Last updated: November 9, 2012 4:06 pm

Forestry funds boost to fight ash disease

The UK should expect more tree diseases that could have a “devastating” effect on British forests even if ash dieback can be brought under control, Owen Paterson, environment secretary, said on Friday.

There will need to be an overhaul of how the government and the EU deals with forestry infections to cope with a record number of “very dangerous” diseases across the world, Mr Paterson said.

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The environment department would make cuts in other, as yet unidentified, areas to shift funds to forestry and there should be a “radical rethink” of whether the EU should allow the free movement of forestry and plant products.

“We have always taken animal diseases extremely seriously but plant diseases are on the rise and they are often dangerous,” Mr Paterson said.

One of the threats – apart from the ash dieback that has taken hold in the UK – is an outbreak of plane mould in France. Trees from infected areas are subject to a movement ban but, if the disease did arrive in the UK, it could affect many of the trees that line the streets of London.

Any change to the regulation of trees and plants could hit the forestry industry but Mr Paterson promised to work closely with companies to help minimise problems.

The Horticultural Trades Association has encouraged ash growers to sue the government for the loss of revenue. The HTA believes ash trees worth more than £2.25m will have to be destroyed. If the spread of the disease cannot be stopped, the figure could rise to more than £10m, it estimates.

But Mr Paterson said it was not government policy to issue compensation. The department’s scientific advisers stressed it was most likely that the Chalara fraxinea fungus that causes the disease was brought in by the wind and hence was out of the government’s control, rather than by imports.

An emergency summit of about 100 experts on Wednesday advised the government to search for trees with genetic resistance to ash dieback, which has been found at 129 sites in the UK.

The government will continue to destroy young saplings but allow mature specimens to remain in place, as infection does not occur directly from tree to tree.

“The scientific advice is that it won’t be possible to eradicate this disease now that we have discovered it in mature trees in Great Britain. However, that does not necessarily mean the end of the British ash,” Mr Paterson said.

“If we can slow its spread and minimise its impact, we will gain time to find those trees with genetic resistance to the disease and to restructure our woodlands to make them more resilient.”

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