Ash dieback: government acts as disease found in 20 more sites

Oct 28, 2012
Tim Edwards

Cuts to Forestry Commission come back to haunt government as critics question speed of reaction to deadly tree disease

Humphrey Bolton

THE GOVERNMENT faces growing criticism over its reaction to the spread of ash dieback, a fungal disease that could wipe out a third of British woodlands. Desperate measures are finally being implemented today to arrest the spread of the pathogen, but it was first found in the UK in February this year.

The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has been accused of being “asleep on the job” and a memo has been leaked which warned last year that government cuts would leave the Forestry Commission unable to cope with a crisis of this kind.

Ash trees make up around 30 per cent of British woodlands. Austin Brady, head of conservation at the Woodland Trust, told The Sunday Telegraph that ash dieback could devastate some of the most important ash woods in Europe. “The woods that are of more concern are the rarer woodlands in the Peak District national park where the ash is dominant,” he said.

Imports of ash trees and transportation of saplings around the country have been banned from today. A tree disease taskforce is being assembled and Paterson says he is working closely with the Forestry Commission and government scientists to “monitor the disease and destroy affected trees”.

Staff at the Forestry Commission and more than 100 civil servants at the Food and Environment Research Agency are being redeployed from their normal jobs to focus on the crisis, The Sunday Telegraph reports.

But there are questions over whether the Forestry Commission can cope with a crisis of this scale. According to The Independent Sunday, a leaked Forestry Commission consultation document on redundancies, circulated to staff in 2011, warned: "There is no capacity to deal with costs of disease or other calamity." It added that there was a "high-level risk" that government cuts to staff and funding would limit their ability to fight disease in woodlands.

Others are worried that it is too late to save Britain’s ash trees. The full extent of the problem in the UK is becoming clearer. Last week, it was reported that ash dieback had been found in mature trees in the wild for the first time at two sites in East Anglia.

Today, the Observer reports, there are more than 20 suspected sites of infection.

"The new cases will have to be confirmed by scientists, but it certainly looks as if there are more than 20 suspicious sites and we will continue to survey, although we really only have a one- or two-week window now to detect new cases before the autumn leaf drop makes it very difficult to see," said Stuart Burgess of the Forestry Commission.

It has also emerged that 100,000 ash trees have already been burnt to stop the spread of ash dieback. 58,000 of these were at a site in Scotland over the summer. And the Forestry Commission is investigating the worrying possibility that Chalara fraxinea, the fungus responsible for ash dieback, has been carried from the Continent to the British Isles by the wind.

The Shadow Environment Secretary, Mary Creagh, said: "The Government has been asleep on the job. It also ignored the Forestry Commission's warning that there was no money to tackle tree disease, and cut its cash by 25 per cent."

But in an interview with Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, Paterson denied the Government had acted slowly. "When I came into office in September, a consultation with the industry had just started and I made sure it took as short a time as possible," he said. He explained that commercial imports of ash trees begin each November, so the only way an infected sapling could have been brought to Britain over the summer would be if individuals had driven them back from nurseries on the Continent.

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