The man who led Brighton and Hove’s escape from the scourge of Dutch elm disease has a new fight on his hands. Ash dieback has been reported to be threatening to decimate the country’s 80 million ash trees. The city’s arboricultural manager told reporter Kimberly Middleton how staff are working together to keep Brighton and Hove disease free.

In Denmark up to 90% of ash trees have been devastated by ash dieback, sparking obvious panic when the disease was first reported in the UK.

But for Rob Greenland and his fellow arboriculturalists – who cultivate, manage and study trees – the furore around the disease, known to professionals as chalara, has been “very odd”.

They have watched ash dieback – or “just another disease” as they describe it, “tramp its way across Europe for the last 20 odd years”.

Mr Greenland, Brighton and Hove City Council’s arboricultural manager, said: “In the last ten years we have had more tree diseases than you can shake a stick at.”

Currently two reports of ash dieback are being investigated in East Sussex. The first confirmed case was on November 6 in woodland between Horsham and Haywards Heath.

In comparison, chestnut trees are currently being attacked by three types of disease and several oaks in Preston Park and a beech in Stanmer Park have all succumbed to decay fungus.

But for the man who has been managing Brighton’s trees since 1967, and led the successful battle against Dutch elm disease that eventually led to the city being named as having the national collection of the trees, it is all part of the job.

He compares it to the common cold – we’re all susceptible to disease.

Frail or elderly

For the frail or elderly it might be deadly, but most people will fight it off and continue to live a healthy life.

When Dutch elm disease started spreading between trees, the sticky fungus spores being carried on beetles, it posed a serious threat to Brighton and Hove.

But the obvious spread of the disease on the insects is drastically different from ash dieback, with the way it spread still not very well known, according to Mr Greenland.

He said: “Compared with visible beetles carrying elm disease, with chalara we’re trying to deal with tiny fungal spores.”

The elm-lined streets would have drastically changed if the elm endemic in the 1970s was allowed to take hold.

Mr Greenland said: “The treescape of Brighton would have altered massively.

“We put together a cost of defeat which was £1 million – which transposes to up to £22 million today.

“That was the physical cost of cutting down trees, grinding out stumps and replanting.

“But what we couldn’t put a price on was the visual amenity cost and what that would have meant to the town.

“It would have wiped out whole areas of elm trees in Brighton and Hove, especially on our streets.

“You can’t go down many streets without finding a large contingent of elm trees.”

Fight continues

The beetles can only burrow into dying or recently dead elm trees so the professionals make sure any likely candidates are removed before they become breeding grounds.

And the fight is still continuing, with up to three cases found during a long and hot summer and any reports being taken very seriously.

Road sweepers have joined the front line of the continued battle, having been given visual indicators of elm disease to report back to Brighton’s arboriculturalists, along with any other problems they spot.

Mr Greenland said: “The mainstay, and still is to this day, is there is no point in us taking trees out of streets and parks if Mrs Blog’s tree in the back garden is going to produce beetles and re-infect others.

“We went to the city council and still to this day we, the council, pay for the private sector to cut down diseased elm trees.

“Without that people wouldn’t have admitted their trees were diseased because they couldn’t afford, or just didn’t want to pay, the cost. It was a major success.

“Ash dieback could be dealt with quite similarly.”

If ash trees started dying the dramatic differences would be seen in the woods.

As they do not line the streets like elm trees do, Mr Greenland said the effect in the city would be “negligible”.

Mr Greenland said: “Our decision at the moment is to not combat ash dieback in woodland.

“For wildlife and things there are even benefits to having species wiped out so the next generation can come through and may be even better for wildlife.

“Most of the woodlands we see around are planted by man anyway, they are not ancient.

“If you leave it to nature it’s survival of the fittest.”

Identify signs

Trying to identify signs of the disease has been fraught with difficulty and Mr Greenland said the media and public interest has come at a difficult time.

“One of the symptoms of ash dieback is the effect on the leaves, which mimics autumn,” he said.

“For the last month leaves have been discolouring with the season.”

Brighton’s arboriculturalists will be keeping a close eye on the ash trees when they come into leaf again in the spring to spot for signs of the disease.

The infection causes the leaves of the ash trees to die back as well as causing diamond-shaped lesions, especially around the leaf shoots from the trunk.

There is an ash tree in Stanmer Park which defoliated quickly this autumn and will be first on the list to be checked in the spring.

Mr Greenland said: “From a professional point of view we tend to step back a little bit rather than do a knee-jerk reaction.

“If we get the disease in the city we will deal with park trees because we need to prevent them from becoming a public safety hazard.

“But in the woodland we will allow it to run its course.”

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