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Government to plant 250,000 trees to beat ash dieback

By Matt McGrath
Environment correspondent, BBC News

image captionObservers will be keeping a close eye on ash leaves for signs of fungal infection

The government is to plant a quarter of a million ash trees in an attempt to find strains that are resistant to the fungus responsible for ash dieback.

The £1.5m project is part of the long term management plan, unveiled by the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson.

Funding will also be made available to woodland owners to help them remove infected ash saplings.

The National Trust said it was too late to eradicate the disease, but the government plan could buy time.

According to the Forestry Commission, outbreaks of the disease, caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea, have been found at 427 sites in across Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The government says that the plan to plant 250,000 young ash trees is the first project of this kind in Europe. Existing stocks of ash will be bought and planted in the East and South East of England where most of the Chalara outbreaks have taken place.

Slow the spread

By planting in these areas, it is hoped that the young trees will be exposed to the fungus and can be monitored for signs of resistance.

The Environment Secretary acknowledged that taking a long term approach to Chalara fraxinea was now the most effective strategy.

"We know we can't stop Chalara infecting our ash trees, so we have to throw our resources into managing it and slowing the spread. A key part of that strategy will be identifying those trees which have a natural resistance to the disease so that we can re-stock our woodlands in the future," he said.

Most of the new planting will take place on private lands. According to the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), these land-owners will not be paid for taking part in the experiment.

One group taking part in the project is the Woodland Trust. They describe the plans as pragmatic. But the trust's chief executive Sue Holden told BBC News that there was no quick fix.

"This is great to have a little bit of money but it needs a lot more - it needs long-term management."

image captionNew chemical treatments to fight the fungus are being examined by the government

She says she is concerned that cuts of some £37m in Defra's budget will affect the department's ability to tackle the threat to trees.

"You can't just fight each disease as it arrives, you have to build resilience overall. This is not something that just one action plan is able to solve," she added.

The government also announced that from April, owners will also be able to apply for funding to remove infected ash saplings and replace them with other trees.

While some critics have said the government's plans are now to manage and not control the disease, Defra also said that new chemical treatments are being evaluated that could prevent trees from dying.

Fourteen products that may be used on live trees and on leaf litter are to be evaluated in the laboratory to ensure they do not have an adverse effect on human and animal health.

The ban on the import and movement of ash trees will continue.

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