More than 20,000 saplings imported from a Scottish nursery infected with a deadly tree disease have been distributed across Northern Ireland.
Forestry chief Malcolm Beatty told members of Stormont’s Agriculture Committee yesterday that the consignment, imported from a Scottish nursery with links to a European supplier, has been delivered to 36 sites.
The first outbreaks of ash dieback have been confirmed at five sites in Northern Ireland.
Another 15 sites in counties Antrim and Down with symptoms of the disease are under investigation and officials are waiting for laboratory test results to confirm if ash dieback — a fungus spread by spores — is present.
“All of these sites are currently being visited and inspected and, where necessary, containment and destruction orders served. More than 3,500 infected saplings on three sites in counties Down and Antrim have already been destroyed by burning and deep burial,” said Mr Beatty.
“When the disease was first confirmed we acted swiftly and vigorously to eradicate. As sites are confirmed, through laboratory testing, destruction notices are served for the infected saplings and associated debris to be burned or deep buried. The risk of spread at this time of year is low and our surveillance will continue, taking in recently planted sites of ash in public and private woodland, roadside plantings, established trees, hedgerows and nurseries.”
Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill told the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week that all the outbreaks are linked to a batch of ash saplings brought in from Scotland last year, before the recent import ban was put in place.
The first confirmed diagnosis in Northern Ireland happened after the person with the batch sent it to authorities in Scotland, who informed the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland.
Symptoms can include brown leaves, lesions, fungi and dark wood. The department has issued destruction orders for around 5,000 saplings and associated plant debris found at the five sites.
Forest Service estimates that there are approximately 32,000 hectares of woodland — 30% of our total woodland area — likely to contain some ash trees.
This week experts in Denmark found evidence that the few trees which survived the disease there show signs of natural resistance. They are collecting seeds.
Minister O’Neill told the Belfast Telegraph the disease has not yet appeared in the wild ash population. The current approach is to take quick action to curb it.
Ash dieback has caused widespread damage to ash populations in continental Europe, and has killed 90% of Denmark’s ash trees. Local spread may be via rain or even transmission by insects, and movement of diseased ash plants. Movement of logs or untreated wood from infected trees might also be a pathway for the disease.