The spread of ash dieback will have a lasting effect

PUBLISHED: 12:28 07 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:36 20 February 2013

Deadly: A tree infected with Chalara fraxinea, or ash dieback disease

Deadly: A tree infected with Chalara fraxinea, or ash dieback disease

The spread of the Chalara fraxinea fungus through Britain's ash trees will change the landscape for year, fears Graham Downing

I will never forget the landscape of southern England as it was in the summer of 1974. Verdant meadows and hedgerows set about with May blossom, and towering above them the countless dying skeletons of leafless elms. It was midwinter in what should have been summers crowning glory and for the next few years the soundtrack to the English countryside was the buzz of the chainsaw.

They are all gone now, our great elms, and I greatly fear that they will be followed soon by that other great stalwart of our woods and hedgerows, the ash. Quietly and unnoticed, the fungal disease Chalara fraxinea, or ash dieback, has now spread amongst our ash population to such an extent that its march is probably unstoppable.

Borne initially on a poisonous wind from Europe, it is now rampant both in young plantations and mature hedgerow trees alike.

I spotted it first in a young spinney which we planted in 2004 on our own farm in Suffolk. We put in those trees with such hope, for we were making or so we thought at the time a positive change to the landscape by clothing bare arable fields in new woodland.

Along with them we planted a kilometre of young hedges sweeping down the side of the valley, interspersed every 30 metres with vigorous saplings that were expected to become tomorrows mature hedgerow trees. The oaks and field maples may survive, but not the ashes, for this afternoon the Government plant health inspector visited and confirmed my worst suspicions.

Of course the scientists will need to test the samples which he took away with him, but of the outcome there can be no doubt. Currently we have some 30 infected trees, ranging in age from young saplings to one old friend that has shaded our little orchard for a century or more. Soon it will be no more than a pile of firewood, but at least it will warm us for a couple of winters. The nine-year-old trees from our spinney, green and flourishing only a few short months ago but now black and withered, are barely thick enough to make a few sticks for the woodshed. For them its the bonfire. What a waste.

Perhaps the authorities will contain the disease within Kent and East Anglia. Perhaps it can be halted on the edge of the fens, where there is a natural break in woodland cover and disease cannot easily spread from tree to tree.

If so, we will still lose our ash trees in south east England, but maybe the rest of Britain can be spared. It is a fine hope, which makes it worth heeding the strictures to brush boots and shoes after walking through woodland. But this winter I will be planting oak and hornbeam to replace our ashes, for I fear that it will not be long before the ash trees of England will pass, like her elms, into history.

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