Fears have been raised over a possible disease outbreak that could affect native oak trees in Rostrevor Forest.
The Rostrevor oakwood plantation in the forest is home to around 40 acres of oak trees, with some more than 250-years-old. The plantation is the remnant of an original oak forest which was cleared back in the 18th and 19th centuries for wood for shipbuilding.
Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazard says it has become evident in recent weeks than thousands of larch and fir trees appear to be dying in Rostrevor Forest and there are concerns whatever is affecting them could spread to the oak trees.
“From looking at the expanding brown patching in the plantation it is not clear if this has been caused by disease, but it would appear to be P-Ramorum, more commonly known as sudden larch disease,” he said.
“I have asked the [DAERA Minister Edwin Poots] to confirm the cause of this incident as a matter of urgency and ensure that an appropriate assessment is carried out in order to protect the nearby native oak wood as the P-Ramorum pathogen is likely to spread quite aggressively.”
P. Ramorum is a fungus-like pathogen which can attack a wide range of trees and other plants. It was first detected in Northern Ireland in rhododendron plants in the nursery trade in 2002.
“I’ve also asked the minister to allow native trees to reseed in the affected area, as these will not only be much more resistant to invasive pathogens, but will also offer an exciting opportunity to move away from the non-native species that currently blight the landscape,” Mr Hazzard added.
“In redesigning our local landscape in such a fashion we can help improve biodiversity, encourage much needed rewilding, and proactively nurture the local woodland in the interests of wildlife.”
Northern Ireland is the least wooded part of the UK and Europe and its woodland is under threat from invasive species and high levels of nitrogen deposits, according to the Woodland Trust.
In April, the Trust launched a report on the state of the UK’s woods and trees, which found that 61% of woodland in NI is in an unfavourable condition.
A DAERA spokesperson said: “We can confirm that a suspect finding of tree disease affecting larch, in South Down is currently being investigated by DAERA. Symptoms have been detected as part of the Department’s surveillance programmes, of defoliation of larch trees in forests in South Down, including Rostrevor forest.
"No evidence of any impact on oak trees has been detected. The Department has taken samples from affected areas for scientific analysis and to identify the presence of any harmful pests or pathogens, which will inform its follow up action.”