What is the future for the ash tree in Britain and why does it matter?

There are over 150 million ash trees in Britain and they are the most populous tree in the Kent Downs AONB. From a practical and ecological perspective, ash trees play several important roles: they help with flood defences; contribute to air quality and provide a habitat, food and life support for almost 1,000 wildlife species.

They are also important to our cultural heritage. The significance of ash trees is reflected in numerous English place names including Ashford (Kent), Ashby de la Zouch (Leicestershire), Askrigg (North Yorkshire), Knotty Ash (Merseyside) and the Ashdown Forest (East Sussex) - where A.A. Milne set the Winnie the Pooh stories.

In folklore, ash trees were thought to ward off evil spirits and have healing properties. Stories of sick children being passed through a cleft in the tree to cure them are recorded as late as the turn of the twentieth century.

For the Vikings, the ash was Yggdrasil, the World Tree, and it lay at the heart of their mythology and beliefs. The roots were said to reach down into the underworld, while the trunk reached up to heaven and the boughs spread out over the earth. A deer fed on its leaves and from its antlers flowed all the world's great rivers. 

John Constable's Study of an Ash Tree (c.1801) © Wikimedia Commons

More recently, the war poet Edward Thomas celebrated them in poems including The Ash Grove and naturalist Roger Deakin eulogised the ash in his book Wildwood. The artist John Constable painted his favourite ash on Hampstead Heath while David Hockney’s recent canvases of the Yorkshire Wolds show a landscape populated with ash trees.

Yet due to the spread of a disease known as ash dieback, most of these trees will soon disappear from our landscapes and our lives. First recognised in Britain in 2012 from a batch of infected trees sent from the Netherlands, the disease has since spread, locally through spores carried on the wind or from transported logs and leaves.

The devastating rate of ash tree decline is caused by a fungus. In summer it attacks the leaves and produces spores. These are spread around the tree by wind and rain, causing more infections. The fungus attacks the crown (top) of the tree, which loses leaves, then eventually stops budding and dies.

At the moment, the scale of the ecological impact is unknown.  So while the ash is part of our past and present, is it part of our future?

If you have memories of ash trees, want to help with tree planting programmes or to find out more, visit the Ash Project.

How to spot an ash tree

In Spring, ash flowers appear from black buds, the flowers are purple, green and yellow and small clusters of leaves begin to appear.

Ash flower in Spring © Kent Downs AONB

In Summer, ash trees are in full leaf. Leaves are made up of small leaflets on either side of a long stem. There are 9 – 13 leaflets in pairs with one at the end. The leaflets are pointed and toothed, with hairs on the lower surface. Female trees will have large bunches of ash keys (seeds) that hang from the branches in clumps.

Ash keys in Summer © Kent Downs AONB

In Autumn, ash trees are amongst the first trees to lose their leaves. The leaves often fall while still green, but they may yellow slightly before falling. Ash keys fall from the tree in winter and early spring, and are dispersed by birds and mammals.

Ash keys in Autumn © Kent Downs AONB

In Winter, ash trees are identifiable by their thick curving, grey twigs in opposite pairs and the small black velvety buds that appear at the ends. Ash bark is pale grey and is increasingly host to a variety of lichen.

Ash buds in Winter © Kent Downs AONB


Ash to ashes

Ash trees lining the horizon © Explore Kent

Hucking Estate viewpoint

Ash trees have long been a permanent fixture of our landscapes. We find them in parks and fields, woods and hedgerows, even urban streets.

We use their wood for making furniture while their leaves feed a variety of animals. Each tree supports a wealth of wildlife species, including wood mice, wrens, blue tits, bats, lichens, fungi and beetles.

Though ash trees are intrinsic to our daily lives, most people would be hard pressed to identify one. And over the next decade it’s predicted that up to 98% of our ash trees will disappear.

This viewpoint is one of 12 created in partnership with Kent Downs AONB to celebrate their 50 year anniversary in 2018. 


What is the future for the ash tree in Britain and why does it matter? Click to reveal the answer


Hucking Estate, near Maidstone, Kent ME17 1QT

Grid reference:

TQ 84300 57500

Getting there:

The nearest railway station is Hollingbourne - about a 35 minute walk away. By car, exit the M20 at Junction 8 and follow signs to Lenham and Leeds Castle. At the second roundabout take road to Hollingbourne. Go through village and at the top of the hill turn left following signposts to Hucking. 

Hucking is near Route 17 of the National Cycle Network.

Keep an eye out for:

Ash trees (see the spotters guide for how to identify them) and bluebells in April and May

Find out more:

The Hucking Estate is managed by the The Woodland Trust and is one of their top ten bluebell woods!


Kent Downs AONB Anniversary Year:

The Hucking Estate is in the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

This year the AONB celebrates its 50th anniversary. Find out more and Head for the Hills.

Get involved:

If you have memories of ash trees, want to help with tree planting programmes or to find out more, visit the Ash Project.

Hucking Estate viewpoint credits

This viewpoint is one of 12 new views created in partnership with Kent Downs AONB to celebrate their 50 year anniversary in 2018. The events and activities throughout the Anniversary Year of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are supported by Heritage Lottery Fund.  

Thanks to National Lottery players, The Heritage Lottery Fund invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. www.hlf.org.uk   



"I love its natural flamboyance and energy, and the swooping habits of its branches; the way they plunge towards the earth, then upturn, tracing the trajectory of a diver entering the water and surfacing." - Roger Deakin