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Woodlands sacrificed on the altar of free markets

Ash dieback fungus is only the latest in a series of disasters threatening British woodland. Profit-driven globalisation is spreading diseases, whilst climate change and pollution leave trees vulnerable to assaults they might have been able to fight off in past times.

Add in indifference on the part of successive governments and you have the recipe for environment calamity.

For example, three million larch trees and thousands of mature oaks and chestnuts have been felled over the last three years in an attempt to halt the advance of the oak processionary moth.

Over the past five years, the disgustingly named “bleeding canker”, previously confined to a small number of horse chestnut trees in the south of England, has spread throughout the country.

The Forestry Commission’s website lists 15 serious current problems and concludes:

With a recent increase in findings of new pests and diseases, it is clear that Britain's trees are facing unprecedented threats. Our science indicates that climate change will create the conditions for even more pest and disease activity.

The failure by successive governments to ban imports of ash saplings from Europe has allowed the deadly ash dieback fungus to take hold in the UK. The disease has been rampant in Europe for a decade. Industry bodies like the Horticultural Trades Association and the Confederation of Forest Industries have been begging the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to act since 2008.

Ash trees
Ash is crucial for regenerating or creating new broad-leafed woodland. It is one of the “pioneer species” that appear first along with birch, willow and alder. These create the conditions for oak and other species to follow. The photograph shows an area on Loch Awe in Argyll. Commercial timber was felled in around 2007, and it was left to regenerate naturally, so what you see represents nature’s successful comeback in just five years. This is exactly the type of area threatened by the ash dieback outbreak.

The disease was first identified in saplings in the UK in February this year, and even then there was no ban. To try to halt the spread of the disease over 100,000 young ash trees were felled and burned across the country.

But it was too late – the disease has been found in mature trees in an area of woodland in East Anglia and it will be virtually impossible to prevent it spreading. Only now has the government imposed an import ban. This is closing the stable door after the horse has not only bolted – it has grown old and died!

It is not as if we don’t know what can happen with uncontrolled wood imports. Dutch elm disease, which wiped out all the mature elms in Britain from the mid-1970s, arrived in a consignment of infected elm logs. Within a decade about 20 million elms were dead, and all efforts to reinstate elms have failed because of the persistence of the disease.

The biggest-ever tree extinction was the annihilation of the American chestnut, a magnificent tree that was the heart of the native forest from the north to the south and east into the Appalachians, where it could grow to over 100 feet. There was nothing like it for beauty and usefulness.

Then in 1904 a botanist working at the Bronx Zoo noticed a strange disease on the park’s trees. Entothia parasitica had arrived in imported Asian chestnut saplings. Within 40 years, the American chestnut was wiped out.

The only interest the ConDems have shown in forests is their attempt to sell them off to the highest bidder. And that threat has not gone away by any means as they try to smuggle privatisation in by the back door.

The reason the ban on ash saplings was not imposed either by New Labour or the Coalition is because it goes against their obsession with free markets – and also, frankly, because they simply don’t care!

It’s not that new species should never be allowed into the UK, or that all global trade is bad. But it has to be done in a controlled and thoughtful way, with environmental concerns always taking priority over profits and the free market.
You have to ask, what are these governments for if they can’t even act to protect the very substance of the environment we live in and rely on?

Penny Cole
Environment editor
1 November 2012

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