Photo artist charts year of loss and hope for Devon's trees

A year of loss and hope across Devon’s precious woodlands and hedgerows is the subject of a new on-line photo exhibition being launched today (Monday 26th April 2021).
Man on crane felling tree. Black and white image.

Felling an ash at Watersmeet, Exmoor. Photo, Robert Darch

The unique collection, called ‘æsc‘ (Old English, meaning ash tree), is the work of Exeter-based photographic artist Robert Darch. The photos have been commissioned by two local leading charities, Devon Wildlife Trust and Beaford Arts.

æsc contains 122 images captured in a range of Devon’s urban and rural landscapes over the past year. Many show the dramatic moments in which mature ash trees – some several hundreds years old – were felled after succumbing to the deadly fungal disease, ash dieback.

It has been estimated that Devon is set to lose 90% of its 1.9 million ash trees to ash dieback. The disease was first detected in the UK in 2012. The exhibition depicts this loss, but also documents the efforts of local communities as they have worked to restore Devon’s lost trees through the planting of other native species including oaks, rowans and crab apples in the gaps left by disappearing ash.

Robert Darch is an Associate Lecturer in Photography at the University of Plymouth. His work has been featured in publications including The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. Robert Darch said:

I had heard of ash dieback before working on this project, but had in no way comprehended the scale and amount of trees that will be affected. It has been a really difficult year, working in the shadow of Covid and witnessing so many ash trees being felled, but seeing the work being done by Devon Wildlife Trust in very difficult times replanting native species has been really inspiring. It has been an honour and privilege to be making work for the Beaford archive, which is an invaluable record of time and place in Devon.  

Robert Darch's work shares the devastating impact that ash dieback is having on our landscape, but it also ends with signs of hope
Rosie Cotgreave
Devon Wildlife Trust
Portrait of woman holding sapling. Black and white.

A portrait of Devon Wildlife Trust's Rosie Cotgreave, taken at Meeth tree nursery. One of the images taken by Robert Darch.

Devon Wildlife Trust leads the Saving Devon Treescapes project which is working to restore losses caused by ash dieback. Robert Darch spent time with the project and its volunteers as they established local tree nurseries and coordinated the planting of trees across Devon, replacing those that have been lost.

Devon Wildlife Trust’s Rosie Cotgreave said:

“Ash trees have such a big cultural significance in our landscapes and so it’s vital that we capture this moment in time through Robert’s art. His work shares the devastating impact that ash dieback is having on our landscape, but it also ends with signs of hope. Communities, landowners, schools and businesses have all come together to ensure that we will have a diverse and thriving treescape for years to come. Through the project, more than 10,000 trees have been planted over the last year with plans to plant and nurture 250,000 trees by the year 2025. Ash Dieback will affect everyone, but the Saving Devon’s Treescape project ensures everyone can be part of the solution.”

The commission was led by Beaford, England’s longest-established rural cultural initiative, which has worked in partnership with North Devon communities for more than 50 years. The photos charting tree loss and rejuvenation are set to become part of the Beaford Archive – a photographic record of Devon people which already contains more than 80,000 images by well-known photographers James Ravilious and Sir Roger Deakins CBE, now a twice Oscar-winning cinematographer.

Mark Wallace, Director of Beaford, said:

“The Beaford Archive is a unique record of our land and lives, and it now looks to the future as well as the recent past. Ash dieback is going to have a huge impact on the familiar scenes we know and love. Rob’s images - from the haunting to the hopeful - show both what we’re losing and how Saving Devon’s Treescapes is shaping our recovery.”

People can see the photographs of æsc on Robert Darch's website. The images are free to access.

People, community groups, businesses and schools looking to take part in the Saving Devon Treescapes project can contact its coordinator Rosie Cotgreave by email at rcotgreave@devonwildlifetrust.org

Saving Devon’s Treescapes is a partnership project led by Devon Wildlife Trust on behalf of the Devon Ash Dieback Resilience Forum and is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Tesco Bags of Help and One Tree Planted.