Tree disease 'worse than Dutch Elm'
Britain's trees and forests are facing an even greater threat than Dutch Elm Disease, which virtually wiped out an entire species in the 1970s.
Thousands of acres of forestry plantations are now at risk from Phytophthora ramorum, and all owners can do is to clear-fell in an attempt to halt its progress.
Somerset landowner William Theed is warning the disease could already have spread to the point where it is beyond controlling – leaving millions of trees at risk.
It is normally associated with oak trees – it has had devastating effects on the oak populations in the US. Very few of Britain's native oaks have been infected, because they appear to be much more resistant to the pathogen than native American species.
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Until 2009 the disease in this country was largely confined to rhododendron. Fewer than 100 British trees had been found with the infection, and then usually only on those standing very close to infected rhododendron. But now – worryingly – it has been found in larch, which are capable of producing billions of infected spores which can spread for dozens of miles on the wind.
Forestry officials were first alerted to the disease when it was discovered in a garden centre in Cornwall in 2002, but last summer Mr Theed spotted larch trees dying back on part of his Combe Sydenham estate, near Minehead – and the presence of Phytophthora ramorum was confirmed.
Ten acres of larch were felled immediately but now a second outbreak has been confirmed near Roadwater, where around 50 acres must be felled before the autumn bud burst releases billions more pathogens.
The disease has sinister overtones of Dutch Elm, which wiped out 25 million trees in the 1970s. That was brought here on a cargo of American elm timber, while Phytophthora ramorum, too, is believed to have been imported on an exotic plant brought in by a garden centre. Mr Theed, who owns extensive forestry plantations on the Brendon Hills, says a lack of border controls on plant imports is to blame. He added: "Other countries are extremely cautious about which plants they import, but we do not seem to worry here. But importing plants is something which comes back and haunts you, just as it does if you feed chicken back to chickens."
The arrival of the disease has thrown forestry organisations into turmoil, largely because, unlike Dutch Elm, it is not species specific. It has already been found in whortleberry bushes – which cover hundreds of acres of moorland in the South West – and is now posing a threat to species such as beech, sweet chestnut and Douglas Fir.
Mr Theed said: "I have never seen such agitation. They know they have a horror story on their hands. The disease has already jumped the Severn Estuary and that means those massive larch plantations in South Wales are going to have to be felled.
"It is going to hurt us badly. We think we suffered badly with Dutch Elm disease but this is going to be far, far worse. It is an absolute disaster in landscape terms."
The Forestry Commission says the disease is moving rapidly and it needs to keep on top of it. It's appealing to all landowners with Japanese larch trees to check them – and to notify it if they appear to be diseased.
A spokesman said: "There is a lot of confidence that the felling we are carrying out will go a long way towards halting the spread of the disease."