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