One of the most important tree collections in the world is under threat after a virulent fungal disease infected tens of thousands at Castlewellan Forest Park.
The picturesque treescape of Castlewellan|Forest Park |david fitzgeraldBY LINDA STEWART
Around 25,000 Japanese larch trees are to be felled and 100 hectares of forest cleared after the highly infectious fungal pathogen Phytophthora ramorum — also known as Sudden Oak Death — swept through the forest.
The area of forest which is being cleared is bigger than the Titanic Quarter in Belfast.
Fears have now been raised over the danger to nearby Castlewellan Arboretum, a world-famous tree collection that dates back to 1740 and includes some 40 champion trees. Among the hundreds of rare and special trees are notable examples of cypress, spruce, podocarpus and juniper, with many species collected at the behest of Hugh Annesley, the 5th Earl, in the 19th century.
Local people have been battling to save the arboretum and the Annesley Garden, which has fallen into decline since the 1960s, but if the disease reaches the collection, it could be a fatal blow to their efforts.
The arboretum is the birthplace of the popular Castlewellan Gold variety of Leyland cypress, which originated from a single mutant tree in the collection.
Last night, South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said she would be concerned that such a major regional asset could be at risk.
“I have a particular interest in Castlewellan Arboretum and I would like to see it fully developed and fully sponsored by DARD. It holds lots of rare species and I honestly believe, along with the Arboretum Regeneration group, that it must be protected and developed,” she said.
Last night, Forest Service said it would be felling more than 100 hectares of forestry to curb the spread of the disease. Visitors will also be asked to undertake biosecurity measures.
The disease was identified when many trees that were apparently healthy last autumn showed symptoms during the spring.
Many trees have already died and action to fell the trees is already under way.
Forest Service chief executive Malcolm Beatty said: “We are very disappointed about this outbreak in Castlewellan as it is further evidence that the disease is continuing to spread.”
He appealed to the public to help in the control of the disease, saying: “Castlewellan Forest Park remains open to visitors. However, visitors should follow the guidance on signs at the affected sites.
“It is especially important to avoid any action which could result in the movement of infected soil or plant parts to uninfected areas. Visitors are also urged to ensure their bicycles and footwear are free of any soil before visiting other areas. The disease presents no risk to humans or animals,” said Mr Beatty.
Hundreds of thousands of trees across Northern Ireland have been felled over the last few years after the disease was confirmed at 15 public forests and seven private forestry sites, with hotspots across the Antrim Plateau, near Carrickfergus and Tollymore.
Local councillor Eamonn O’Neill said he was “shocked” at the extent of the felling but acknowledged that Forest Service must do what it can to curb the spread.
e Phytophthora ramorum originated in south China. It can kill many tree species but appears to attack Japanese larch first. |It is very |infectious.