Ash dieback: government urged to fast-track trials of 'cure'

Nov 1, 2012

Potential remedy has already been shown to work against a horse chestnut disease

Humphrey Bolton

SCIENTISTS believe they might have found a cure for ash dieback, a disease that threatens to devastate British woodlands. Politicians are now calling for trials of the potential antidote to be fast-tracked so that it can be tested before ash trees lose their leaves for winter.

The ash dieback treatment has been developed by Imperial College and Natural Ecology Mitigation, which says it is "in a queue" for trials by the Forestry Commission but no date has yet been set, The Times reports.

The treatment, which targets the fungal pathogen Chalara fraxinea, works in a similar way to weed killers, according to Robin Sen, an expert on tree diseases at Manchester Metropolitan University. "The mechanism which would deliver — in this case — an anti-fungal agent is already in operation in other fields. The mechanism has been proved to work as a herbicide."

Once approved, the anti-fungal treatment could be sprayed over large areas from a plane. Joan Webber, principal pathologist at the Forestry Commission, said the treatment had been found to work against bleeding canker in horse chestnut trees.

Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh says ministers should force the Forestry Commission to prioritise testing the ash dieback cure. "Time is of the essence," she said. "The leaves are falling already. Ministers should be looking at how we can fast-track this."

The first phases of tests, in a laboratory, would take no more than two weeks, according to Natural Ecology Mitigation, but trials on infected trees in the wild would take two or three months. The company says if approval is given soon, it might still be possible to conduct wild tests in France, where ash trees keep their leaves for longer. The alternative is to wait until next summer.

A government spokesperson said: "This compound is one of a number of products currently being promoted by companies. The testing process is necessarily long and rigorous and is funded by the developer. The funds and processes have not been fully put in place with Forest Research [the science arm of the Forestry Commission] to test this product against Chalara fraxinea."

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