Ash dieback: Government faces possible legal action

The BBC's Ben Ando looks at a new portable device being used to test Ash trees for the deadly fungus

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A nursery forced to destroy 50,000 ash trees after a fungal disease was found is considering taking legal action against the government for failing to block imports sooner.

Simon Ellis of Crowders in Lincolnshire said ash dieback was found in 15 trees in June but officials issued a notice preventing the firm from taking action.

Ministers said the import ban was brought in as soon as it was practical.

The environment secretary will chair a summit on ash dieback on Wednesday.

The disease has now been confirmed at 82 locations in England and Scotland.

On Monday, government officials confirmed that the disease was present in woodlands in Kent and Essex.

In the last six weeks, 100,000 ash trees have been destroyed and experts say it may be too late to stop the spread of the fungus.

How ash dieback could threaten Britain's wildlife
Ash tree and associated wildlife Britain's population of 80 million ash trees provides shelter and food for a wide range of wildlife, mostly birds and insects. The species' loosely-branched structure means plenty of light reaches the woodland floor, allowing a variety of plants to grow beneath them.
Wild garlic Wild garlic (ramsons) is among the plants that thrives beneath the ash tree. Others include dog's mercury, wood cranesbill, wood avens and hazel. Because ash bark is alkaline, the trees also support a wide range of lichens and mosses and attract snails.
Bluebells Carpets of bluebells are often seen under and around ash trees. Norfolk’s Lower Wood, in Ashwellthorpe, famous for its spring display of bluebells, is among those areas where ash dieback disease has been discovered.
Woodpecker and nuthatch A rich ground layer beneath the ash means plenty of food for birds such as warblers, flycatchers and redstarts. Hole-nesting birds, such as owls, woodpeckers and the nuthatch, are also frequent visitors.
Lesser stag beetle More than 100 species of insect are also known to live on ash. At least 60 of the rarest have an association with the tree – mostly beetles and flies. Because ash is very long-lived, it can also support specialist deadwood species, like the lesser stag beetle.
Brown hairstreak butterfly The brown hairstreak butterfly, the largest of the UK hairstreaks, is also a frequent user of the ash. They congregate high in the trees for breeding. Ash also supports a wide variety of moths. Source: The Wildlife Trusts

Scientists say the infection in native trees has been caused by a fungus Chalara fraxinea, which is believed to have been carried on the wind from mainland Europe.

Unlike animals, trees cannot be vaccinated and once infected, a tree cannot be cured.

A plant health order banning imports and the movement of ash trees came into force on 29 October.

Start Quote

At a time when our trees face increasing threat from a range of diseases, and in a tight financial climate, we believe that resources are best spent on surveillance”

End Quote Defra

Mr Ellis, who is considering suing the government for £200,000, said by the time his firm was permitted to destroy its trees, many more had become infected.

He says the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) wrote to the government in 2009 warning of a new strain of ash dieback disease and urged it to close UK borders.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "They should have taken it seriously at the time. They chose not to and now we have this really dramatic situation.

"Effectively our income stream starts now, this is the season, this is our harvest time so to cut off our income stream - what other course of action can we take?"

Here to stay?

The HTA says the government misdiagnosed the disease when it first alerted officials - the fungus was thought to be the same as one already widespread in the UK.

The HTA's Tim Briercliffe said: "We saw the disease, we saw what it was doing in Denmark. It wasn't doing that in the UK. Whatever the details of the science were saying, that surely was going to speak far louder."

Ecology of ash trees

Known as the common or European ash, the tree - the UK's only native ash species - is scientifically known as Fraxinus excelsior.

It is the UK's third most abundant species of broadleaf tree (after oak and birch), covering 129,000 hectares of woodland.

Ash is deemed to be a very important species within the UK's hedgerows and accounts for about for about 10% of the nation's estimated 123 million "non-woodland" trees.

The common ash is a large deciduous tree that can reach heights in excess of 40 metres (130ft). It can live up to 400 years but coppiced trees can live for centuries longer. The species is wind pollinated, and the seeds (known as keys) are primarily dispersed by the wind.

As the species is long-lived, it is important for wildlife. It supports specialist deadwood species, such as the lesser stag beetle and hole nesting birds, including owls and woodpeckers.

Ash woodlands have light, open canopies, so are an important habitat for flora such as bluebells and ramsoms. Birds like bullfinches feed on the trees' seeds.

Also, ash provides an important habitat for more than a quarter of Britain's lichen, including nearly 14% of the nationally rare and nationally scarce species.

Upland mixed ash woodlands are listed as a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Martin Ward, the UK's chief plant health officer with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said ash dieback disease was not spreading but acknowledged that "we're probably not going eradicate it".

"We have stopped the movement of plants and the sporulation on the leaf litter, which can lead to aerial spread, doesn't happen until the summer," he said.

"The increasing number of cases we are recording at the moment is the result of greater information, more knowledge of the distribution of the disease."

He told Today when the disease was first identified in UK nursery stock in March this year the "important thing then was to track down that... stock, to destroy these isolated findings in recent plantings".

Defra then worked on identifying the "right measures" to be taken before the start of the planting season.

The government has ruled out paying compensation.

A spokesman for Defra said: "Hundreds of staff members from government agencies have been investigating sites across the UK.

"They have examined around 2,500 blocks of land, each 10 kilometres square, where mature ash trees are known to be present, in order to seek out traces of the disease in our established trees.

"At a time when our trees face increasing threat from a range of diseases, and in a tight financial climate, we believe that resources are best spent on surveillance and trying to tackle the disease."

Disease summit

The prime minister's official spokesman has confirmed that Environment Secretary Owen Paterson will host a summit on ash dieback on Wednesday.

Symptoms of chalara dieback

  • Diseased saplings typically display dead tops and side shoots.
  • Lesions often found at base of dead side shoots.
  • Lesions on branch or stem can cause wilting of foliage above.
  • Disease affects mature trees by killing off new growth.

He said the meeting, involving tree health experts and other "key stakeholders", would provide updates on the problem and what was being done to tackle it.

"We are taking this issue very seriously," he added.

"What is important is that we focus on the action we can take now to try and limit the effects of the disease."

He acknowledged that there were questions about how the government handles "different animal and plant diseases".

"That is why Owen Paterson set up this taskforce to look at how we handle plant diseases," he told journalists.

"One of its jobs is to ensure that we are as well prepared as we can be in the future to deal with this kind of problem."

On the issue of compensating affected horticultural businesses, he said that it would be "dealt with ultimately by the courts".

Distribution of ash trees across the UK and Ireland and the sites of confirmed cases of as dieback disease

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