Hazel, willow, beef and storytelling from Bedfordshire

Loss of an old ash pollard

fallen ash pollard

fallen ash pollard

Late in November last year an Atlantic front ripped across the country bringing with it lots of rain and wild winds to Gravenhurst. It caused me to postpone a job in a Luton lower school which involved making hazel arches – I don’t like to appear to be a softy, but it would have been very miserable and pretty difficult too. I subsequently had to postpone again because of frozen ground, but that’s another story.

Walking to pick up some freshly cut willow one morning soon afterwards, we noticed something odd on the east facing slope towards the top of one of our old meadows; locally known as ‘Gun Hill’. It was a large black shape which from three hundred metres wasn’t immediately recognisable. Strange when we know a landscape so well. It shouldn’t have been there and I suppose it took a quick reference to a mental map of the hill to realise that it was one of the three old ash pollards in that field and we were looking at its root plate.

A little later, we found time to take a look and it was a sad sight. The wind finally found the weakness in a big old ash, Fraxinus excelsiorAsh isn’t a hugely long-lived species, but this was a big one and having been pollarded its age is difficult to guess at; more so than that of a maiden tree. It may have stood in this rather exposed spot since sometime around the battle of Waterloo, or maybe before. It would have seen Lancasters on their way to raids in the latter stages of World War 2, seen the first tractors toiling up the hill, known Jane’s great-uncle Cyril who farmed here after returning from the Great War, seen Victorian and perhaps Georgian children running down the soft grass of Home Close, just as today, to enjoy a muddy summer’s afternoon dabbling in the river.

In its time the tree has been a roost and possibly a nest site for our resident little owls, Athene noctua and almost certainly bats would have enjoyed its completely hollow, mouldering, chimney like centre.

Practically, it’s another addition to a long and never shortening list of things to do. I’ve now disentangled the branches from the remains of our wire fence, our neighbour’s more beautiful timber fence and their sons’ football goal on which it fell, and removed the branches (which are making some first-rate fire wood). I had thought that there might be a chance that I could persuade the cylinder that is the trunk, to stand back upright to give a few more years of service as owl and bat house. Having spent some time with it, I don’t think this is practical or safe. Actually, I’m not sure what to do with it; but that’s a job for the spring when I can get a tractor in without digging up the grass.

Ash trees are (or were) often coppiced but rarely pollarded. Other than our three, I can’t recall seeing another. It’s a sad loss for that reason alone but more so perhaps for the effect on the landscape and skyline. And of course that immediately makes me wonder if this old hulk was planted deliberately or was a natural seedling. If planted, who did the deed? Was it just part of a hedge or did someone think that in the unseeable future, beyond unknown wars, joys and tragedies, revolutions in farming and science; after that planter, however youthful, would be dead and long buried; a big tree, just in this spot, would be a delight?

We must, I think, plant another.

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