Science & Environment

Ash dieback: Number of cases identified doubles in a month

Weeping ash (Image: BBC)
Image caption The future looks, at best, uncertain for the UK's population of 80 million ash trees

The government has given new details of the spread of the deadly fungus that is killing ash trees across the UK.

There are now almost 300 confirmed cases, with the majority found in mature woodland sites, says the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The disease caught the UK unaware, scientific adviser, Prof Ian Boyd, told a briefing.

Nature groups criticised the latest control plan as "too little too late".

Less than a month ago, the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson published the government's initial action plan on ash dieback and acknowledged that the disease was unlikely to be eradicated from the UK.

At that time the disease had been confirmed at 115 sites in England, Wales and Scotland.

Systematic failing

Outlining their more detailed response to the outbreak on Thursday, officials from Defra now say that 291 cases have been found including several in Northern Ireland.

One hundred and fifty five cases are in mature woodland sites, with 119 in recently-planted areas and 17 in nurseries.

Defra's chief scientific adviser, Prof Ian Boyd, said the old system of biosecurity had failed to detect the arrival of the Chalara fraxinea fungus in the UK.

"It simply fell below the radar to be honest," he told journalists.

"It's a very difficult thing to identify."

The government also gave more details on how it will curb the spread of the infection. Mr Paterson said there would be money to fund an early warning system to spot tree disease staffed by volunteers.

"This includes funding for a pilot project to develop a tree health early warning system using volunteer groups like the Woodland Trust," he told the House of Commons.

Image caption Confirmed cases in East Anglia signalled the disease's arrival in the UK's natural environment

"And the development of a plant health network of trained people to support official surveillance for Chalara and other pests - the Woodland Trust will play a really important role in this."

Despite Mr Paterson's praise, the Woodland Trust were critical of the control plan and in particular the lack of funding.

The Woodland Trust's chief executive Sue Holden said the ash crisis had exposed the government's lack of investment in trees.

"It has been forced to focus its attention on ash dieback and it is clear the government is playing scientific catch up, completely unprepared for the crisis our ash trees are now facing," she said.

Buying time

The control plan was also criticised as "too little too late" by the National Trust. While welcoming the government's commitment to reduce the rate of the spread of the disease, it said it was "deeply concerned that this commitment is not backed up by strong actions".

The Trust is concerned by the government's focus on breeding resistance to the disease rather than laying the emphasis on techniques that could slow the spread.

"Through this action plan we are effectively surrendering the British landscape to this disease before we've fully investigated ways of reducing the rate of spread and buying time," the National Trust said in a statement.

The government's plan was given a lukewarm welcome by the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) which said that while it was sceptical that control measures would have any material effect, it supported genetic research efforts.

According to HTA director of business development, Tim Briercliff, the plan didn't address the financial needs of nursery owners many of whom had been left in difficulties because of the outbreak.

"These are small, rural, family businesses," he said, "their demise would merely expose the UK to more imported material in the longer term."

Meanwhile, a group of independent experts called on the government to appoint a chief plant health officer to deal with tree disease.

The interim report from the tree health and plant bio security expert taskforce says that the UK's bio security should be strengthened to reduce risks at the border and within the UK.

It noted that plants can be imported into the UK and marked as originating from the EU if they transit through a member state, even if they were initially purchased outside the Union. The expert group saw this as an area for "significant improvement".

The taskforce argued that the government should appointment a Chief Plant Health Officer, equivalent to the Chief Veterinary Officer, to provide strategic and tactical leadership to manage the risks associated with outbreaks of disease like Chalara.

The advisory body also suggested the development of a UK risk register for trees and plants.

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