Help is at Hand – Benefits to an Observatree volunteer of buddying up with other organisations

Help is at Hand – Benefits to an Observatree volunteer of buddying up with other organisations

Blog by David Slawson, Observatree Volunteer

You know that feeling – you’ve had all the training and now you have to do it for yourself.  Well, getting started on monitoring for Observatree can feel like that.  Where should I survey? Who owns the land? How do I find out who to contact? Why don’t they reply to me? Argh!


Well, there is an exciting development that will not only will make life easier for us Observatree surveyors on the ground but will also play an important role nationally in extending the network of organisations contributing to tree health surveillance. Observatree is looking to develop a scheme of associate memberships with the likes of Scottish Natural Heritage, English Heritage and others.  It really is a “win, win”: Observatree gains because more people are looking out for tree pests and diseases and the natural assets of partner organisations are better protected from the increased vigilance.

This sounds very grand but I have a recent personal experience to show that in essence it is quite simple.  I signed up for the Scottish Ash Project, which aims to provide a photographic record of the progression of Chalara ash dieback in Scotland.  Our specific mission was to “select 10 mature/semi-mature ash trees (50:50 gender balance and as widely distributed in ‘your patch’ as you are willing to travel) to give a reasonable geographic spread. Ideally, the trees should have no, or insignificant levels of Chalara-induced crown dieback”. After a few exchanges with Charlotte and Meaghan, I was given the green light to consider how best to monitor ash trees in my patch – the Highlands of Scotland!!

Ash dieback in tree crown, Photo: S. Zidar

Where to start? Well, those lucky enough to attend the excellent Observatree training event at Falls Of Clyde back in June 2019, will recall a talk by Jenny Park (Operations Officer, South Highland, Scottish Natural Heritage) who invited Observatree volunteers to get in touch if we thought any of their National Nature Reserve (NNR) sites or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) would be of use to our work.

Rassal Ashwood, near Kishorn – David Slawson

Help with site selection

So, I contacted SNH who kindly provided a link to SiteLink which provides access to data and information on key Protected Areas across Scotland, suggested possible sites with ash and also put me in touch with local SNH Operations Officers, Mary Gibson and Tamara Lawton.  Mary is responsible for Rassal Ashwood, near Kishorn (NG841433) reputedly the most northerly ash woodland in Britain and at least 6,000 years old. Tamara is responsible for Dundonnell Woods (NH114856) also containing many majestic ash and even further north than Rassal.

Company on visits and introductions to landowners

After some liaison to agree a date convenient to us all, including the owners/managers who were interested in the project, we agreed a date and on a very rainy day in October, I headed west from home in Nairn.  Mary and Tamara could not have been more helpful.  They provided full details of where to meet, introduced me to the owners who were keen to learn about Chalara and the project, and gave me a guided tour of the sites to select appropriate trees.  The rain however was so heavy that “sexing” the trees to make a final selection and to take the first photographs was virtually impossible and so I took photographs of and noted the location of a number of prospective trees to aid final selection in the spring. Sadly, the heavy rain could not hide the symptoms of Chalara that were present at both sites. The photograph below shows a classic symptom seen on a young tree at Dundonnell, although the disease was far more extensive at Rassal.  When home, I completed Observatree site survey forms and, as a priority pest/pathogen was observed, I also submitted reports to TreeAlert.  Since then, Forest Research have contacted me because the sites represent findings in new 10k grid squares and so require a physical sample for laboratory confirmation.

A candidate ash tree for study at Rassal – David Slawson

Symptoms of Chalara ash dieback at Dundonnell Wood - David Slawson
Symptoms of Chalara ash dieback at Dundonnell Wood – David Slawson

Future help with tasks

However, Mary and Tamara’s help did not end there. Given the ecological importance of Rassal Ashwood, Mary suggested that SNH volunteers could help in our project by taking some of the required photographs for me, Rassal being some 85 miles and over two hours away from home.  Also, with some initial training about the symptoms of Chalara, they could map the site to aid their own management planning of the site for the distressed owner. 


More opportunities to network and spread the word

Furthermore, news of our Observatree project has been picked up by Jeanette Hall (SNH Woodland Advisor) who organises monthly seminars at SHN Headquarters in Inverness and has suggested that a presentation would be an excellent way to encourage interest in the ash project more widely in SNH as the seminars are networked to other offices across Scotland by video conference, so they “often have quite a large audience”. 


Finally, SNH have close links with the Highland Biological Recorders Group which provides another opportunity to share contact details, raise their awareness of tree pests and pathogens, ask them to look out for and report via Tree Alert anything unusual, offer to reciprocate if we see anything of interest to them and also encourage their people to take simple biosecurity measures when moving from site to site.

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