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Survey of Plants and Lichens associated with Ash (SPLASH)

 

Monitoring the impacts of ash dieback

Project background

The spread of ash dieback disease has been widely publicized but, despite alarming reports from some European countries, its likely impact on the structure, function and biodiversity of British and Irish woodlands remains unclear. As with Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s, high tree mortality is likely to reduce the habitat available to some species, especially epiphytic lichens and bryophytes that grow primarily on ash (Edwards 2012; Ellis et al. 2012; Edwards et al. 2013), whilst creating open niches into which other species might spread, and altering the structure, composition and ecological functioning of many woodland sites. In addition, the widespread loss of ash away from woodlands is likely to have a significant impact on the character of many landscapes and to reduce the availability of hosts for epiphytes in more open conditions.

The voluntary sector societies that record vascular plants (the BSBI), bryophytes (the BBS), and lichens (the BLS) therefore have a rare opportunity to help monitor the impact of a potentially landscape-altering disease. To date, no other European country has attempted to do this, although there have been national surveys to map the extent of the disease. These three societies are currently working with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) to pilot surveillance schemes designed to improve our capacity to monitor changes in the status of species within semi-natural habitats.  There is potential to use this project to establish an approach to monitoring the biodiversity impacts of novel diseases such as ash dieback (Walker et al. 2010).

The development and trial of the survey method in 2012-13 was supported by funding from Defra as part of a broader project to develop systematic approaches to biodiversity recording in the voluntary sector.  The continuation of the survey is funded by CEH and supported by the contributing recording societies.

Further information on ash dieback in Europe is available at the Fraxback homepage, whilst information on identifying ash dieback is available at the Forestry Commission website.

Project aim

We aim to set up a network of permanent plots throughout Briain and Ireland to monitor the impact of ash dieback disease on the ground flora and epiphytes (vascular plants, bryophytes, and lichens) associated with ash in woodlands and other semi-natural habitats. We hope that you will help us to achieve this aim, and assist us in improving our knowledge of the impacts of ash dieback on associated plant and lichen communities over time.

The baseline survey is expected to run between 2014 and 2016. Within this period we hope that the majority of the network will be covered for each group (i.e. vascular plants, lichens and bryophytes). Within this period each monad need only be surveyed once for any group. This is the baseline that future surveys (conducted, for example, in 15 or 20 years) can be compared to.

Methods

The project will be split into three related surveys:

  • Survey 1: A survey of the ground flora of ash woodlands based on 10 x 10 m plots. To control for changes over time that are not due to ash dieback (e.g. climatic changes), a paired ground flora plot will also be recorded in a non-ash stand or woodland nearest to the ash plot.
  • Survey 2: A survey of the epiphytic flora of ash trees in woodlands. Bryophytes and lichens will be recorded in a plot large enough to contain 5-10 ash trees; again, a plot containing 5-10 trees of another deciduous species will also be surveyed as a control.
  • Survey 3: A survey of the epiphytic flora of ash trees in open habitats. Bryophytes and lichens will be recorded on 5-10 ash trees in a area of hedgerow, drystone wall, woodland edge, parkland or other open habitat; trees of another deciduous species in a similar landscape context will again be surveyed as controls.

Register your interest in surveying a plot

We are currently recruiting volunteer botanists and lichenologists to contribute to our knowledge of the impacts of ash dieback in Britain and Ireland. If you would like to register your interest in being allocated a 1 x 1 km square (a monad) for survey, please click here. Whilst a random selection of ash-containing monads will comprise the core of the survey, additional squares can also be surveyed: don't worry if the squares in your area appear to have been taken, additional surveys are welcome!

Core squares were selected using information on the occurrence of ash from the National Forest Inventory. Unfortunately this resource does not cover Ireland; however, additional, self-selected squares from Ireland can be surveyed using the protocols developed as a part of this project, and we very much encourage Irish recorders to get involved.

 

wfmillar [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsAsh Tree - geograph.org.uk - 590710

References

Edwards, B. 2012. A preliminary assessment of the importance of ash trees for epiphytic lichens in the British Isles. British Lichen Society.
Edwards, B., Bosanquet, S., Stubbs, A. 2013. Ash and its host species. A look at three groups that may be affected by Ash dieback. British Wildlife 24, April 2013.
Ellis, C.J., Coppins, B.J., Hollingsworth, P. 2012. Tree fungus: Lichens under threat from ash dieback. Nature 491, 672.
Walker, K.J., Dines, T., Hutchinson, N. & Freeman, S. 2010. Designing a new plant surveillance scheme for the UK. Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) Report No. 440. JNCC, Peterborough.