Ministers under fire as disease threatens to wipe out ash trees

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A DISEASE threatening to devastate the UK’s native ash trees has now been found at 115 sites, Government officials said yesterday.

Cases of Chalara ash dieback have been confirmed in woodlands in six more counties – Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Sussex, Berkshire, Bedfordshire and Northumberland – in addition to Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Essex where it had already been identified in the countryside.

The latest figures show the disease has been found in 61 locations in the wider countryside, as well as 39 planting sites and 15 tree nurseries, a total of 115 sites in all. Ten locations have been identified across Yorkshire.

The results of an intensive survey by hundreds of people over the weekend and this week came as Environment Secretary Owen Paterson held a summit yesterday with representatives of industry, conservation groups and experts to discuss the problem.

The Chalara fraxinea fungus, which causes leaf loss and crown dieback and can lead to tree death, has wiped out 90 per cent of ash trees in some parts of Denmark and is becoming widespread throughout central Europe.

There are fears that the UK’s ash trees are facing a similar fate to its elms, destroyed by Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.

Martin Ward, chief plant health officer at Defra, said: “We have thrown all possible resources at this surveying exercise which has given us a much clearer picture of the distribution of the disease to inform our evidence base.

“The science on Chalara is still emerging and the more evidence we have, the greater our knowledge and understanding of this disease and the better we are able to tackle it.

“I’d like to thank everyone involved in this survey.

“Together we’ve surveyed over 92 per cent of England and all of Scotland and Wales so far – a tremendous achievement, especially in such a short time, which shows our combined determination to deal with Chalara.”

But Labour criticised the Government for responding slowly to the issue, after it emerged that ministers had been told about the presence of ash dieback in the UK in April.

Shadow environment secretary Wakefield MP Mary Creagh said: “Ministers were told about the presence of ash dieback in the country on April 3 yet waited till October 29 to ban ash imports.

“This seven-month delay is a tragic example of the appalling incompetence and inertia which is a hallmark of this Government.

“Scientists tell us the disease loves wet conditions and spreads from June to October but Ministers failed to get a ban in place over the summer months.

“We have had the wettest summer on record and I fear have lost a year in our fight against this terrible disease.”

The Woodland Trust, which 
attended yesterday’s summit on ash dieback, unveiled a three-point plan to tackle tree 
disease, which includes implementing a project to bring scientists and the public together to monitor the UK’s trees and woods.

The trust, which has an ambition to double the country’s woodland cover, also pledged to invest in UK tree nurseries to ensure that it only plants trees that are UK-grown and disease-free, and support local and community nurseries.

And the conservation group said it intended to bring together specialists from the UK, Europe and around the world to share knowledge and safeguard trees and woods against an “unprecedented” wave of pests and diseases.

Woodland Trust chief executive Sue Holden said: “We are committed to tackling the growing threat of all tree pests and diseases in the UK and, by publishing this plan, we will continue to lead the fight for the future of our trees and woods.

“We also will fight to ensure that greater priority is given to trees and woods by Government.

“The situation regarding ash dieback is a sad reflection of the degree of priority that has been given to the protection and safeguarding of our natural woodland resources and of the environment as a whole. This must be immediately addressed.”

At Farnley Tyas, Huddersfield, ash saplings have been burned at Farnley Estates nursery after being contaminated with the fungus.