Chalara fraxinea- Securing our Shores, Protecting our Forests


in Expert Articles, Opinion

by Antony Croft

There has been a gradual erosion of the nursery trade in the U.K due to cheaper plants via importation for many decades, driven of course by “the bottom line”, the price. This has seen a remarkable situation evolve; 40% of trees planted in the U.K are of imported origin. Even labelling seems to have slipped through the cracks of “personal choice” and let the buyer beware is the rule of thumb.

Many of the ash trees imported to the U.K are labelled “U.K provenance” but this is misleading buyers, as it is merely the seed that is taken abroad, grown on, exposed to continental pathogens and then shipped back to the U.K to be sold as “of U.K. provenance”.

Chalara Fraxinea. Photo credit: Forestry Commission

Of all the threats to our forests and urban trees the importation of plants brings the greatest of all threats, it is all too easy to be disconnected and not see the potential of such a trade, but continental Europes trees are under a lot of declines, the spread of new and old pathogens much harder to control and limit.

Here in the U.K we have a chance to secure our shores from a suit of pathogens that are increasing by the day.  Chalara fraxinea is the perfect case in point and reason for its use herein.


There are many reasons for the dramatic increase in tree declines and pathogens; our once long stable climate is undergoing dramatic shifts, with longer droughts and heavier wet periods, from one extreme to the next. Industrial pollution and modern chemical agriculture both combine to cause dramatic changes in soil ecology shifting the balance and decreasing the biodiversity and complex interactions of forest soils. Nitrification and acidification via industrialised and urbanised activities is causing major shifts in tree ecologies that have been stable for millennia. Trees cannot adapt to rapid changes like those we are currently witnessing, a situation that is much more prevalent and obvious even to the untrained eye in continental Europe. Here in the U.K we are isolated to a degree, due to our small land mass and oceanic weather systems we are in effect isolated from continental Europe, this gives our trees and forests a far greater fighting chance.

That said, we are in effect connected due to this importation of plants and especially of trees, trees which we have no real need to be importing as they are in many cases, as with the Ash Fraxinus, excelsior natives to the U.K. I sincerely hope that it is not just I who sees the ridiculous nature of this trade? What on earth are we doing importing trees that we can not only grow ourselves but grow like weeds in our forests and gardens? It is fair to say, certainly with the Ash that if you just left the ground alone for a while an ash would seed and grow without any intervention at all!

Our Government has already proved it has no idea how much the population of the United Kingdom value their trees and woodlands, the forest sell off proved this, now they debate and discuss an issue which could see the U.K lose its ash trees, a species that makes up an estimated 30% of tree populations, we haven’t time to debate this issue.

Many of you reading this will not remember the great loss that occurred to the English countryside when Dutch Elm Disease (DED) wiped out nearly every single Elm tree, our landscape changed forever. The Elm is a species that due to this disease is now ecologically speaking confined to a life as a scrub species, growing from root suckers only to succumb to a repeat infection and die before maturity.

The possibilities of losing another icon of the English landscape is on the horizon, and it is going to take a direct action by ALL of us to avoid these things happening again. We do not have time, Chalara fraxinea has already been imported and fortunately found in time to do something about it. I only hope and pray that it did not reach the wider environment, for there is thus far no guarantee it is not already loose in the U.K.

We must not lose sight and we must not become focused on just the ash tree and Chalara, these imports and their pathogens have been happening for over 30 years, and there is no reason to allow it to continue. We must put an end to such importations, or risk a landscape devastated by a suit of pathogens that could so easily have been avoided.

What YOU must all do is ensure that the plants you buy are of TRUE Provenance of the United Kingdom, please, please take care when selecting plants for your gardens or landscape schemes, and don’t rely on the nursery to give you the right info, half the time they don’t know themselves!

We all have to take responsibility for this now, its time we restored the U.K nursery business by buying U.K plants, even if they cost a little more, for the assets at risk in saving a few pounds on cheap imports are beyond comprehension.

The English landscape must be protected.

By Antony Croft

Read more articles by Antony:

Fungi-jewels in the Arboreal Crown


Below are some links to more information on Chalara fraxinea

This link gives the outline information on the disease and its symptoms:

Pest Alert: Ash dieback disease (opens a pdf)

FERA – Rapid Risk Assessment Chalara Fraxinea (opens pdf)


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Roderick leslie October 5, 2012 at 17:55

Spot on, Antony.

And as you rightly say, we don’t have to wait for Government. I was hugely encouraged to be in a discussion between senior managers of UPM Tilhill and the Woodland Trust over the idea that they should act to only buy British sourced trees. This is just the sort of conservation and forestry business alliance that gives a prospect of sorting the problem – as you say, Antony, we should not be waiting for Government (any more than we should on the future of our forests !) take responsibility and act now – and hope Government catches up in its own time.

At the same time, I was staggered to hear about British seed being exported, grown abroad and reimported as ‘British provenance’ (which genetically it of course is).

JD October 8, 2012 at 17:58

Firstly i should say that i am a commercial nurseryman, shock horror go on point the finger at us time again.
Fundementaly there are a number of issues here.
1. We have a forest industry that is driven by ever changing support mechanism’s that at one point is favouring native broadleaved planting, the next it’s productive conifers. How can anyone predict market place when the fluctuation between demand can be up to 40% each season.
2. Roderick, I see you mention Tilhill. They along with other major players are so price driven that, to date, there has been no thought as to the long term consequences of importation of plant material. I should remind you that they were the biggest player in Forest Nurseries in the 90’s and fully aware of the level of imports!
3. Above all the problem lies with the fact that the EU plant health regime is not fit for purpose. In 2009 a group of UK nurserymen visited Denmark and saw the damage this disease was doing, upon return they lobbied both FERA and the FC for some form of import controls. The response that came back from the head of plant health in the FC (yes i have a copy of that email) was that they were unable to do anything at that time. It is extraordinary that this disease has been moving west from the Baltic states for the last 15 years and it is only when it arrives that something happens.

We now have an opportunity to change this with the present review of the EU regime, i raised this at the recent plant health seminar at the APF, all I got was blank stares from the audience, and afterwards i enquired among some of the leading players if they had responded to the consultation, yet again blank stares!

It is everyone’s responsibility and the supply chain needs to work to ensure that the UK remains as free from disease and pest as possible.

Neil October 10, 2012 at 11:42

And what of Sweet Chestnut Blight? And shouldn’t we be banning all wooden packaging from Asia because of Longhorn Beetle? And do other countries need to counterban all plant transport because of P. kernovia?
The call for a ban has got the public interested, but it is too late.
What we need are maps showing the spread of all diseases as outbreaks are confirmed, easily done with iPhone technology. The arborists and horticulturalists need to be trained to know what to look for. Gardeners’ world and other TV, radio, newspapers need to be pumping the information on what to look out for to the public.

Antony Croft October 14, 2012 at 20:54

The potential of massive population culls via imported diseases should have been recognised and dealt with not in 2009 but in the 1960’s.

And i really dont think monitoring symptoms of a microbiology issue is going to protect anyone, we need to stop spreading plants about and get back to a sustainable,local produce way of living.

Kim (@kim_harding) October 31, 2012 at 11:41

At the heart of this problem are cuts to scientific research (funding for Forest Research is being cut by of 25% and expected to loose 30% of it staff by 2015) and the failure of the horticultural trade to take biosecurity seriously. The Governments own scientific advisers have been warning of the risks posed by such plant pathogens for years. These warnings have been totally ignored on the grounds that they would place a burden on business, and now we are going to have to pay the price.

It is not just Chalara fraxinea that poises a threat, there are Phytophthora spp.

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