Bristol ash trees face threat from deadly disease
A DEADLY disease is threatening to wipe out the Bristol region's ash trees, which would change the city's landscape forever, experts fear.
The killer fungus is heading towards the city – where ash trees are one of the most common native woodland species – at 50 miles a day.
Cases of chalara ash dieback, which first appeared on the east coast, have now been detected by the Forestry Commission in imported saplings recently planted in Devon, the furthest west the disease has travelled so far.
The latest figures show the disease, caused by the fungus chalara fraxinea, has been found in at least 61 countryside locations, as well as 39 planting sites and 15 tree nurseries, a total of 115 sites across the UK – as it heads in a steady westward direction across the country.
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Until it was detected in Devon, the further west it had been found was Berkshire.
The fungus, which causes leaf loss and crown dieback, has wiped out 90 per cent of ash trees in some parts of Denmark and is becoming widespread throughout central Europe.
There are fears that the UK's ash trees are facing a similar fate to its elms, which were destroyed by Dutch elm disease in the 1960s and 1970s.
Jon Clark, executive director of the Forest of Avon Trust – a charity designed to encourage the growth of woodland in the region – is understandably concerned about the spread of the disease, as it heads westward towards Bristol.
"It could be a serious threat to the landscape of our region, because ash trees and oak trees are the main woodland trees here in the South West. If we lost the ash it would be every bit as dramatic as losing the elm 40 years ago, if not more so.
"At the moment we are monitoring the situation, and trying to get to the bottom of the scientific facts behind the hype and hysteria to work out exactly what we can do.
"But if the disease gets here, and our trees do not prove to have a natural resistance, then it could have very serious implications."
If the region's ash population was lost, it could have a devastating knock-on effect for the wildlife that live in the trees – from a variety of bird species, including owls, to rare bat colonies and lichen – ash provides an important habitat for more than a quarter of Britain's lichen.
Britain has 80 million ash trees, making up 30 per cent of our indigenous deciduous woodland.
TV wildlife presenter Mike Dilger, who lives in Chew Stoke, said he is "extremely concerned" for the future of ash trees in the region.
"It would devastate the country's wildlife, and fundamentally change forever the landscape of our region," he said. "I have a very mature ash tree in my own garden at Chew Stoke, and I would be horrified if we lost it.
"They are certainly one of our most important native tree species, not least because they provide a habitat for so many creatures. We think at least 100 species live exclusively in ash trees, and 60 of those are rare species – from birds like greater spotted woodpecker through to the smallest invertebrates that rely on the trees."
Dr Lucy Rogers, Avon Wildlife Trust's director of conservation programmes, said: "Ash dieback has not yet been discovered on any Avon Wildlife Trust nature reserves, but like many conservation organisations across the country, we are doing our bit to monitor the situation closely, providing expertise and advice to landowners. We are urging members to report any sightings of ash dieback disease in the region to the Forestry Commission."
But Dr Andy Bailey, senior lecturer in molecular plant pathology at Bristol University, is pragmatic about the outbreak.
"We constantly have fungal spore-based diseases spreading around the globe, this one just happens to be in the news at the moment," he said. "A couple of years ago it was Busy Lizzies being killed off, and last year it was larch trees. The ecosystem is never static, and one of the main reasons for change and evolution in the natural world is disease.
"Creating a fire-break by felling strategic areas of ash trees wouldn't work, as we believe the fungal spores are carried on the wind, and can probably travel a long way – up to 50 miles a day."