Saturday, November 3, 2012

Ash Tree Dieback: The Shocking Denial

I drive to work, like most people, before the sun comes up and after it sets. It is the time of year and it means that I often tune into Radio Four to listen to the news. I have known about Chalara fraxinea fungus for some years (Ash dieback). It has destroyed 90% of all Ash trees in Denmark, and has been spreading across Europe for sometime before that. So, why the shocking denial in the post title?

Trees being felled a common sight if Ash Dieback spreads.



I was amazed whilst listening to Owen Patterson, the Environment Secretary, on Radio Four how quickly he contradicted himself. Mr Paterson told the BBC: "Everyone should be responsible and if they do visit a wood just make sure they wash their boots, wash their dog, whatever's been running around the leaves, wash their child, to make sure they don't transfer to the next wood." However, he went onto state that the fungus found in East Anglia was possibly blown in from Europe. That could be the case but Mr Patterson went on to state that he felt the threat of the fungus being spread by people was minimal and that the fungus quickly eroded in fallen leaves. This was simply a contradiction, how can a fungus that quickly becomes inert or benign make its way across hundreds of miles of sea? However, Mr Patterson was inaccurate in his assumption, the movement of people through infected areas will spread the fungus further and that the fungus does not become inert as quickly as the Environment Secretary stated on Friday on Radio Four.

However, what was most shocking is that this government and previous governments have been lobbied by the horticultural trade, wildlife groups and eco-lobbyists to stop the import of Ash trees and other exotic garden trees into the UK since the 80s. Though 2009 has been bandied around by the press and the government as the first time Ash dieback came to their attention it has been prevalent on the continent for several decades. Professor Jan Stenlid, of Sweden's University of Agricultural Sciences stated in The Telegraph on the same day as Owen Patterson contradicted himself on national radio that the disease had been studied for over a decade, and that up to a third of Ash trees had developed a natural resistance to the fungus and gave a word of caution against destroying trees: “You should at least wait to find which ones are best off and worst off and then try to build a future from the ones that are not suffering so badly from the disease. Otherwise you will cut away the possibility to keep the tree species because you will cut down the resistant ones.”

And that is the shocking denial behind all this. If you live in an Ash dieback area then you should avoid walking through that area at this time of the year. You may think walking through leaves is a wonderful experience, and it is, but you are disturbing the fungus spores, adhering them to your clothes, shoes and making them airborne. We want more than ever to keep this fungus in the rotting matter, it will, hopefully through a harsh winter and decay become inert and the cycle will be broken. If not, we too could face up to 90% of our Ash trees being lost. Ash makes up a large proportion of our tree species and now with growing fears that both the Oak and Larch are also facing a monumental struggle to survive as they are attacked by Phytophthora ramorum, we could see up to two thirds of our native species trees vanishing from our landscape. Worst still, if any fungal disease can jump between species as Phytophthora ramorum has done, which is prevalent in Oak (with conservative estimates of 50% losses in Oak trees), Japanese Larch trees (11,000 infected larch trees at Cardinham Woods, near Bodmin, Cornwall), viburnum and rhododendron to name just a few species, then there is a real fear that any mutated disease could make its way into a higher percentage of UK trees. 

It is not a question of creating plant passports for healthy stock. It is time to acknowledge that we must raise our own stock in the UK and that all imports should be stopped. It is time to realise that we cannot import invasive species or species that threaten the balance in nature. We have been doing this for too long and we have only to look at species that are with us today that a hundred years ago were grown in gardens and are now deemed a pest, from Japanese Knotweed to Himalayan Balsam. Our trees should be grown and grafted in the UK and if possible should be native species or species that have been here long enough to not pose a threat. We may love exotic plants in our gardens, we may yearn to have wonderful and breathtaking trees in our gardens but at what cost to our children and their children? We may be faced with an future eco-system in the UK that none of us now would recognise. We may have to come to terms that we may lose a large quantity of our trees, native hedges and native species. Then we have to start to think at what cost to the native animals of the UK? At what cost to the bugs and bees? Then we may begin to realise that that exotic tree we felt was a wonderful bargain started an awful chain reaction that didn't just lead to a fungal disease outbreak but to complete and utter destruction of an entire species. Us. For in the end, we live in a very tenuous and very delicate relationship with nature, and  you may shrug that off and damn you for it because your children won't be able to.
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