920s and 30s rush to get trees in the ground. Let’s keep those as open space and interpret them to the many visitors that walk here.

We had lost connectivity, but let’s join it back up with native broadleaf trees and create wildlife corridors that stretch like fingers through the catchment.

The results are now better than we could have ever hoped for, a mosaic of habitats with some very special wildlife, a protected historic environment that tells a story of human influence on Dartmoor, a landscape of true value to people and a thriving forest system.

So... what will ash dieback bring? Loss after loss I’m sure, and a very different challenge involving a native tree species, but also an opportunity to deal with it in the right way for people and place. Not a challenge we want, but one that we have the skills and resilience as an industry to deal with. What’s next? This won’t be the last…