british trees under threat - ash dieback felling hollow damaged tree at hardcastle crags west yorkshire

British trees are under threat from an increase in the severity and frequency of diseases, the National Trust has warned.

Pathogens like ash dieback, Phytophthora ramorum and acute oak decline could have an even bigger impact across the British landscape as the effects of climate change are felt. 

This autumn alone, a new disease, Phytophthora pluvialis, has been found in the UK and a new outbreak of the 8 toothed spruce bark beetle has been found in southeast England, meaning restrictions have been placed on the movement of trees, bark, wood chipping and cut foliage in various parts of the country. 

The charity warns that ash dieback will lead to more than 30,000 trees being felled at a cost of more than £3m this winter alone, as trees that decay become dangerous to the public and require felling. 

This figure is up from £2m last year and it is expected that between 75 – 95 per cent of all ash trees are likely to be lost in the next 20-30 years. 

The effect of Phytophthora ramorum, a fungus-like pathogen, has escalated in the Lake District, requiring urgent felling of larch at several sites with Holme Wood above Loweswater the worst affected, where 75 per cent of the woodland will lose larch. 

A large proportion of woodland in the South Lakes is also badly hit, including Tarn Hows and Coniston, but also badly hit are Wasdale, Langdale, and Crummock and it is estimated that 95 per cent of foresters’ time in the Lakes this year will deal with this disease.

On top of this, storms like Arwen – which last week decimated large parts of the north of England and Wales – are also altering the landscape, costing millions of pounds to clear up and distracting from vital disease management work. A number of trees that came down as a result of the storm were found to be almost hollowed out due to tree disease. Thousands of trees were lost due to Arwen in the Lake District. 

Phytophthora pluvialis was discovered last month in an area of Cornwall – the first time the disease has been identified in Europe.  

The disease has since been found in Devon and Cumbria, although has not yet been found on National Trust land but experts are keeping a close eye on western hemlock, Douglas fir and several pine species.   

Tree and plant experts at the National Trust say that milder, wetter winters create ideal conditions for disease and pests to spread, while trees are more likely to be stressed by prolonged drought, flooding and high temperatures, increasing their susceptibility to pathogens. 

This could mean dramatic changes to the British countryside as the populations of some species decline. 

Milder winters may also favour Xylella, an incurable plant disease which can cause serious stress and death in over 150 species including oak, cherries, hollies and walnuts. The disease is not yet in the UK, but there have been major outbreaks in Europe, including in Italy where olive groves have been destroyed by the pathogen. 

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The charity is in the process of planting more climate resilient plants and creating woodlands that have a diverse range of species in them as part of its aim to establish 20million trees by 2030. But the charity warns that more needs to be done to tackle climate change and stick to the IPCC 1.5C recommended target. 

More diverse and resilient woodlands will be crucial in effectively sequestering carbon as well as continuing to provide homes for wildlife and public access to nature.  
Senior Consultant for Cultivated Plants Rebecca Bevan said: “The European Commission has described Xylella as one of the most dangerous plant bacteria worldwide, and warned that it could survive and spread in the UK. 

“We have native insects capable of spreading it, and a long list of vulnerable host species, including common garden plants like lavender and roses as well as native shrubs and trees such as oak, cherry, holly and elder. Our gardens have stepped up their biosecurity measures to reduce the risk of introducing Xylella into UK where it could be devastating for our gardens and countryside.”

National Trust’s head of Trees and Woodland John Deakin added: “We are seeing changing weather patterns of milder and wetter winters and warmer summers that are creating the ideal environment for pests and disease to spread. Increased droughts and storm events are stressing our trees, reducing their ability to resist pathogens.

“This could have a catastrophic impact on our countryside and for nature, as homes for wildlife are depleted. Many iconic and native species may disappear, which is why it is crucial we act now to choose the trees most suited to the places which they will become established, creating landscapes and woodlands that are more resilient to the changing weather we are likely to experience with increasing regularity. This means a bigger breadth pf species and choosing those more resilient and can thrive in warmer and wetter climates. 

“The spread of disease and pathogens are a real-life example of why it is so important that we do everything we can to mitigate the impacts of climate change and stick to the IPCC recommend target of 1.5degree increase.”

He added that trees affected by pathogens will only be felled in areas where falling trees could pose a risk to public safety or to help stop the spread of the diseases, otherwise they are left to degrade and decay to create homes for wildlife.  

“The species we are replacing ash with vary depending on the location. In natural woodland, for example, we choose species that are native to the site like field maple and lime, but in other locations we may include a proportion of species from further south in Europe that will provide similar benefits – for instance walnut.  Replanting comes at a cost to the charity, both in contractors’ fees to fell diseased trees but also to plant and maintain their replacements. This is time and resource that could be spent elsewhere.” 

Stark aerial images taken by the National Trust demonstrate the scale of ash dieback surging through our woodlands and forests. 

Taken at the end of summer, the pictures show trees dying and decaying in a number of locations, at a time when they should still be green and flourishing. 

That is why it is more important than ever that the right trees are planted in the right places and sourced responsibly, making campaigns like the charity’s Plant a Tree fundraising campaign more important than ever in fighting the nature and climate crises. For more information or donate see here.

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