The arrival of the fungus chalara fraxinea in Britain has cast a shadow over the future of one of Britain’s iconic tree species. Climbers and hill walkers can play their part in spotting the disease, but, as Ed Douglas reports, the government’s best scientific advice suggests access restrictions won’t help.
Following an unprecedented effort across Britain to identify areas where Chalara has infected trees in the wider environment, the Government last week brought together scientists, campaigners, charitable groups and woodland agencies to discuss what action should be taken. The immediate plan of action was agreed at the Government’s emergency committee COBR, which Mr Paterson chaired on Friday 9th November.
The news about the latest threat to our woodland is grim. A further six counties reported cases of ash-dieback last week, bringing the total to ten in England. A total of 129 cases have been reported. By tomorrow that figure will certainly be higher.
“Our woodlands and forests provide unique places to explore and are popular with walkers and climbers alike,” says Dr Cath Flitcroft from the BMC’s access and conservation team.
“Across England alone, there are over 70 individual climbing crags situated within the Forestry Commission Estate and there are many more situated on privately owned woodlands.”
The BMC’s own crags, including Horseshoe Quarry in the Peak District and Harrison’s Rocks in East Sussex, are at threat from the fungus.
Choosing the best course through a crisis is never easy. But the government’s own information from its chief scientific advisor Sir John Beddington offers some clues.
The advice, drawn from relevant published research, suggests the disease spreads via wind-blown spores, which may be dispersed up to 30km, and that it infects ash trees through their leaves. Infection most usually occurs in July and August.
Longer distance spread occurs via infected plants, like those found recently in nurseries in East Anglia. There is also some evidence that it can be spread through wood products.
The advice to Defra is that the risk of dispersal on clothing and footwear, or via animals or birds, is low, although theoretically possible.
This suggests that the government’s advice to wash children and dog’s paws after visiting woodlands may be unnecessary.
It certainly indicates that a proposed access ban reported by the Daily Telegraph and denied by Defra would be a waste of time and unnecessarily damaging to the rural economy.
The BMC continues to advise its members to comply with the advice of the Forestry Commission while the spread of the disease is better understood.
The BMC urges members and supporters to report potential sightings of infected trees to the Forestry Commission in the hope that the impacts of this disease can be minimised.
If you have a smartphone, you can download the new Ashtag app to submit photos and locations of suspected ash dieback and help map the spread of the disease.
In the longer term, the BMC will continue to campaign with other outdoor bodies to deliver the recommendations of Independent Panel on Forestry report, including the Tree Health and Plant Bio-security Action Plan.
There is huge potential for England’s woodlands to contribute to a sustainable economic revival, to improve the health and well-being of the nation, and to provide better and more connected places for nature. Access must be right at the heart of that.