Thousands of Japanese larch trees across the Antrim Plateau could be destroyed after three outbreaks of a plant disease.
The dramatic move comes after a fungus-like pathogen known as Phytophthora ramorum (P Ramorum) was diagnosed on Japanese larch for the first time in Northern Ireland.
Up to 200 hectares of public forest estate and a further four hectares of private woodland may be felled on the Antrim Plateau where the three outbreaks were discovered. DARD has confirmed it will begin felling trees within 48 hours.
Visitors to the woodlands have been urged to stay on forest roads, keep dogs on leads and clean soil off footwear before they leave woodlands to help curb its spread.
The disease is capable of attacking a wide range of woody plants and can cause serious damage to woodland and other habitat. It can be spread on footwear, vehicle wheels, tools and machinery, by movement of infected plants and in rain, mists and air currents.
The pathogen has recently been confirmed in Japanese larch woodland in England, Wales and the Republic.
In the past, P Ramorum has been found at 34 sites in Northern Ireland, mostly on rhododendron and other ornamental species at sites including plant production premises, private gardens, private estates and public parks. All outbreaks of the pathogen, known in the US as Sudden Oak Death, have been controlled and on-site containment and eradication of the disease is ongoing.
Forest Service Chief Executive David Small said: “This is the first time the disease has been confirmed on Japanese larch in Northern Ireland. It is important that DARD does everything it can to minimise the risk of the disease becoming established.”