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  • Julie Muller

MIDSUMMER HILL - (Malvern Hills A.O.N.B.) Death By Fungus - Ash Die Back

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

(nearest postcode HR8 1ES)

I always thought that Sunday afternoon walks were meant to be relaxing but today, our humans decided to take the steepest ascent up to the summit of Midsummer Hill in Herefordshire – a hill owned and managed by the National Trust.

Two sheep dogs sit by the National Trust sign on Midsummer Hill, one of the Malvern Hills in Herefordshire
Shep and Bruno relax on the slopes of Midsummer Hill in Herefordshire

The steep grassy slope soon took us into the woods and the path was crossed with the thick roots of old wizened trees which characteristically clothe the sides of this Malvern hill.

This deciduous woodland contains a variety of trees including oak and hawthorn, sycamore, and yew but the most abundant tree by far is the English ash.

Sadly, over the course of the last few years, the ash trees have been affected by a fungal infection called Ash Die Back disease. The fungus emerges from the leaflitter and releases spores which are wafted by air currents up into the leaf canopy. These settle on the leaves, wind their way into the trees’ circulatory systems and eventually kill the tree. Young trees usually die within a couple of seasons, but it may take several years for older trees to succumb. But, as the disease spreads through the tree, it starves the limbs of water, and the resulting unstable deadwood falls to the ground - often without warning.

The fungus lurks in the leaf litter primed to start the process all over again. The way in which it is spread means that the native ash trees have no chance of escape, and they have few, if any defence, against this alien Asian invader.

Of course, this means that many ash trees will need to be felled and so the lovely, wooded aspect of Midsummer is likely to change significantly.

Even for us canines, it was really hard climbing up the slope today but soon we emerged on the ramparts of Midsummer Hill Iron Age fort.

A sheepdog stands on the summit of Midsummer Hill with views towards the  Welsh Hills
Shep poses on the summit of Midsummer Hill in Herefordshire

The sun was shining a warm lemon light and we raced towards a concrete shelter sitting astride the summit. This rectangular structure was erected in the memory of a young soldier called Reginald Somers Cocks, who died in battle towards the end of the first World War.

This young soldier signed up for service in 1914 and he was very well liked by his comrades. He was actually awarded a Military Cross for his bravery, but never personally received it as he was killed in action carrying out his duties of assessing the conditions at the frontline and sending the information back to his colleagues.

He had only been married for just a few short months when he died.

The grass was warm and soft on the top, so I rolled over, and quality checked the turf as usual. It is strange to think that over 2,000 years ago, people lived and worked in a thriving Iron Age community right up here on the top of the hill. In fact, artefacts have been found that suggest that the hill was important in both the Neolithic and Bronze Ages too.

There are also pillow mounds which were used by the Normans as artificial rabbit warrens when they brought them across from Europe.

There were amazing views from the summit. The soft green pastures tumbled down the hill towards the fairy-tale- like Eastnor Castle ,whilst on a hill in front of us, a needle-like obelisk scraped the sky in commemoration of the Somers family’s actions in the conflicts of the eighteenth century. Sheep bleated in the vale below whilst pheasants fidgeted in the undergrowth or screeched surprise when startled.

There was a chilly wind picking up as we climbed back down the hill. Bruno and I trotted ahead to see who we could find but despite the large numbers of cars that we had left behind at the carpark, we saw no other dogs or their humans. I wonder where they all went?

The sun was beginning to set. A ripple of fruity jackdaw clack-chat burst from the treetops, and we wearily trotted down the track back towards the car.

It is sad to think that the distinctive tree-topped profile of Midsummer Hill will soon change but this is not necessarily bad. The ground, for so long starved of light, will explode with

wildflowers and slowly but surely the remaining trees will climb ever skywards to replace their stricken comrades.

A sheepdog rests on the steep path up to the summit of Midsummer Hill in Herefordshire
Bruno sits on the path up to the summit of Midsummer Hill

As for Bruno and I, Midsummer Hill will always be one of our favourite afternoon saunters!!

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