Up to three quarters of Sussex’s ash trees could be infected by a deadly disease in just four years, a report has revealed.
The magnitude of the threat posed by ash dieback disease has been highlighted by government scientists.
The report by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Forestry Commission shows 75% of Ash trees in Sussex and neighbouring Kent could be infected by 2018.
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Dr Tony Whitebread, chief executive of Sussex Wildlife Trust, said it confirmed their fears about the danger of the disease.
He said: “It has confirmed what we thought. We had a lot of concern when it was first spotted in the country [in 2012]. It is a major threat to trees in Sussex.
“Ash trees are a very common tree and a major component in quite a few woodlands particularly the South Downs.
“If they all start to suffer it will be very visible.”
Dr Whitebread added ash trees provided comparatively little shade encouraging flowers such as bluebells to grow underneath them.
If they were to die, other trees with denser shades would likely replace them, threatening the flowers underneath.
Councils cannot just cut down infected trees, said Dr Whitbread, as there are somany. Instead hope rests on the genetic diversity of ash trees so that some might be resistant to the deadly Chalara fungus.
An East Sussex County Council spokesman said: “The native species of ash is one of the most common indigenous tree species in woodland and hedgerows throughout East Sussex.
“We have not seen ash dieback spread as rapidly as was feared when concerns were first raised back in 2012, although it has been reported in isolated patches mainly in the north east of the county from the border with Kent across to Battle and Crowborough.”
A West Sussex County Council spokesman added ash trees were the most common species of broadleaved tree in West Sussex, but so far there had been only one confirmed case.
Nationally Defra has imposed a ban on the importation of ash from abroad and themovement of plants within the country which has effectively prevented any new planting of any species of ash.
Any suspected cases of ash dieback should be reported to the Forestry Commission by calling 08459 33 55 77 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.