Ash Dieback (Chalara)

The arrival of ash dieback disease (Chalara Fraxinea) on our shores is a real tragedy. The likelihood of major damage to our native and ancient woods, copses and hedgerows seems to be growing each day as we find out more about this disease, and the history of its impact on the continent. Perhaps the bigger tragedy, would be the potential loss of the fragile and beautiful upland ash woods of the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales where ash woods are a defining component of those cherished landscapes.

There has been huge concern from the public and those who love and value our native woods, mirrored by an almost overwhelming level of media interest. The Forestry Commission, both  through their field staff and Forest Research, have pulled out all the stops to get people on the ground to survey the extent of the outbreak before autumn leaf-fall makes it more difficult to complete assessment and diagnosis. You can get the latest on their progress and find information about how to identify the disease on their chalara webpage.

There has been much debate already about the circumstances in which the disease got here, and to what extent there may have been missed opportunities to act to prevent this. The disease was first picked up on young ash trees, at tree nurseries, ready to be shipped out to planting projects to re-stock and create new woods. The picture has been further complicated by recent discoveries in Norfolk and Suffolk where the disease is present on mature ash trees, some of which are not associated with any recent planting sites. This clearly raises the question that the disease may also have come in via other routes – on the continent the disease can advance as much as 20km in a single year as its tiny fungal spores are dispersed in the wind and weather.

Our own site at Pound Farm in Suffolk has a confirmed outbreak. We are working closely with the Forestry Commission and are putting the necessary Biosecurity Precautions in place. This means that no firewood, timber or plant materials can be taken on or off the site, and all access by contractors is carefully monitored. However, the Forestry Commission have confirmed that continued public access to the site does not pose a risk, and the public are asked to follow the information on the signs posted there to keep this risk to a minimum. We are also working with the local Wildlife Trusts in Norfolk and Suffolk to co-ordinate our responses.

All our staff are fully aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease and we are co-operating with the FC on the wider survey centred on East Anglia. In addition, the University of East Anglia have helped to develop the smart phone app at http://www.ashtag.org/ that enlists the help of the public to track the extent and spread of the disease.

As soon as it became clear to us that there was a serious risk of the disease spreading in the UK (around a month ago) we called for an immediate ban on ash plant imports. We also called for a ‘task force’ to be set up to discuss both ash dieback and a number of wider tree disease issues. The government has just announced that it is doing both of those things.

The Trust has always specified that our tree planting stock should be of UK provenance i.e. from seed collected from native trees here in the UK. However, it has only recently come to light that some tree nurseries may have been exporting that UK tree seed abroad, where it was grown on and imported back. This is the key issue, as some may have unwittingly brought the disease back with them. At the Trust, we had no reason to suspect that any of the nurseries that we sourced trees from would be doing this. All plants were supplied to us by nurseries with the necessary paperwork to confirm that they were of UK provenance.

With the exception of just one of our sites, where we are confident that the ash trees have been sourced and grown in the UK at a nursery that doesn’t import trees, we are not planting ash this year on our own sites.  We are not stopping planting altogether – rather, we are substituting other UK native species for the ash.  We are also not including ash in our community packs or the MOREwoods packs that we supply to schools, communities and other landowners.  We will continue with this approach until the situation is clearer.

The Government has confirmed that it will set up a task force, headed by Professor Ian Boyd, to bring together all of the key interests that are affected by the outbreak and which will also have a role in ensuring the right responses are taken. The situation for ash is clearly of greatest concern, but the task force must consider the whole range of pests and diseases that continue to threaten the future of our ancient and native woods.

We continue to work closely with colleagues in the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, CLA, ICF, Forestry Commission and Forest Research to make sure that our efforts are well co-ordinated.

Austin Brady – Head of Conservation

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About Austin Brady

Director of Conservation (UK) at the Woodland Trust
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34 Responses to Ash Dieback (Chalara)

  1. Angus Macmillan says:

    What a bunch of hypocrits the Woodland Trust are.

    Sue Holden says, “The Woodland Trust has been working to raise awareness of these issues for a number of years and has drawn attention to the need to enforce stricter measures to stop the import and spread of tree disease. Until a tragedy such as ash dieback becomes a reality, it is difficult to impress upon people the importance of protecting the UK’s trees and the need to enforce stricter controls to prevent new pests and diseases entering the country”

    Gosh really! So why didn’t they stop the tree imports themselves?

    They seems to have jumped on the bandwagon by persuading DEFRA to to invite them to become part of the task force. It’s like getting the convicts to run the jail The Woodland Trust and other similar organisations who have been planting diseased foreign trees on out soil should be compensating the taxpayer and others for the damage they’ve brought to this country. . It make a mockery of “native” trees when they are brought in from abroad.

    I have twice asked the Woodland Trust for details of their sites that are affected by Ash Dieback but they don’t reply.

    Says it all!

  2. Arboricultural Landscape says:

    I work on a job that planted local provenance native ash trees last year – I was astounded when FERA turned up on the job advising that seeds had been collected locally, sent abroad, grown on (and potentially got Chalara) – were shipped back to UK and sold as local provenance native trees – what a joke! From now on I will be specifying UK grown trees only…stuff the EU and their free movement of goods. It beggars belief why this practice goes on and few knew about it, but you can be assured that it still goes on…locally native hawthorn whips from Holland anyone!!

  3. Sandra says:

    Having nurtured 2 young ash tree saplings in danger of a weeding programme in our garden in Bucks some years ago, I now go out regularly to check they have not fallen victim to this terrible disease.

    They are about 8 years old, and seem to be healthy. Hopefully they will survive. How can I reproduce them and perhaps set up a new market in English cultivated ash? Any offers?

    We are basically in a beech tree area in South Bucks so hopefully there are no contaminated trees nearby, perhaps someone might have this information and how we might protect them?

    • Austin Brady says:

      Sandra
      I am afraid it might be a while before we know if your ash trees, along with many more, are resistant to the disease. It will only be worth starting a breeding programme once we are sure that we have found resistant trees and this will only become clear once the disease has come into contact with lots more ash trees.

  4. James Cope says:

    We need to learn from this to try to avoid the loss of any more species. The EU surely should prioritise plant health over free movement of goods. Chalara has been spreading across Europe for 20 years.
    Last winter I planted 5.5 hectares of ash for coppicing. Did no-one at the Forestry Commission think to contact me and warn me about Chalara?
    Our island status is not going to protect us if plant material is allowed to move about freely and, as appears to be the case with plants bought by the Trust, surreptitiously. How can it be allowed that plants can be sold with no indication of where they were grown? Why is there not more joined up thinking on planting grants so that when funding is agreed plants can be ordered from a local nursery and then planted when ready? The current system means nurseries have to guess what their orders will be and grow accordingly. If they get it wrong as they inevitably will, they either have to import plants or destroy surplus stock. I feel all planting material should be genuinely sourced from, say, a radius of 30 miles. If people complain about restricting free movement of goods, the response should be that when it comes to protecting native flora and fauna b*gger free movement of goods.

  5. Ralph says:

    Having read the comments regarding C Fraxinea, The Woodland Trust, and Forestry Commission, etc. I feel there are many truth’s and yet untruth’s in what has been said. I feel, as has been said before, the Woodland trust has set themselves up as the great tree and woodland protectors, but have let their punters and the UK down by the importation of possibly infected plants which will lead to the destruction of the very thing they set out to protect.

    By no means is it only the Woodland Trust who have played a part in this, although they were traversing dodgy ground a few years back when contractors were stopped from seeking good quality local provenance plants on the basis they were too expensive, instead plants were bought from one nursery who had their arm twisted off by the Trust to keep the price low, and although most plants were good quality, one always has to wonder where the plants had originally come from as I know nurseries boost each others stock and thus opening the gateway for infected imports to become distributed across the country.

    Whilst on the subject of Nurseries I heard on the radio that some were considering suing the government for compensation on the loss of sales and stock, hang on a minute, I know the government were ridiculously late in acting, surely the Nurseries have a major responsibility in checking the health of plants coming into this country from infected areas abroad, I know the government was requested to act earlier to ban imports, but failed, Nurseries could have taken the lead and stopped importing, but no, and 5.2 million ash plants were imported from infected areas abroad during the period 2003 2011.

    Now I have had my little rant, I am not sure how infected young plants are destroyed, burning I presume, and as I think I am right in saying the infecting spores are from the fruiting body, the teleomorphic state of the pathogen, this can happen between June and October. what my thoughts are, is it possible that any burning in this period could result in the heat from the fire lifting spores into the air to be picked up by the wind and spread thus.

    My other thought is, have the scientists working on this discovered what attracts this Pathogen to ash trees, if this has been established it may be possible to produce an antidote and stem inject our mature and ancient ash until such time we can see if there are any resistant trees to gather seed from.
    I know they have been working on this for years and am sure they have an answer, but I am unable to find one.

  6. Reblogged this on LEARN FROM NATURE and commented:
    Excellent post on #ash #dieback

  7. Anne hastings says:

    You give the number of ash that could possibly be diseased, but what proportion of all our trees is this?

    • Austin Brady says:

      Anne
      Ash trees make up about 5% of all woodland in the UK, but this figure rises to about 10% for England alone. If you are just looking at broadleaved woods then the proportion of ash rises further to about 15%. Ash is the third commonest woodland tree after oak and birch. Ash is also the most numerous of tree species outside of woods in hedgerows and the wider landscape. The Forestry Commission estimate that there are 12 million ash trees in the wider countryside outside woods and forests.

  8. starfrost says:

    When I first heard about Ash dieback disease and that Ash trees were imported into Britain, I was astonished. Why? Ash trees grow so well here! Now I hear that even the Woodland Trust were importing trees. Please can someone explain why anyone should want/need to do this?

    • Arboricultural Landscape says:

      Economics – the Dutch can grow our locally native trees in Holland for 1p cheaper per tree than we can grow them here – even after shipping costs, etc

      • starfrost says:

        Ah, money – 1p a tree cheaper – thanks, that’s interesting. Perhaps it’s to do with land prices or taxation being less in Holland?. I would have expected bodies like the Woodland trust to have been aware of the risk of imports, and that risk should have been costed.
        But there again, how does one cost such a risk like losing a nation’s ash trees?
        Many, myself included, would think that’s an irreplaceable asset beyond financial price.

  9. Peter Wilding says:

    This seems a good moment for the Woodland Trust to take a long hard look at its whole policy of endlessly promoting the planting of trees.

    Tree planting has – at least up to now – been good for PR and for involving the public.

    However its pure conservation value, at least in lowland Britain, is probably very limited. Why? Because trees will grow by themselves, from wind-dispersed seed, on any suitable undisturbed land. Examples can be found in many places such as abandoned fields, allotments and road or railway embankments. To establish a new wood, all that is really necessary is to fence the area to exclude grazing animals. Come back after a few years, and you will find young trees. Come back after 20 to 50 years, and you will find woodland. Tree planting does not even accelerate the woodland creation process by very much, as young trees respond to the shock of being replanted by a period of slow growth (and will die if aftercare such as watering is not performed regularly). Naturally established seedlings are more robust. Waiting for woodland to establish itself naturally would also have the advantage that it will tend to produce a mix of species, all suited to the locality.

    It’s too late to prevent the spread of ash dieback disease, particularly as the latest information suggests that it is spread by windblown spores. However, there are other tree diseases around for which the importation of plant material may be the main risk factor. So, I would welcome any move to phase out imports of all tree species and grow whatever young trees are needed in the UK.

    However, I would also strongly urge the Woodland Trust to scale back tree planting and put the resources this would save into better management of its existing woods.

    • Austin Brady says:

      Peter – you make some interesting points.
      You might like to take a look at my latest blog which looks at these issues in more detail and picks up on a really interesting article on Guardian online from Plantlife on the same theme. However, in the meantime we are not stopping tree planting altogether – rather, we are substituting other UK native species for the ash. It is important to keep planting trees, but to do so in a way that better recognises the need to combat the risks and threats to our surviving ancient and native woods. Our new planting activity must deliver clear conservation and community benefits –helping biodiversity and wildlife or delivering environmental improvements such as public access, better places to live and work, or if possible do all of those things.
      We want to see areas of woodland planting and woodland expansion that buffer, extend and link our surviving ancient woods. We want to see new native woods contributing to bigger and better habitat networks, strengthening habitats in riparian zones and creating new woods through a combination of planting and natural regeneration. We want to use a wide range of native species and seed sources to make sure we have better genetic diversity. All of this together will help to deliver woodlands as part of habitat networks that are more resilient and robust in the face of the next wave of pests and diseases that will inevitably arrive. These diverse and connected woods will also be more resilient in the face of climate change and provide space for wildlife to move through the landscape and get a chance to adapt to these wider changes too.

  10. Steve Beech says:

    Having planted a community pack of trees from WT this year, should we be pulling out and destroying the ash trees supplied?

    • Arboricultural Landscape says:

      Depends where they come from – if they were grown in Holland and shipped over here then they might be under suspicion – there should be paperwork with the supplier that identifies where they came from.

      If they are UK grown the consensus I believe is no Steve – the ash trees you planted may not get the disease and if they do they’ll die anyway. If the disease does hit hard and your trees don’t get it, it might be that they are the small %age resistant to it and could be seed source to re-plant resistant trees in future. If you were to pull them out now we’d never know.

      I’d get in touch with the suppliers of your plants in the first instance to find out where they originated.

      If I have got this wrong then someone put me right.

    • Austin Brady says:

      Steve
      All of the ash plants that went out in our community packs were from UK sourced and UK grown trees and we do not think thay have been exposed to infected imported plants. It’s best to leave those ash trees in there if they are still healthy, but if there is any issue about infection that gets traced to your pack, then the plant health authorities would get in touch to advise you. It’s important that we get a chance to see how the disease behaves now that it’s here, and we need to be careful not to clear or destroy ash trees that might turn out to be resistant to the disease.

  11. Imogen Radford says:

    Matt, I don’t think Woodland Trust are the ‘one organisation that has said it can be a player in this’. There were representatives of getting on for 100 organisations at the summit 7 November (forestry sector, horticultural, conservation charities and bodies, local govt, user and recreation groups, plant scientists, woodland owners, and campaigners), at which the strong message that came across (including from WT) was the importance of working together and learning from the very impressive range of experts that are working so hard on this, and also from everyone else who has a contribution to make, including ordinary people who can help by reporting sightings at http://ashtag.org/ and spread awareness and encourage biosecurity http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/Poster_countrysidebiosecurity2012.pdf/$FILE/Poster_countrysidebiosecurity2012.pdf and more.
    The plants imported is one side of the story, while the trees infected it seems by wind-borne spores (as we are seeing in East Anglia and other eastern areas) is the other side. It seems unlikely anything could have been done to prevent that.

    As well as working together I think a call for sufficient resources for this and other tree dieases is crucial, and for forestry as a whole. The organisations working on this have been severely cut by the govt, and face ongoing cuts if the govt doesn’t think again and soon, and we must all argue for the cuts to be reversed and proper funding if we care about our trees, woods and forests.

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  14. Patrick Roper says:

    Can we be sure that the infected trees in nurseries were infected abroad? How do we know that they did not pick up the disease after arrival from wild plants in the nearby countryside on which the disease had not been noticed? Clearly nursery stock and important commercial and amenity forests and wildlife reserves are scrutinized much more closely than the wider, privately owned countryside with its millions of ash trees in seldom visited places. So detection of ash die back is likely to happen first in those nurseries, forests, reserves etc.

    As the FC say in their fact sheet, Chalara fraxinea can be spread on the wind, by birds, by people and vehicles travelling to and fro from mainland Europe etc. North west France where, apparently, the disease is widely prevalent can be seen from long stretches of the cliffs in Kent and Sussex. Examining all the ash trees here, then destroying any infected ones in situ would seem an impossible task and, if landowners had to pay for it, well …

    • Austin Brady says:

      Thanks for your comments Patrick.
      Sadly, I think the emerging evidence is now telling us that the level of inspections and controls on plant imports does not fit with the picture that you painted here. Also, the scientists and experts looking at the disease here in the UK and in Europe are pretty sure that the nursery stock that had arrived here in the UK could only have been infected before it got here. The disease spreads by wind borne spores which come from tiny fungal fruiting bodies on the fallen leaves of infected trees and does not get blown out into the wider environment until the June-Sept period following the fall of infected leaves. Most of the infected trees found in nurseries were removed and destroyed well before this could happen and even those planted out in the countryside had not reached their most infectious stage – that’s why the experts were suggesting it was helpful at that stage to remove them. So far, there has been no evidence found of recently planted ash trees infecting mature trees nearby.

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  16. Julie Taylor says:

    I feel so angry about this situation. I know what is done is done and that we must now deal with the disease wherever we find it in our UK woodlands. But I do feel we have been very badly let down by the government department that should have been taking action long before now.

    It sounds to me like the Woodland Trust should be thinking of setting up it’s own tree nurseries to ensure their trust cannot be abused in the same way again.

    • Austin Brady says:

      Julie
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the nursery idea. If you take a look our 3-point action plan on how the Trust is responding to trees disease you will see item 2 is a project to invest in UK tree nurseries to guarantee we get 100% UK sourced and grown saplings in future. Quite a lot of people contacted us with similar suggestions, so thanks. We really want to focus on working with others to do things better in future.

  17. Alex Jones says:

    It seems all our trees are under attack by something. I hope this can be stopped in its tracks.

  18. Such a shame you didn’t check with your suppliers that the trees you bought and planted were UK grown so you could have prevented any Chalara spread. But, well, you didn’t. Such a great, great shame.
    As “experts” I would have expected that’s the first thing you would do before purchasing trees – check where the seeds come from and check were they are grown into saplings.

    I hope the mistakes made by Defra not listening to advisers in 2009 to ban imports then, and the mistakes made by organisations like yourselves (who haven’t properly checked where the trees actually come from), do not contribute to a replay of the destruction of Dutch Elm Disease like proportions with our beautiful ash trees.
    If Defra had banned ash tree imports in 2009 when they knew the extent of the problem you would have found out then that the trees you were buying were grown abroad. You wouldn’t be finding out now after the horses have left the stable.

    • Austin Brady says:

      Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate the depth of feeling and concern that the chalara outbreak has generated. I have worked in the environment sector, with trees and woods for more than 25 years – my very first job as a junior member of a woodland contractor team included clearing up the tail end of the Dutch Elm disaster! My focus right now is working out how best to help in the task of identifying the extent and spread of chalara, to follow the guidance that Forestry Commission gives and to quickly identify the learning points from recent and current practice that may have exposed our precious ancient woods and native trees to such risks. This is a fast moving and complex issue, with infected planting stock being a major component, but the possibility of the disease having also arrived here by other means, such as on the wind. Our infected site at Pound Farm in Suffolk has had no young ash trees planted in or near it for some years.

      Ash disease is a real tragedy, but we are also faced with the much wider issue of the long list of other pest and disease threats identified by Forest Research professionals. That’s why we at the Trust have called for an emergency summit to bring together the plant health experts, the scientists, the government, the Forestry Commission, landowners and conservation bodies, and organisations involved in the trade and importation of trees and other plants. We have already raised concerns that reductions in funding of key parts of Forest Research may have exacerbated the problem.

      Clearly, there are lessons to be learnt here, and I appreciate that we are open to some criticism where we may have unknowingly played a part in the arrival of this problem. However, now is not the time for an exercise in finger-pointing, particularly as all of the relevant information is not yet available, that’s another good reason why we need that summit meeting. But before I stand up to take your criticism on the chin, let me remind you that we are in good company. I would be disappointed to discover that the Woodland Trust has been singled out, and feel sure that your comments could be applied equally to other organisations that felt they had taken reasonable steps when procuring their planting stock, only to be caught out by some supply chain practices that they were unaware of.

      At the Trust, we currently have only one single planting site with a confirmed case of ash disease that looks to have come in on infected planting stock. This puts us entirely in the same boat as the Forestry Commission, who also have at least one confirmed case on recently planted trees. In the interests of being a fair and even-handed commentator will you also share your concerns and aim the equivalent criticism at the Forestry Commission? I think we are all in this together…

      Austin Brady – Head of Conservation

      • You’re right. I have a huge depth of feeling for ash trees. They are the first trees I learnt to identify in all seasons with their knobbly witch’s fingers pointing to the sky in winter with black bishop-mitre buds. They are the first tree flowers I ever saw as I watched the buds burst into life. I used to pull up hundreds of tiny saplings from my garden as the seeds germinated from the tree on the field. I love the light filtering through the leaves in summer letting enough through to the woodland floor for other plants to succeed too. I’ve used their logs to keep my campfire going – hot enough to cook on even when the wood is green. I am passionate about ash trees.

        But then you are wrong. I have been loud in my condemnation of ANY organisation that brings in ash trees from abroad, as any number of the Woodland Trust’s PR people and Defra staff who follow me on Twitter will know. I have been loud in my condemnation of Defra for not acting sooner in a ban of imported ash trees, again as many of your PR people and Defra staff will know. If Defra had put a ban in place in 2009, you would have found out sooner that the Woodland Trust ash trees were imported. Something you should have known before purchase.

        Does the Woodland Trust account for its carbon footprint? If not, why not. If so, how can it be accurate when you didn’t even know that the seedlings for the ash trees you’ve bought over the past how-ever-many-years have been shipped/transported to another country, grown there, then shipped back again? That’s a lot of CO2 generated to grow trees for planting to mitigate CO2 emissions for other companies through your Woodland Carbon scheme. This smacks more than a little of hypocrisy.

        As an unelected body who has taken on the responsibility to “protect” vast swathes of our “native woods” I would’ve expected this blog post to be an apology to your members and to the rest of the UK population for not asking the right questions when sourcing and buying your trees – a handful of contrition at the very least for “unknowingly” making that purchasing choice.

        I expect the Forestry Commission (and I call on them now to do so) to apologise for their part in allowing this disease to affect our ash trees when something could have been done sooner. And I feel sure when the time comes for them to apologise, they will. However, the Woodland Trust’s time to apologise for their part in this was in this blog post. You haven’t.

        I don’t expect Defra will apologise for not banning ash tree imports sooner. I don’t expect the Minister, Owen Paterson, or his predecessors to apologise – MPs tend to be too quick at passing the buck in an attempt to save their own political careers. But MPs are elected representatives taking responsibility for the environment. When the country goes to the polls in 2015 they can have their say as to whether they see MPs are doing enough to protect the environment, the very thing that keeps us all alive. (I see the government is already under threat of legal action from their lack of action http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20201708)

        We cannot do this in the case of the Woodland Trust. You exist outside this structure. You are not elected and yet you’ve taken it on your own backs to have this responsibility for protecting trees. The decisions you make when choosing to buy trees affects millions of living organisms, trees, plants, animals, humans – and you do not choose wisely enough. That’s what this has shown about the Woodland Trust as an organisation – that PR and prestige is more important than doing the right thing, that saving money is more important than finding out exactly where your trees come from. That “unknowingly” is a viable option for you, despite being “protectors”.

        That is why I am angry with the Woodland Trust. You are unelected, have set yourselves up as “woodland protectors” and the decisions you make affect the lives of so many in the UK. And yet you can’t bring yourselves to say “I’m sorry, we got this one wrong”.

        • Matt says:

          I think the fact that they have held their hands up from the beginning shows the true character of the Woodland Trust. With regards to the sourcing of saplings, if they have the relevant certification, why would you question them? Why would you have any suspicion that the trees were grown abroad? Surely native means ‘grown in this Country’. So get off your high horse, it is a travesty, but belligerent abuse of the one organisation that has said that it could be a player in this helps no one.

          • Thanks for that Matt. However in the case of Woodland Trust tree purchases native doesn’t mean “grown in this country” – it means seeds sourced in the UK and grown abroad. Provenance, I am told, only applies to where the seeds are sourced, not where trees are grown. I don’t think my “abuse” as you call it is “belligerent”. I feel it is a considered response to Austin’s reply to my earlier comment.
            And many, many people agree with me that it is thoroughly justified that I condemn ALL organisations who import “native” trees from chalara infected areas – knowingly or unknowingly.
            The Woodland Trust didn’t have their “hands held up from the beginning” until I mentioned on Twitter that their ash trees were imported. Their blog post of November 1st about Chalara doesn’t mention they imported ash trees.
            If I hadn’t have tweeted about their ash tree imports would the Woodland Trust have “held their hands up”?

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