A deadly fungus is spreading across Britain, destroying ash trees and the biodiversity they support in its wake.
UEA researcher Chris Panter warns of the impact on rare insect species, while our environmental specialists have developed an app to help save the trees.
A deadly epidemic is spreading across the country. Majestic ash trees, deeply entwined in European culture and wildlife, should be flushing with the colours of autumn. Instead, they are being reduced to 20 metre high sticks, stripped of all greenery, their dead and discarded leaves travelling on the wind to inflict further ash dieback.
The Chalara fraxinea fungus, which spread to the UK from an ash tree imported from the Netherlands in February, causes leaf loss, the dying back of the crown and eventually death. The disease has already wiped out the vast majority of ash trees in areas of Denmark and has spread across Europe during last two decades.
The threat is serious; ash trees are the dominant species in around 5% of Britain’s woods. UEA’s own Chris Panter has stated that the disease could have a knock-on effect on 60 of the country’s rarest insect species.
He said: “if this disease removes many ash trees from the landscape, then it will impact the country’s biodiversity” and that “notable or scarce species may possibly be lost from the UK”. In addition to insects, he said, “ash is also important for many lichens and mosses and its seeds are an important food for wood mice”.
A move to ban ash tree imports from Europe two weeks ago has proved unsuccessful as the disease has gained a foothold in mature forests, including one in Norfolk. The cases in established woods were all found in the south-east of Britain, suggesting that it has spread on the wind. In addition to the import ban, hundreds of thousands of trees and saplings are being burned.
As blame is cast in all directions, many have warned that the tragedy unfolding may be unstoppable. Forestry companies have called into question the necessity of ash imports and have dubbed the grant system that funds most commercial tree planting unpredictable and chaotic.
Meanwhile, the shadow environment secretary, Mary Creagh, has stated that 25% cuts have crippled the Forestry Commission, rendering it unable to identify and tackle tree disease. The government has taken further blame; it has been revealed that warnings from years past were ignored and many argue that a ban should have been issued long ago, while the fungus was wreaking havoc across Europe.
The British public are being asked to use their phones to help save the country’s 80 million ash trees. Environmental specialists with UEA’s Adapt Low Carbon Group have developed AshTag (above), an app for smartphones used to submit photos and locations of suspected ash dieback. Infected trees are recognisable by lesions on their bark, dieback of leaves at the tree’s crown and brown leaves (hard to spot in autumn). The app is available for IOS and Android device users and can be found at ashtag.org