As many of you will have picked up from the media, there have been recent reports of ash dieback disease initially from East Anglia which has led to plans to fell many thousands of ash trees as a precautionary measure and a ban on ash imports to the UK. Already, according to reports in the order of 100,000 ash trees have been felled in the last 6 weeks. This is clearly very worrying news, given the important role that ash trees play in the ecology of the Brown Hairstreak butterfly, and there are real concerns that we may have another Dutch Elm epidemic on our hands. The infection is caused by a fungus Chalara fraxinea which has already had a devastating effect on ash populations in other parts of Europe with apparently as many as 90% ash trees affected in Denmark. I witnessed the disease at firsthand when I visited Estonia earlier this year where the loss of ashes may lead to conservation problems for the Scarce Fritillary (a relative of the UK's Marsh Fritillary) which lays its eggs on ash and is already seriously endangered at a European level. Many moths and other insects also lay their eggs on ash trees and any large scale loss of ash trees from our countryside could have a major impact on biodiversity (see www.butterfly-conservation.org). As of this morning, according to DEFRA, there have been 52 confirmed cases of the disease including a car park in Leicester which is not that far away from us here in Worcs. Given that the spread of the disease is airborne, quite where the next outbreak may occur is very unpredictable and many fear that it may already be too late to prevent the spread of the disease. Certainly the Government has been slow to act and it seems somewhat extraordinary that, as a nation, we need to import so many ash trees when, for the moment at least, it is such a common and widespread tree in our woodlands and hedgerows. Once infected, there is no known cure and trees have to be destroyed. Many conservation organisations including Butterfly Conservation and the Wildlife Trusts are appealing to the public to look out for signs of the disease and report any apparent outbreaks. The Forestry Commission has issued guidance on how to spot symptoms of the disease (see www.forestry.gov.uk/chalara) which includes a video showing infected trees. In severe cases, the entire crown of the tree shows leaf loss and die back but early warning signs include wilting leaves and lesions on the bark. For those into mobile phone technology there is a free app available called Ashtag which enables those with iPhone or Android phones to report any diseased trees direct. More information on this and the disease in general is available via the Brown Hairstreak blog site .
While ash trees may have an uncertain future, for the time being we can at least follow up on some of our known assembly trees by searching for eggs. The Thursday Streakers Club is once again up and running for the winter and Simon Primrose, Hugh Glennie and myself took the opportunity on 25th October to visit the assembly tree at Cowsden. Because of the extent of annual cutting in the vicinity of the tree, we were determined to visit the site early and were rewarded by finding 16 eggs in close proximity to the tree compared to only seven last winter, although our efforts to record eggs in SO9451, which is still an unrecorded square, once again drew a blank. One of the farms adfjoining the assembly tree is now in stewardship so we are hopeful that more of these eggs may survive compared to previous years. With the review of the Common Agricultural Policy taking place within the EU, the future of agri-environment schemes is very uncertain and the present scheme closes in December 2013. This means that little time remains for any additional landowners to apply for Higher Level Stewardship and we have been informed locally by Natural England that, except in exceptional circumstances, they will only be able to consider new applications up to Xmas this year. Hopefully, a new scheme will eventually be announced but, with big cuts facing most EU budgets, we would urge any landowner still thinking about applying for HLS to do so as soon as possible.
Last winter, we carried out a survey of green space belonging to Wychavon Council (see eBulletin 91). These were mainly small pieces of land created as part of new housing developments and made available for community use. We made a series of recommendations regarding future management, including identifying sites where there appeared to be potential for new blackthorn planting. I am pleased to report that the Council have now agreed to go ahead with our recommendations on a site at the rear of Bourne Close in Flyford Flavell. The idea is to develop this as a community project hopefully involving local residents with the Council providing the blackthorn whips and the local community and ourselves undertaking the planting. At the same time, we plan to coppice a very overgrown stand of blackthorn to provide young blackthorn suitable for egglaying. We do not yet have a date for this activity but it will be in the New Year and we hope that some of our local Hairstreak Champions will also want to take part. Further details to follow.
Mention was made in the last ebulletin about our efforts to develop a conservation strategy for the Brown Hairstreak in Redditch involving the local Council and Natural England. Both organisations have proved very supportive and, as a first step, the Council has agreed to initiate a 4 year rotation of blackthorn in the Oakenshaw district where an adult female was reported in early September as a result of publicity in the local press. Discussions are continuing and there are one or two other developments in the pipeline which we will report on later..
With no advance on the last sighting date of 6th October previously reported, we can now begin this year's egging season in earnest. It is not long before our first major egg hunt of the season planned for Sat, 24th November meeting at Grafton Church for 10 am, when we are aiming to begin our core egg count of the blackthorn around the joint BC/WWT reserve at Grafton Wood. This will be 43rd year of egg counts at this site, making it almost certainly the longest running monitoring survey of any UK butterfly. Do come along if you can. This year, there were an unusually high number of adults reported around the wood and it will be interesting to see if this is reflected in an improved egg count. In the meantime, we shall be meeting every Thurs at the same time and same place to carry out egg searches of the wider countryside, including Redditch, and all are welcome but best to let me know in advance if you are planning to attend (Tel. 07802 274552 ).
Brown Hairstreak Species Champion,
West Midlands Butterfly Conservation