ENVIRONMENT Secretary Owen Paterson has said it would not be possible to eradicate a disease which is threatening to devastate the UK’s ash trees.
But he raised hopes that trees could be identified that were resistant to Chalara ash dieback, and said the disease did not necessarily spell the end of the British ash.
Following another meeting of the UK government’s emergency committee on tackling ash dieback yesterday, it was revealed that there were now 129 confirmed sites where the disease had been found, including 64 cases in woodland. First Minister Alex Salmond told Holyrood on Thursday that there were 11 confirmed sites in Scotland.
The Chalara fraxinea fungus, which causes leaf loss and crown dieback and can lead to tree death in ash trees, has wiped out 90 per cent of ash 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, which were destroyed by Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.
In an action plan published yesterday, the UK government ruled out cutting down and burning mature ash trees to stop the disease.
Mature trees are valuable to wildlife, take longer to die and can help experts to learn more about genetic strains that could be resistant to the disease, officials said.
The action plan will focus on tracing and destroying newly planted trees and those in nurseries, and better understanding the disease through research and surveying.
The search for the disease will include ash trees in towns and cities as well as the countryside, while there are plans to raise awareness among industry, conservation groups and the public on how to identify diseased trees and those likely to be resistant.
Mr Paterson said: “The scientific advice is that it won’t be possible to eradicate this disease now that we have discovered it in mature trees in Great Britain. However, that does not necessarily mean the end of the British ash, if we can find those trees with genetic resistance to the disease and restructure our woodlands to make them more resilient.”
He added: “If we know a small number of trees survived the intense epidemic in Denmark, there must be hope here. If we can identify a genetic strain that is resistant, as soon as we get that, as ash grows quite fast, we can replace diseased trees.”
Earlier this week industry, conservation groups and scientists met for a summit on how to deal with ash dieback.
Mr Paterson said: “The very clear advice from the summit was, ‘Don’t chop down the mature trees, even if they’ve got it, because amongst them is the odd specimen that will be resistant’.”
Ministers have already brought in a ban on importing ash trees from outside the UK, and movement restrictions from infected areas in this country, in a bid to stop ash dieback spreading further. further from imported trees.
But experts have warned that the disease in mature woodlands is likely to have been wind-bone from the continent and little can be done to stop its spread.
While Mr Paterson raised the possibility of finding a genetically resistant strain of ash tree which could be bred up and planted out to restore the species to the countryside, he warned ash dieback was a “long term, intractable problem”.
He also said ash dieback was just one of a number of tree diseases which are increasingly threatening UK species, and said they needed to be given a much higher status and more resources.
“There are a number of dangerous diseases out there which pose a real threat to significant volumes of species here and could have a devastating effect on our environment.”
He pledged to reprioritise resources within the Environment Department (Defra) to put a greater focus on tackling tree diseases, although said it was too early to say where cuts might be made to pay for the extra resources.
He admitted difficult decisions would have to be made.
But he said: “I’m prepared to look very radically at how we protect our environment.”
And he warned: “If we are going to address, long term, tree diseases to protect woodlands and the environment we’re going to have to change our priorities.
“That will mean moving money around, spending more money on this activity, spending less on other activities.”
He also raised concerns that the EU treated forestry and plant products as a freely tradable commodity, when imports could transmit diseases that have a devastating effect on woodlands and the natural environment.