Oxford’s outdoor laboratory infected with ash dieback

The fungal disease could affect a third of the trees in Wytham Woods.

Wytham Great Wood, Photo: Geograph

Wytham Woods, which has served as the University of Oxford’s outdoor laboratory since 1942, has contracted ash dieback, a fungal disease which affects ash trees.

The disease was confirmed in the ancient, semi-natural woodland last summer, when symptoms were detected on saplings. It is alleged to have arrived by spores spread by wind, cars or brought on shoes.

Dr Keith Kirby, a researcher at the University’s Department of Plant Sciences, told Cherwell: “We have been expecting the disease at Wytham for a couple of years, as it is present elsewhere in Oxfordshire.”

The chronic disease is caused by an Ascomycete fungus, and is characterised by leaf loss and crown dieback in ash trees. The fungus has spread rapidly since its first detection in the UK in 2012, with recent data showing that it affects more than half the country. Ash dieback poses a major threat to Britain’s 80m ash population, as well as wildlife that depend on the trees for their survival.

Ash trees make up about one third of the Woods’ canopy, meaning a major loss of the species will have substantial ecological consequences for the woods and surrounding areas.

Covering 1000 acres, Wytham Woods is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and one of the most studied areas of woodland in the world. Divided into four main habitats, the woods are home to more than 500 species of plants and 800 species of butterflies and moths. Wytham has also been the origin of over 200 PhDs and 1,500 scientific papers.

In an interview with the Times last week, Professor Ben Sheldon, Head of the University’s Department of Zoology, confirmed that every single tree in the Woods has been marked and mapped, their species identified and growth progress measured every few years. He said: “One of the reasons we do that is we are interested in the ways tree species interact. You are also ready in case some big change happens.”

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Speaking about the future of the woodland, Dr Kirby said: “The spread and impact of the disease and its impact on other wildlife themselves will be research topics in the woods. Other research will be largely unaffected, unless the level of tree death gets to the stage where it is not safe for the researchers.”

An upside to the change, he said, is that “the woods are likely to become more open, and this could benefit some plants on the woodland floor, as well as some birds and small mammals that like dense undergrowth.”

Because the disease cannot be directly controlled, management in the Woods have to do away with trees along walking tracks that become dangerous as the disease progresses.