A blight is upon the land. As the last of the summer rays shine upon a verdant blossom of leaves, those belonging to one beloved tree species are instead wilting. Across the UK, ash trees are under serious threat from ash dieback – a disease caused by an airborne fungus that latches onto the tree’s vascular system, inhibiting its ability to draw nutrients through the trunk to its upper branches. For the last nine months, photographer Robert Darch has been working on a commission by the Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) and Beaford Arts to document the epidemic. The work forms part of DWT’s ‘Saving Devon’s Treescapes Project’, and is the first photographic work commissioned for consideration in the Beaford Archive in over 30 years.
For a sense of scale, there are 80 million ash trees in Britain – the second most abundant species after oak and birch. Ecologists from DWT estimate that 90 per cent of all ash trees in the UK will be severely affected or killed by the disease in the next 15 years. As a Devon-based photographer fascinated by the land, the transformational loss of ash from Devon’s landscape is a compelling subject for Darch. ‘Normally what interests me is something to do with a place or landscape that I personally feel a connection with,’ he says.
Ash woodlands cover 11,000 hectares; 22 per cent of the UK’s broadleaved woodland. A loosely-branched species with compound leaves, light is able to penetrate through to the floor of ash-dominated woodlands, allowing a spring of wild garlic, dogs mercury, bluebells, wood crane’s bill and wood avens to flourish.
The gaps left by disappearing ash trees will likely be filled by emergent saplings of other species; but ash trees offer crucial habitat for wildlife in hedgerows and fields, with at least 1.9 million mature ash trees outside of woodland cover.
Infected ash trees should be left where possible, say DWT. Dead ash remains a vital habitat for many species of birds, beetles and lichens. But DWT have been working with other organisations, including various highways agencies, to remove the ones that pose a threat to the public or to infrastructure.
‘To know where to begin was quite overwhelming – Devon’s huge. I had to focus on the conservation work still happening despite Covid-19. I focused on the people working in the landscape; such as the Highways Agencies, who are felling ash trees from Tiverton to North Devon.’
Throughout his career, Darch has found a unique photographic voice, combining his fascination with landscape and place with a curiosity for English horror. The result is an always poetic, often disturbing blend of beauty and disquiet.
DWT allowed him to express this voice in the work. His artistic representation of an environmental issue is perhaps indicative of the romantic connection many UK citizens feel with our woodlands – the backdrop of our fables and folklore. ‘This is the first work I’ve made that’s more focused on an evolving environmental issue. I approached it as a documentary, but I had the freedom to explore with colour, narrative and sequencing, and so I tried to put my own vision across in a subjective way.’
Soaked in a Devonshire amber glow, Darch’s landscapes are painterly depictions of an English arcadia. But a lingering sense of tragedy stalks through the sequence. In many images, it’s as though one can hear the crash of a felled ash tree on tar-mac; chainsaws ripping through trunks; the still quiet of the nightscape after the surgeon’s work is done.
‘These are huge trees, and the noise of them coming down really surprised me. There’s a violence to it,’ says Darch. ‘For me, the work is about trying to capture how this problem will change Devon’s landscapes in one image that the public can really relate to.’
Many observers of Darch’s work will be moved by the sense of environmental loss. But others will notice the community’s reaction to the dieback. ‘It’s in the early stages, but the idea is to replant three natives for every ash tree that’s lost,’ says Darch. ‘They’ve planted thousands of trees over the first year of the project so far just in Devon.’ Ecologists believe that 10 per cent of the UK’s ash trees will survive – there is hope that those that are resistant to the fungus will then propagate. Efforts are underway to locate those individual trees for genetic study and expedite recovery through propagation programmes.