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The cost of fungus

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Mark Easton | 18:11 UK time, Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Whitehall belts may be tightening, but the government has found millions to fight killer fungus. Regular readers may recall I charted the spread of the misnamed "sudden oak death" disease at the end of last year.

Phytophthora ramorum and Phytophthora kernoviae are strains of a deadly plant disease plaguing historic gardens, woodland and heathlands across England, Wales and parts of Scotland.

According to environment minister Jane Kennedy, who today announced £25m for a five-year eradication programme in England and Wales, "if this disease spreads, it could mean parts of the countryside being cordoned off, and more limited public access - in addition to further loss of our precious woodland".

NTPL handout showing the newly-arrived disease, Phytophthora ramorum, laying claim to a magnolia in Trengwainton Garden, Cornwall. NTPL/Stephen Robson/PA Wire

But eradication comes at a price, too. The main source of the disease is the Rhododendron ponticum which has invaded many large public gardens and historic estates. A cost-benefit analysis for the government last year [185k PDF] spelled out what is now going to happen. "Removal of plants may change the appearance of gardens to an extent where the public are deterred from visiting."

The problem is particularly acute in Cornwall. Analysis by South West Tourism suggests that there are 45 gardens in the county likely to be affected. In 2001, they attracted more than 2.8m visitors, generating £23m and directly employing nearly 700 people.

"A loss of confidence in a garden's ability to manage its plant collection or its ability to protect visitors from carrying either disease away with them is likely to have a significant impact on visitor numbers and plant sales," the government's analysis warns.

"Gardens would need to manage their way through the diseases by moving to plantings of non-susceptible plants over a period of time. This would involve the loss of feature specimens of historic significance and in some instances may change the character of gardens substantially. The cost of such a transition ... is likely to run into some £millions."

Nevertheless, this is the cost-benefit calculation that was put to ministers. Option 1 is, effectively, doing nothing. Option 2 is the eradication programme. The costs are calculated over 20 years.

cost-benefit analysis - apologies to users with screen-readers; a temporary stylesheet bug prevents us from displaying this table as text

So, £25m over five years is a determined effort to deal with this menace and the black grouse and the capercaillie among others should be delighted. One of the big concerns has been the spread of the disease to heathland via the bilberry. The loss of such habitat could be disastrous for some ground-nesting birds like the grouse.

The money also represents a victory for organisations like the National Trust and the Forestry Commission who had been campaigning for resources to deal with this deadly invader. In Scotland, incidentally, there is a separate consultation which will decide upon a plan in due course.

PS: The post referred to above also has details of how to report suspected outbreaks.

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