Fungus may devastate ash woodlands

A disease affecting ash trees could destroy enough to fill Wembley Stadium sixteen times over, University scientists say.

Scientists estimate that 90 per cent of Britain’s 126 million ash trees will become infected with a fungus that causes ash dieback, which has already had an impact on Britain’s woodland.

They predict that, based on a similar epidemic in Lithuania, 60 per cent of infected trees could die, most likely within a decade.

Climate impact

The loss of these trees is devastating enough for the landscape, but will also send big ripples through the ecosystem.

Dr Dave ReaySchool of GeoSciences

The loss of a large volume of trees could aggravate the effects of climate change.

Losing a large portion of Britain’s woodland will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that is removed from the air and stored in trees, and the harmful greenhouse gas will instead be released into the atmosphere.

The overall impact on the environment will depend on whether ash trees are replaced by another tree species, and how quickly.

Dutch elm disease

Many ash trees were themselves planted to fill the gaps left by Dutch elm disease, a beetle-borne fungus that killed more than 25 million elm trees in the 1970s and 1980s.

Scientists are also concerned over the potential impact of the loss of ash trees on the ecosystem, such as plants and animals that live in or near the trees.

Landowners in England are to be recompensed to remove young, infected ash trees and replace them with other species, as part of the UK Government’s ash management plan.

Gene studies

Research elsewhere at the University has unravelled the genetic code of the ash tree fungus, with the aim of tackling the spread of the disease.

Investigating the DNA code of naturally resistant trees may also reveal genes that are able to fight off the fungus.

The study was published in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

Ash dieback will create a big splash in the environment's ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere, so understanding its impacts will be vital for informing woodland management in the future.

Dr Dave ReaySchool of GeoSciences