How Biomass Could Save 125m Ash Trees from Dieback Disease

Woody biomass can be harvested to create many different products such as firewood, charcoal, bio-oil, ethanol, and even gasoline.

Tue 09 Jan 24


“Woody biomass” is being embraced worldwide as multinationals look to decarbonise – not only as an energy source but also as a substitute for pulverised coalplastics and fashion.

Now, biochar technology is helping to save 125m ash trees from disease across the United Kingdom in a project that could save billions of trees from extinction.

The project, led by start-up Earthly Biochar, is coating trees with charcoal to protect them from a disease known as ash dieback – a highly destructive disease caused by a fungal pathogen, Hymenoscyphus fraxineus.

Since being found in Poland more than 30 years ago, the disease is now widespread across Europe, with up to 85% mortality rates recorded in plantations and 69% in woodlands.

UK scientists are collecting samples from infected trees to understand whether genes in ash may harbour resistance to the disease – footage courtesy of @kewgardens.

Originating in Asia before spreading to Europe, the fungus penetrates the leaves of ash trees before growing inside the tree, eventually blocking its water transport systems and causing it to die. 

Spores of the fungus travel in the wind, meaning the disease spreads quickly, making it difficult to limit its impact.

According to Lottie Hawkins, founder of Earthy Biocar, early experiments tested on ash trees in Wales have shown promising results.

That project has inspired Ms Hawkins to replicate its success by recruiting farmers and citizens to get involved in a wide-scale experiment using biochar on ash trees.

“We’re asking people to go out and find an ash tree,” she told Scottish Farmer overnight.

“Whether it’s on their land, a nearby park, or a forest, tell us about it using our new ash dieback website. We can then send biochar out for people to apply directly to the tree or send it to the landowner, council, or forestry commission for them to apply.”

“Our mission is to help save the ash trees, not just by applying biochar but also by reducing the need for mass felling,” she said.

Biomass has been embraced as a solution for sustainable aviation fuels, as a substitute for cotton and even as an alternative for plastics – footage courtesy of @Carbonomix.

According to Ms Hawkins, French research suggests that 20% of ash trees have a genetic advantage that allows them to live successfully with the disease. 

“If we can use biochar to improve the health of the other 80%, then we could move towards only felling single trees if they’re a health and safety hazard,” she said.

“With mass felling, the healthy ash trees with this genetic advantage will also be felled. We need these 20% to repopulate and pass on their genetic advantages, protecting more of our future ash trees.”

“It’s not just the ash trees we’re trying to save; it’s also the species that rely on the ash, which often get forgotten about when we discuss losing these trees. 

As it stands, 115 ash-related species of insects, microbes, plants, and birds would risk falling into decline when the ash trees have gone, with the extinction of Ash trees causing devastation across the UK.

At present, ash dieback evokes major problems for forestry, particularly in sensitive forest remnants in North and Western Europe, damaging ash trees of all age classes and ultimately leading to the death of a tree after years of progressively developing crown defoliation. 


  • Wood Central

    Wood Central is Australia’s first and only dedicated platform covering wood-based media across all digital platforms. Our vision is to develop an integrated platform for media, events, education, and products that connect, inform, and inspire the people and organisations who work in and promote forestry, timber, and fibre.


Related Articles