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Ash to ashes

A plant nursery owner is threatening to sue the government for failing to ban the importation of ash-tree saplings, following the identification of a viral disease that threatens to kill 80 million ash trees in Britain within the next few years.

Robert Crowder stated in a radio interview that he has had to burn 100,000 ash plants, many of them imported from Belgium, this year and he wants compensation.

In the course of the interview, he claimed that the disease had originally been notified in Britain in 2009. It was first identified in Poland in 2000 and by 2005 had wiped-out 90% of the ash trees in Denmark. However, there seems to have been some confusion over which strain of the disease caused the devastation, and the same ludicrous muddle and delay at the ministry of agriculture that brought us the foot-and-mouth debacle in 2001.

Were I the government’s legal counsel, I should want to know two things: one, why, if Mr Crowder knew about the disease three years ago, has he continued to import possibly diseased trees merely because no-one has told him not to?; and, secondly, why in Hell’s name are we importing trees at all?

Ash is one of the most prolific trees in Britain. I bow to no-one in my admiration for a full-grown ash-tree in summer leaf,  but the immature plant is a sprouting, pernicious weed that grows anywhere in its millions, even out of walls and pavements. Its roots go down to Hades and if you cut one shoot, six more grow off the stump. Who is buying and planting these trees, and why? (a clue: it begins with B and ends with usiness…)

And what, please, was the cause of the weeping black galls I found six years ago on many of the young ash trees in the woodland of the estate I used to manage? I asked experts but no-one seemed to know or be particularly concerned. Online guides refer to Ash Yellows disease producing canker, yellowing and die-back; although not immediately fatal. Perhaps it was that. But Ash Yellows is a North American disease. Trees have evolved for millennia alongside native pathogens, but they are now seriously threatened, both by changes in the climate and pollution causing stress – and, most seriously, by globalisation of disease-causing agents to which they have no resistance.

Enjoy them while you can.

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