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Fears for Surrey's landscape over ash tree killer disease
12:03pm Friday 2nd November 2012 in News
There were fears this week that Surrey's landscape could be changed forever if a deadly tree disease is not stopped in its tracks.
Experts fear it is now too late to stop the deadly Chalara fungus wiping out hundreds of thousands of ash trees.
Five suspected cases were reported in neighbouring Kent over the weekend, days after the fungus was first found in East Anglia.
One conservationist said there could be “an apocalypse in our woodlands” with forests decimated worse than at the height of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.
A spokesman for the Forestry Commission said on Tuesday that it had received reports of the disease from across the country, but refused to confirm or deny whether any had come from Surrey or Sussex. He said: “We are doing our own surveillance and seeking support from woodland owners and the public to report any suspicious cases after they have had a look at our identification guide available online - http://www.forestry.gov.uk/chalara “We are dedicating our resources to this and the scientific checking of reports. “Unfortunately, at the moment that means we are not able to supply a running tally of reports received from different areas of the country.”
The Chalara fungus causes the leaves of ash trees to turn brown and fall off, and the crown and branches to die back.
It is known to kill as many as nine out of 10 of the trees it infects, and has devastated woodland in other parts of Europe in the past few years, almost wiping out the ash population in Denmark.
Surrey is the most heavily wooded county in England with about 40% of it – some 167,715 acres – given over to trees. The woods are mostly a patchwork of small scattered copses that historically have not been financially viable to manage, and which, over the last 60 years, have become very neglected. Neighbouring West Sussex is the second most wooded county in the UK and contains more than 12,000 acres of ash forest.
Tree expert Dr Tony Whitbread, the chief executive of Sussex Wildlife Trust, said the disease could “change our landscape for good”.
He said: “This could be horrific. We are talking about whole forests of diseased trees, dying too quickly for us to cut them down.
“It would be like an apocalypse in our woodlands. Our wildlife would suffer too, as ash trees provide the perfect canopy for species like badgers, foxes and woodpeckers.”
Surrey Wildlife Trust this week urged people to report any potential sightings of infected ash trees in an attempt to reduce the ecological impacts of what it called “the devastating disease.”
A spokeswoman for Surrey County Council said on Tuesday that it had not received a directive from central government on the issue, and earlier this week, East and West Sussex county councils confirmed no steps had been taken to prevent the spread of the disease, but said woodland officers had been put on alert to spot possible symptoms.
No-one from the Surrey Hills Board was available for comment.
The first British cases of ash trees infected by the Chalara fungus came to light earlier this year at sites across the country but these cases were thought confined to nurseries and recent imports.
A call went out to ban imports of ash plants and seeds, which experts hoped would contain the disease.
But those hopes were dashed last week when the fungus was discovered for the first time in mature forests in East Anglia, suggesting it is spreading far faster than expected.
After five cases were reported in Kent over last weekend, experts fear it is now just a matter of time before the disease is confirmed in Surrey and Sussex.
In Westminster, it was confirmed that 100,000 ash trees have already been felled nationally in an effort to stop the fungus.
Dr Whitbread said the authorities had “failed to get a grip” of the situation early enough.
He said: “The trouble is that we should have worked out what measures we would take if it got here.
“But the information has not got out and the local authorities don’t seem to know what to do.”
Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas said the fact that the disease had spread was the Government’s fault.
She told fellow MPs: “This episode is a terrible indictment of the Government but actually also of the opposition because the Horticultural Trades Association first warned about this disease back in 2009, so neither the Labour nor coalition Government has worked hard enough on this."
Ministers said they acted as soon as the disease was confirmed and had taken the threat “extremely seriously”.
The emergence of the fungus recalls the devastating impact Dutch elm disease had on the country's landscape in the 1970s, all but wiping elms out.
The trees are still missing from the countryside and did not make up such a big component in the nation's woods as ash trees do.
In 2003, the fungus-like pathogen, sudden oak death, responsible for the deaths of huge swathes of oaks across the USA especially, was found on land near Gatwick Airport. At that time, it was only the second discovery of the tree killer in the UK, with another found in Cornwall. The site was treated with extreme secrecy as the threat was dealt with. However, further cases followed, with Sussex recording the highest number in any area of Britain. British trees had been thought to be immune to the disease until its discovery in a southern red oak in woodland near Gatwick. Infected trees appear to bleed to death as sap spills from them, turning red and running down the trunk. They can die in months. And last year, tree experts met in Surrey to highlight rising fears of tree disease in the South-East. Woodland owners and foresters from throughout the region attended a tree disease workshop near Farnham to discuss what they called “urgent measures” to contain the threat. Organized by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), the event focused on a range of pests and diseases now affecting local trees, including die-back in oak trees, bleeding canker in Chestnuts, and, of greatest economic concern to foresters at that time, phytophthora ramorum, also known as larch die-back. Earlier this year, the Surrey Hills Board appointed a Surrey Hills woodlands advisor tasked with identifying pockets of neglected, privately-owned woodland, in particular mapping areas of ancient woodland, in and around the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), with the aim of encouraging farmers and landowners to bring woods back into management for timber, wood fuel, conservation and biodiversity. At the time, Surrey Hills Board press officer Jane Garrett said: “Surrey is the most heavily wooded county in England, yet most of its woods are rank and neglected because they are small parcels amongst farmland, which have been unprofitable to manage.” She said: “This is changing. Surrey now has an established and growing wood fuel industry and these small woods are now potentially viable.” Through the work of the woodlands adviser, she said: “The aim is to bring these derelict woods back into management to produce a timber harvest, but also to increase wildlife habitats and biodiversity.”