By CHRIS HILL, Rural affairs correspondent
Thursday, November 15, 2012
A Defra minister visited the Norfolk epicentre of the outbreak of the deadly Chalara ash tree disease today, to discuss the battle plan to combat the infection.
Lord de Mauley was at Wayland Wood, outside Watton, where he was shown examples of how the disease has taken hold of coppices, as well as mature trees.
After hearing from forestry officials at the infected woodland, the minister acknowledged it was a “very serious” problem – but said he had seen signs that part of the solution may be found here, at the epicentre of the outbreak.
He said he had already seen potential signs of immunity or resistance among trees in infected areas, raising hopes that the scientific solution to protecting the species could be found in East Anglia.
“I think that it is true that where the disease is at its most vigorous, that’s the obvious place to look for scientific evidence, and for signs of resistant strains,” he said.
“In this ancient woodland I have just been shown specific examples of coppicing where some plants are clearly diseased and others are unaffected, and that gives me a cause for cautious optimism. But it is very serious, and I don’t want to get people’s hopes up – this is going to be a long game.”
The fungal infection was first identified in the UK in February, in young trees imported from contaminated nurseries in continental Europe, where the disease has devastated up to 90pc of the species in Denmark.
Since then, the UK outbreak had been restricted to newly-planted imported trees – until October, when the threat to the wider countryside was exposed by the confirmation of Chalara at four established woodland sites in Norfolk.
There are now more than 185 confirmed cases, of which more than 110 are in the East if England, and the lion’s share located in Norfolk and Suffolk.
Lord de Mauley said he wanted to thank the people of Norfolk for their help in the massive national effort undertaken by the Forestry Commission and other agencies, to survey the entire country in 10km squares to assess the extent of the disease.
For more on this story, see tomorrow’s papers.