The humble ash tree has been in the headlines a lot recently what with the discovery and subsequent spread of the ash-dieback disease.

But what actually is an ash tree, what have they been traditionally used for, and perhaps most pertinent for a wildlife enthusiast, how important are they for the UK’s wildlife?

What is an ash tree?Ash buds and spider. Image by Spodzone (http://www.flickr.com/photos/spodzone/)

The common ash, or Fraxinus excelsior, to give it its rather grand scientific name, is a native deciduous tree found throughout the whole of the UK. It generally grows to 15-30m high, and is actually in the olive family. If you look closely, the leaves look similar, but although the ash does produce fruits, I doubt they’re as tasty as those from its Mediterranean cousin.

The distinguishing feature of ash is the black buds appearing out of the shoots – as shown by the picture opposite. If you find these on a tree, you’ve got an ash.

The seeds are dispersed by wind and the trees themselves can be male, female or even both! As well as this, they also appear to be able to change their gender year by year – that’s pretty impressive, don’t you think?

What is it used for?

Ash has long been used for tools and frames, whilst the Anglo-Saxons used it for their spear handles and shields. It’s still used as handles and many other wooden items today, including furniture. I also found a reference to it being used in the wings of the ‘Wooden Wonder’, the de Havilland mosquito – a two-person fighter plane from World War Two!

Are ash trees important for wildlife?

Ash trees are an important part of our native woodlands and hedgerows. Some 13% of the trees in broadleaved woodland are ashes.

A wide range of species use ash trees, but they are particularly important for fungi, invertebrates which live in dead wood, some lichens and other plants. Large, mature trees, with their assorted cracks and hollows, also provide valuable nesting sites for many woodland birds as well as roosting sites for bats. Woodlands with lots of ash trees are also rich in native wildflowers.

However, few species are entirely reliant on ash trees, so away from areas with lots of ash the impact of ash die-back may be lessened. There may be an upside though for wildlife which lives in and depends on dead wood.

More information

So there you go. That’s ash for you. If you need any more information on ash die-back, what we’re doing on our reserves, and the latest updates take a look at our website.