‘Can I spray you?’ asks the man aiming the nozzle of a container of pink disinfectant at my lower half. ‘It’s just that I don’t know where you’ve been.’
It’s an unusual welcome to the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), an 800-plus-square-kilometre stretch of traditionally farmed hilly land on the Wales–England border, but I haven’t been singled out. The rest of our party, AONB promotions officer Stephanie Hayes and landowner John Yeoward, are getting the same treatment.
The only ones to escape are Yeoward’s two springer spaniels, Monarch and Duke, because they haven’t strayed from the farm for some time. We’re about to visit a river that still has a healthy population of native crayfish, and the man with the sprayer – AONB river valleys officer Mike Kelly – doesn’t want us tramping crayfish plague into the area on our boots.
‘It’s already further down the river,’ say Kelly. He explains that the disease was brought into the area by non-native North American signal crayfish, which have developed resistance to the disease. ‘And it’s heading this way,’ says Kelly. ‘It’s typical – it’s a utopia here,’ adds Yeoward. ‘We have everything good here, and then the other things come and find us.’
And crayfish aren’t the only species under threat in this water-veined utopia (the AONB has more than 1,000 kilometres of watercourse, with nowhere more than a kilometre from flowing water of some sort). The alder (or ‘woller’ as the locals call it), a water-loving plant that makes up 80 per cent of the area’s riverside tree population, is also being attacked, in this case by Phytophthora, a waterborne fungus similar to potato blight.
The disease was first spotted in southern parts of the UK in 1994 and has since spread northwards. ‘We’ve never had a dieback in alders before,’ says Kelly, who believes that the disease is being abetted by increasingly warm winters. Once it takes hold, it kills off the tree’s interior and roots, manifesting itself as oozing sores or ‘tarry spots’ on the trees’ trunks. Now the blight has reached the Shropshire Hills, and more than 15 per cent of the area’s alders are thought to be diseased or dead.
Dieback of the trees will cause the rivers’ banks to crumble, releasing soil into the water and making the environment unappealing for the salmon and trout that lay their eggs in the gravelly river bed. ‘There’s nothing we can do to stop alder disease,’ says Kelly. ‘The genie is out of the bottle. All we can do is mitigate the damage.’
This means continuing the coppicing work that’s already in progress. By removing the alder canopy, diseased trees are more likely to survive and sunlight reaches the lower banks, causing ground vegetation to spring up, creating homes for small insects, which, in turn, provide food for fish and birds.
The coppicing used to be done by local people, who would use the cut wood to make charcoal and clogs, which were worn by workers toiling in northern England’s mills. But the market for alder wood has decreased: clog production stopped after the Second World War, and most UK charcoal is now imported.
To make coppicing financially attractive to farmers, Kelly is developing markets for alder as firewood and as a raw material to make kitchen floors and furniture. ‘The idea is to make coppicing cost-neutral,’ says Kelly, who is also working with landowners to fence off riverbanks and prevent cattle pushing soil and unwanted nutrients (in the form of animal manure) into the river. Such measures have been shown to increase young salmon numbers sevenfold in other rivers, he says.
If the riverbed remains silt-free, the habitat will appeal to another aquatic species: the freshwater mussel. Once common throughout Britain, its populations were decimated by pearl hunters, who had to crack open around 10,000 shells to find a single pearl.
‘There are now only three viable populations in England and Wales,’ says Kelly as we stand by the Folly Brook, a tributary of the River Clun. ‘One is at the bottom of this river, but it’s not very happy there, so we would like to move it somewhere else.’ He has been surveying the local rivers for a prize spot (they like very clean water), and will approach landowners to find someone who might like to adopt a mussel community.
The Shropshire Hills’ alders, which can sprout to a height of 25 metres within 50 years, are youngsters compared with the 800 or so ‘veteran trees’ – defined by Natural England as ‘trees that are of interest biologically, culturally or aesthetically because of their age, size or condition’ – found in the AONB, including the Norbury yew, which is thought to be more than 2,700 years old. ‘A lot of them were used to mark the boundary between England and Wales,’ Hayes says. ‘We have a high number of veteran trees in this area because there hasn’t been a lot of development. Farming still dominates the economy here, and most of the farms are small family holdings, so the land hasn’t been cleared.’
Among the least-touched pieces of land is the Hollies, a collection of around 200 holly trees thought to be between 300 and 400 years old. ‘There’s probably nothing like them in Europe,’ says John Hughes, development manager at the Shropshire Wildlife Trust (SWT), which last year purchased the trees and the 35 or so hectares of surrounding mixed heathland and grassland for £250,000.
They crouch on the hillside like gnarly overgrown hobbits, staring out of the mist along with the sheep. ‘You’re looking at a landscape that was probably formed in antiquity,’ says Hughes as we walk among the trees. ‘What we’re standing in now was probably once a woodland. It was cleared for agriculture by the people who worked at the mines. They left the holly trees to provide winter fodder for their animals when the grazing was covered with snow. Without these trees, they wouldn’t have survived the harsh winters up here.’
Although it seems a bit prickly for a gourmet cattle food, Hughes says holly is ‘actually very palatable and nutritious for animals’, which is why it evolved spikes – to ward off hungry mouths. But, he says, these are only needed at the bottom of the tree, and higher holly leaves are relatively spike-free. It’s these leaves that the miners harvested; by doing so, they inadvertently extended the lives of the trees.
And according to Ted Green, an expert on ancient trees, the prescription for their conservation is to continue the pollarding treatment. Hughes doesn’t think this will be a problem, as there’s a long tradition of cutting holly for Christmas in the area (nearby Tenbury Wells is home to Europe’s biggest holly and misteltoe markets) and a little (controlled) festive pruning is just what the trees need to stay in good shape.
The Hollies are on the Stiperstones, a distinctive 480-million-year-old quartzite ridge. The SWT has been eyeing that piece of land for some time, as it hopes to use it to link other areas of heath into a continuous 9.5-kilometre strip. ‘Because of our patchwork of landscape in Britain, we end up with these isolated populations,’ says Hughes. ‘It’s classic Darwinism. But unlike in the Galápagos Islands, the populations aren’t big enough to sustain themselves. You don’t get new genes coming into the pool, the populations reduce and then suddenly collapse, like the house sparrows have in London.’
To make sure this doesn’t happen to the numerous species that call the Stiperstones home – including the emperor moth, wild hare, curlew and common lizard – the plan is to create larger areas of habitat that link up isolated populations. ‘Everyone is doing it now,’ says Hughes. ‘The only difference is, we started about ten years ago. It’s the best response we have to climate change and the best way to preserve the biodiversity of these landscapes.’
Where to see the unusual rolly tree
The Hollies on the Stiperstones. ‘You get this interesting phenomenon here: rowan trees will burst up through the middle of the holly tree trunks that have rotted down after pollarding. It creates a rolly: a holly-and-rowan tree.’
John Hughes, Shropshire Wildlife Trust development manager
How to get around the Shropshire Hills in summer
On the weekend shuttle bus (www.shropshirehillsaonb.co.uk/enjoying-the-shropshire-hills/shuttles/). ‘There are three routes that take you on the most beautiful journey up over the hills, and passengers can get on and off during the day to go walking, stop at a pub or visit a local attraction. An adult day rover ticket costs £5.’
Stephanie Hayes, AONB promotions officer
Where to go for a long walk
‘The Shropshire Way passes by the end of our garden, and Offa’s Dyke [an ancient earthwork that follows the Wales–England border] isn’t far away – we can drop walkers off in the morning and pick them up in the evening.’
Elizabeth Ronan, co-owner of Magnolia B&B, Bishop’s Castle
Where to spot riverside wildlife
The Riverside Ramble walk. ‘It starts at the Discovery Centre in Craven Arms and goes up to the top of the town. Look out for dippers and kingfishers on the way. Or, further into the countryside, the River Redlake area is really nice.’
Mike Kelly, AONB river valleys officer
This article was published in the February 2009 edition of Geographical magazine.