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CUMBRIA’S landscape is under threat from a deadly fungal ‘Dieback’ disease that targets ash trees.
“Make no mistake, this infection has the potential to be the worst to hit any of our trees since Dutch Elm Disease all but wiped out elms in the UK,” warned Penrith-based forestry expert Ted Wilson.
The Chalara fraxinea fungus causes ‘Ash Dieback’ which has wiped out swaths of the trees throughout Europe.
Although Cumbria is thought to be clear at the moment, the infection was recently discovered in trees near Glasgow, Leicester, South Yorkshire and County Durham.
Mr Wilson, Director of Silviculture Research International, a forestry consultancy in Penrith, is extremely fearful.
“In Cumbria, ash is the most numerous ‘individual feature’ tree outside the main woodlands and the third most common species overall,” he said.
“In terms of its landscape and heritage value it is right up there with Herdwick sheep and our ancient churches.”
Ash Dieback was first discovered in a consignment of infected saplings sent from the Netherlands to a nursery in Buckinghamshire eight months ago.
But the disease may also have simply blown in on east winds from the continent.
Young trees are particularly susceptible and are usually dead within one year of becoming infected.
Older trees can withstand initial infection but usually die after several seasons.
Mr Wilson underlined the threat to Cumbria’s ancient individual “specimen” ash trees in valleys such as St John’s-in-the-Vale and Borrowdale.
Furthermore, there are nearly 2500 hectares of ash woodland and well over 500,000 individual specimens across the county.
“Some are superb pollarded trees - a practice dating back to the time when Vikings settled the area and introduced the Herdwick sheep,” he explained.
“Some trees are 700 years old. The process of pollarding - lopping off branches 8-10 feet above the ground - on a regular basis over centuries has maintained the juvenility of the trees even though they often have a hollow core.
“This, is turn, has created an important habitat for rare lichens, insects and nesting sites for birds and bats. They are simply spectacular and vital features of the Lakeland landscape.
“The risk of our trees becoming infected is enormous and incredibly worrying.
“There is a fantastic effort underway to try and control the disease but there is undoubtedly a major concern that it might only be a matter of time before it starts attacking ash trees in the county.”
There is no cure for Ash Dieback and the impact has been devastating in northern Europe. Denmark has lost 90 per cent of its ash trees to the disease.
Mr Wilson, who cites the ash as one of his favourite trees of the Cumbrian countryside, urged people not to give up hope.
“But to slow the spread of Ash Dieback will require a collective effort and funding for research and monitoring are essential,” he added.
To try to limit its spread imports of infected saplings from mainland Europe will have to be banned and affected trees felled and burnt.
The Forestry Commission has issued advisory information which is available on their website – www.forestry.gov.uk