Britain is to ban imports of ash in an attempt to prevent 80m ash trees being lost to a new and rare fungal disease that has already caused devastation in Europe.
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We have relied on the strength and flexibility of their wood for centuries, but it is feared that without the move, our ash may not be able to withstand the disease, Chalara ash dieback, which has decimated forests on the continent and has recently been confirmed in British trees for the first time.
Today, the government made moves to ban ash imports and impose restrictions on ash movements within Britain. A decision is expected to be confirmed by the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, on Monday, with a consultation into the matter due to end on Friday.
Chalara ash dieback was first spotted in imported ash saplings about five years ago. It arrived from Europe where it is now endemic. In Denmark, the disease has killed at least 60 per cent, though it is feared that 90 per cent of the country's ash trees may be affected.
Now experts fear that its presence in mature British trees with no connection to the imports indicates it could be spreading among our native ash. The disease was confirmed in a 100 hectare wood owned by the Woodland Trust in Suffolk, and on another site in Norfolk.
Describing the illness as a "horrific danger to our 80 million ash trees", Mr Paterson added: "I intend to bring in a ban on imports and tight restrictions of ash movements within Great Britain on Monday."
"Losing ash within the UK landscape would have serious implications to both the ecology, culture and landscape of our countryside," said Andrew Sharkey, Head of Woodland Management for the Woodland Trust.
"If this was a case of foot and mouth there would be immediate emergency measures put in place to deal with it," said Mr Sharkey. "We need an emergency task force or summit set up by [the] government immediately to help deal with current threats."
Strong but easy to work and flexible, ash was the wood used to make the notorious English longbow as well as wickets on the cricket pitch. The Woodland Trust estimates that nearly a third of wooded landscape is made up of ash trees.
Chalara fraxinea fungus kills ash trees by stripping their leaves from the top down, and it is known to kill as many as nine in 10 of the trees it infects. Widespread infection could wreak devastation on swaths of British forestry areas.
It is hoped that the spread of the illness can be thwarted before it reaches the heights of Dutch elm disease, which wiped out 25 million of Britain's 30 million elm trees after it arrived from north America in the 1920s.
However tracking Chalara ash dieback has been difficult because it requires expert identification and lab tests to confirm the fungus. The Forestry Commission says it is stepping up efforts to combat the threat.
"It is still early days and investigations are continuing, but there is a possibility that the East Anglia outbreak is an isolated one which has been present for some time. This emphasises the importance of preventing spread further afield," said Dr John Morgan, Head of the Forestry Commission’s Plant Health Service.
Reports of new cases of the disease caused by the fungus, Chalara franxiea, have been coming in from around the country. It may be the first instance of a fungus having it's own Twitter hashtag: #ashdieback.
Terrible news. Chalara has been found in mature ash in Woodland Trust woodlands in East Anglia. May be no stopping it now.— Living Woods Mag (@LivingWoodsMag) October 24, 2012
Dr Morgan said the proposed restriction on imports and movements was a "sensible precaution against further introductions and spread of the disease while we assess the national situation to find out the full extent of the problem."
But the delay in taking active measures to combat spread of the disease was criticsed by Labour. Dame Joan Ruddock said: "May I tell the Secretary of State that he should have banned the import of ash seedlings the minute the disease was actually found in nurseries in this country? He will not be forgiven for any delay by the people of this country who so value the ash trees."
Last October, the government announced that border controls were to be beefed up and baggae allowances reviewed in order to crack down on tree diseases from abroad. The move came after forest scientists confirmed the first case of a fungus-like disease, phytopthora, which was believed to have arrived from south east Asia and was killing cypress trees.