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Sussex ash woodland could be devastated by disease
A killer tree disease heading towards Sussex could devastate the county’s landscape forever.
Experts fear it is now too late to stop the deadly Chalara fungus wiping out hundreds of thousands of ash trees.
Five suspected cases were reported in neighbouring Kent over the weekend, days after the fungus was first found in East Anglia.
One conservationist said there could be “an apocalypse in our woodlands” with forests affected worse than at the height of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.
Last night the Forestry Commission said it had received reports of the disease from across the country but refused to confirm or deny whether any had come from Sussex.
The Chalara fungus causes the leaves of ash trees to turn brown and fall off, and the crown and branches to die back.
It is known to kill as many as nine out of 10 of the trees it infects, and has devastated woodland in other parts of Europe in the past few years, almost wiping out the ash population in Denmark.
Tree expert Dr Tony Whitbread, the chief executive of Sussex Wildlife Trust, said the disease could “change our landscape for good”.
He said: “This could be horrific. We are talking about whole forests of diseased trees, dying too quickly for us to cut them down.
“It would be like an apocalypse in our woodlands. Our wildlife would suffer too, as ash trees provide the perfect canopy for species like badgers, foxes and woodpeckers.”
There are more than 12,000 acres of ash forest in West Sussex alone, which is the second most wooded county in the UK.
Long rows of the trees stand on the north slopes of the South Downs, spreading from Storrington to the Hampshire border and down into the Weald, with other ash woods dotted across the county.
The first British cases of ash trees infected by the Chalara fungus came to light earlier this year at sites across the country but these cases were thought confined to nurseries and recent imports.
A call went out to ban imports of ash plants and seeds, which experts hoped would contain the disease.
But those hopes were dashed last week when the fungus was discovered for the first time in mature forests in East Anglia, suggesting it is spreading far faster than expected.
After five cases were reported in Kent over the weekend, experts fear it is now just a matter of time before the disease is confirmed in Sussex.
Dr Whitbread said the authorities had “failed to get a grip” of the situation early enough.
He said: “The trouble is that we should have worked out what measures we would take if it got here.
“But the information has not got out and the local authorities don’t seem to know what to do.”
Yesterday both East and West Sussex county councils confirmed no steps had been taken to prevent the spread of the disease, but said woodland officers had been put on alert to spot possible symptoms.
Claire Kerr from the Woodland Trust warned the disease could have “a major impact” on the county’s forests.
She said: “The effects of Dutch elm disease were very visible on the Sussex landscape and elm wasn’t anything like such a big component of our woodlands as ash.
“In the worst-case scenario, it could leave ash in the same place as elm, which was virtually lost from the British landscape in the 1970s and is still missing.”
100,000 ash trees have already been felled nationally in an effort to stop the fungus.
However, Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas said the fact that the disease had spread was the Government’s fault.
She told fellow MPs: “This episode is a terrible indictment of the Government but actually also of the opposition because the Horticultural Trades Association first warned about this disease back in 2009, so neither the Labour nor coalition Government has worked hard enough on this."
Ministers said they acted as soon as the disease was confirmed and had taken the threat “extremely seriously”.