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Dutch elm disease changed the British Countryside forever.Now an exotic fungus is destroying our magnificent ash trees. PETER FROST investigates.

The Forestry Commission has declared a national emergency after discovering a disease which has devastated ash trees in Europe has established itself in British woodlands.

Ash dieback has been found in East Anglia, and there are fears it could wreak the same kind of damage as Dutch elm disease did in the 1970’s.

Britain is estimated to have eighty million ash trees. They make up a third of our woods.

The Chalara fraxinea fungus, which kills the trees took just seven years to destroy nine out of every ten ash trees in Denmark.

The Forestry Commission today announced that the fungus is being treated as a quarantine pest under national emergency measures and urged members of the public to report any suspected cases.

If you suspect you have seen a dying ash you are asked to contact the Forestry Commission Plant Health Service (Tel 0131 314 6414; Email plant.health@forestry.gsi.gov.uk).

The fungus first came to public attention in Poland in 1992. Poland grows huge amounts of ash for the furniture and shop-fitting trade.

The fungus spread quickly across Europe.

In February this year it arrived in a batch of infected trees imported from Holland by a specialist tree nursery in Buckinghamshire.

Over the summer affected trees have been discovered near Glasgow, in Yorkshire, in Leicester and in County Durham.

All these sites had received stocks of young ash plants from commercial nurseries within the past five years.

More worryingly older trees have been found in East Anglia with no apparent connection with nursery stock; this suggests that it might have entered Britain by natural means.

The Woodland Trust has confirmed the fungus had been found in both mature ancient woodland and woodland creation areas on its estate at Pound Farm in Suffolk.

After some prompting and parliamentary questions Environment Secretary Owen Paterson – still reeling from his embarrassment at having to postpone the badger cull – has agreed to ban all ash imports.

Labour’s MP Dame Joan Ruddock criticised the timing of his response to the issue, arguing Mr Paterson would “not be forgiven for any delay”.

She 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”.

Patterson’s actions may already be too late.  There are concerns that if the fungus has been found in the wider countryside, his ban on imports could be of limited value.

Back in the 1970’s Dutch elm disease caused the deaths of more than 25 million elms in the UK alone, almost completely eradicating one of the English countryside’s most distinctive trees.

Caused by a fungus spread by the elm bark beetle, the Dutch elm disease is believed to actually be native to Asia rather than Holland

Thirty years after the outbreak of the epidemic nearly all of Britain’s English elm trees, which often grew 150ft high, are gone.

The species still survives in hedgerows, as the roots are not killed and send up root suckers. Sadly these suckers rarely reach more than 5m before the fungus attacks.

One or two isolated locations still have some mature full size elm trees but these need vigilance to protect them from the well established disease.

If the British countryside loses another spectacular tree species – the mighty ash – it will be a terrible blow to the glory of our landscape.

I just wish we could have any faith in Defra and their Tory coalition minister bosses who have made so many disastrous decisions in their failure to look after our countryside.

First published in the Morning Star, 2012

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