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British ash trees threatened by fungus from Denmark

A general view of ash trees in Pound Farm Woodland, where many of the ash trees have been identified as having Ash Dieback tree fungal disease on November 8, 2012 near Ipswich, United Kingdom.

Ash Dieback, a fungal disease that has infected most of the ash trees in Denmark,  has spread to Britain.  A wide swathe of British woodland is in jeopardy and the financial -- as well as environmental -- consequences could be dire. Tree farmers could lose tens of millions of dollars.

Simon Ellis, a commercial tree farmer from the English county of Lincolnshire, was one of the first casualties. He has been ordered by government officials to destroy 50,000 contaminated  saplings, and along with every other tree farmer in Britain he is now prohibited from importing, exporting or even moving any ash trees until further notice. Ellis is planning to sue the government.

“We invest in these crops in the summer months and harvest at this time of year,” he says. “By imposing the restrictions they’ve put on us now, that stopped our income stream before it’s even started. 

Ellis blames the government for failing to take pre-emptive action against the disease. Three years ago a group of experts from a British horticultural trade body travelled to Denmark to study the devastation caused by the fungus. After the trip, the leader of that group, Tim Briercliff, got in touch with the British government. 

“We wrote and said, 'We’ve seen this terrible disease in Denmark, and you need to ban imports now to stop the disease coming into the U.K.,'” says Briercliff. “But the government did nothing until two weeks ago. And now we have the disease.”

The government rejects the criticism. The Ministry for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that three years ago scientists believed that the fatal fungus had existed in a benign form for many years in Britain. Therefore under EU trade rules ash imports could not be banned at that time.

Today the fungus is spreading fast across the U.K. Eighty million trees are at risk -- almost a third of British woodland. Environmental campaigner George Monbiot is not optimistic about the future  of one of Britain’s best-loved trees.

“It is too late. The fungus is  going to destroy the majority of British ash trees," Monbiot says. "That seems absolutely clear. We’re losing a part of ourselves as well as a part of the natural world."

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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