Tony Bailie's Take On Nature: Ashes to ashes, trunk to chunky

THE ash trees that surround my forest are always the last to come into full bloom, their distinctive pinnate leaves breaking out from dark knuckles on the branches. Along with the hawthorns and a scattering of sycamore they predate the small woodland that I have planted over the past eight years.

Despite impressive growth by the saplings, which were mostly bare-root and came to no higher than my knee when I planted them in a small overgrown field, they are still dwarfed by the trees that line the boundaries.

The alder and willow, thriving on the damp ground, were quick starters, shooting upwards, closely followed by the rowan (mountain ash) and birch. But these still have a gangly youthfulness, their trunks narrow and not filled out compared to the chunky, gnarled maturity of their elders.

The Scots pine, clustered into one of the drier patches of the former field, are now packed tight into an impenetrable jungle, the fallen needles from previous years accumulating to form a forest floor through which the grass no longer grows.

It is the same with the beech - a species of tree that was only introduced into Ireland in recent centuries but are now so widespread and for the most part suited to our fauna that they are regarded as almost native.

A forest floor has also formed where they have been clustered together - perhaps due to the fact that they hold their dried-out leaves during the winter, letting through less light, until the new leaves break through in spring.

I put in 20 oak and can already see them asserting their authority, thickening out and starting to push into the spaces left vacant by the more impatient growers in their spurt to reach upwards.

A scattering of whitethorn, apple and pear trees give the woodland a mixed feeling and, while some are slow to mature among the quicker-growing species around them, they seem to be coming along at their own pace.

A lone yew, lurking in the centre of the newly established forest, is also taking its time, but perhaps its slow, steady and patient maturing is why the yew is one of our longest-living species that will still be here when the others are falling around it.

High winds have brought casualties - an alder has split three ways but is still growing. One of the trunks is growing out towards a building and is going to have to be cut before it gets too close and causes damage.

Despite purposely over-planting - 200 or more trees in just over quarter of an acre - with the idea that I would thin them out when the forest started to mature I now find that quite a difficult thing to contemplate.

Having spent years planting, sweating off significant parts of my body weight cutting back suffocating grass, being lacerated by brambles, stung by monster nettles and bitten by horseflies while nurturing my saplings, the idea of chopping some of them down - even those which have been damaged - is distressing.

The future of the ash tree in Ireland is still under threat as ash dieback continues to spread. They were here long before my amateur conservation effort to establish a native woodland in a landscape dominated by hilly, cattle-grazing fields but if they become diseased will have to be cut down.

But there are signs of hope. Last week in among the trees I had planted I saw something I had not expected - an ash sapling - one that I can't claim credit for and is presumably the offspring of the mature trees that make up the boundary.

Maybe we can give nature a helping hand, but sometimes all we need to do just give it the time and space to get on with it.

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