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Battling Ash Dieback on the MOD Defence Training Estate

Over two-thirds of the Ministry of Defence (MOD)’s land is held solely for training the armed forces, but it is also well used by the general public, farming and hobbyist tenants. Since discovering the first large scale infection of ash dieback on the MOD’s Defence Training Estate (DTE), Landmarc Support Services (Landmarc) has worked with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) on a rigorous programme to help combat the disease.

After subsequent survey work, the infection was identified in many of the woodlands across the DTE, in various degrees of severity. This was concerning, as aside from the ecological impact, the risk of trees becoming brittle, unstable and prone to collapse posed many hazards.

As DIO’s industry partner for managing the UK DTE, Landmarc knew that fast action was required and a wide-scale tree-felling programme, based on detailed assessments of tree health and the associated risks in each woodland, would help protect end users. This includes the removal of unsafe trees, while retaining as many other trees as possible to retain local genotypes and contribute to the future of ash across the UK.

Approximately 140,000 trees have been affected, with Salisbury Plain Training Area one of the worst affected areas. Diseased trees have successfully been removed from a number of the Plain’s training woodlands, including a complex area along the busy A345 road, where many infected mature ash were present in the hedgerows.

The risks involved in felling delicate and mature trees along this road, coupled with the additional risk of power lines threading through the tree line, meant that specialist machinery and methodologies were used to ensure the safety of onsite workers, as well as the preservation of surrounding trees and infrastructure.

Felling in winter is a complex task due to waterlogged ground conditions and brittle and rotten wood within the tree crown, but it was critical that this stage of the project was completed in plenty of time before spring. Previous felling operations at one of the Estate’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), allowed the teams to learn invaluable lessons about the importance of timing felling works to help minimise soil damage, as well as planning around bird nesting and protected species.

The preservation of the Defence Training Estate’s ash trees and genetic diversity, as well as managing the health and safety risks from dead and dying trees, remains at the heart of the Ash Dieback Strategy. Ecological surveys were undertaken during the planning stages of the project to ensure the presence of ash in the long term and minimise the impact on associated species and wider biodiversity.

Maintaining a wide variety of landscapes is not only essential for the preservation of UK woodland, but also for effective military training. The purpose of the Defence Training Estate is to ensure the armed forces have a quality training experience that resembles as many real-life worldwide environments as possible.

So far, around 80,000 trees have been felled on Salisbury Plain, and the planning of the area’s replanting process has begun. The regeneration stage of this project is clearly of prime importance, and Landmarc and DIO have held extensive discussions with the Forestry Commission and Natural England about the restoration of felled areas, leading to approved Felling Licences to carry out this work.

Space has been left for the natural regeneration of tree seed already in the soil and this will be enhanced with the planting of native broadleaved species. A small proportion of felled timber has also been left on site to provide deadwood habitats to help maintain the current flora and fauna as much as possible.

Collaboratively, the two organisations will take into consideration what species will be planted to provide a resilient and future-proofed woodland when faced with climate change, extreme weather conditions and any future diseases. Not only this, but as military training is a top priority, plans must include a variety of terrain that enables our Armed Forces to achieve their training objectives.

Understanding the importance of the general public’s cooperation, Landmarc, DIO and local authoritative bodies proactively engage with communities and stakeholders in each location where felling work will have an impact.

As a government department, the MOD does not qualify for Forestry Commission grants, and so the UK-wide project has to continue to be sustainable and self-funding. Timber from the felling is being sold standing for structural and furniture use, and a wood-fuelled biomass plant. Selling the timber supports the UK timber processing sector and helps to fund the operation, easing the burden on MOD budgets and used for reinstating the site – rebuilding tracks, erecting deer fences and restocking the woodland.

Future works are continually being evaluated, looking at the latest scientific information about how ash dieback and associated diseases are developing and infecting the tree population. Where possible, trees are retained to see what resilience and resistance they are developing.

The ash dieback disease itself, and the actions undertaken to fight it, have served as a valuable lesson as to how we must go about securing the future of our woodlands. Landmarc rural specialists work with regulatory bodies, such as the Forestry Commission, on how to deal with the disease in other areas of the UK, with the future aim of moving away from single species woodland, to diversify landscapes, and to enhance biodiversity of all kinds.

Photo Credit – Landmarc

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