| Ash trees consumed by something of the night|
|The fading glow of the winter afternoon reduced the hedgerow ashes to gaunt silhouettes. A few were well proportioned but some bore ungainly, claw-ended branches that reached out over the footpath. The architect of these open-crowned specimens was most likely the tiny ash bud moth. Its caterpillar consumes the terminal bud of young shoots, triggering growth of buds lower down the stem and generating wide-forked branching patterns. So, even during the five months when the tree is in full leaf, light penetrates easily and encourages rampant growth of ivy. The trunks of many ancient ashes hereabouts are wrapped from root to crown in its glossy evergreen coat, with bare branches protruding like stag antlers.|
Under one such decrepit tree we found a decaying limb bearing the coal-black, bun-shaped toadstools that are King Alfred's cakes. They commemorate England's most famously incompetent baker. Legend has it that, while fleeing from a Viking raid and seeking food and shelter from the wife of a swineherd, he was asked to oversee her baking – and let her cakes burn while preoccupied with matters of state.
Now a new invasion has arrived from across the North Sea in the form of airborne spores of pathogenic ash dieback fungus – and King Alfred's cakes will benefit from the destruction it causes. The fungus is harmless and confined to dead ash timber, but there is something of the night about its excrescences. Back in 1955 the eminent mycologist Terence Ingold found it discharges its spores rhythmically and only after nightfall. Even when kept in continuous darkness its biological clock ensures it does not start shooting out spores until the natural day ends. We left our specimens behind in the gathering dusk. By spring they will be ready to disperse spores that will find a new crop of dead ashes. Their time has come.