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Suffolk/Essex: Acute oak disease could be as serious as ash dieback

10:15 21 December 2012

Lord Gathorne Cranbrook with some of the trees affected by Acute Oak Decline in their estate.

Lord Gathorne Cranbrook with some of the trees affected by Acute Oak Decline in their estate.

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EXPERTS have warned that a tree disease on a similar scale to chalara ash dieback could devastate East Anglia’s oaks.

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Hundreds of cases of acute oak decline (AOD) – a mysterious disease that kills mature trees – have now been recorded across the country with a density of cases in Suffolk and north Essex.

Wildlife trust bosses, who have said the condition is causing “deep concern”, have now urged people to take part in “citizen science” to report suspected cases in woodlands and parks.

One charity, which has paid for research into AOD, last night accused the Government of “underfunding the problem” and said the destruction of the iconic oak would be a “total disaster” for the region’s landscape and wildlife.

Julian Roughton, chief executive of Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT), said it was vital to get a clear picture of how oaks are being affected at a time when scores of ash are dying or are infected with the toxic chalara fungus.

Mr Roughton said: “Unfortunately we seem to have a number of recorded cases of AOD and, tragically, it seems to particularly affect the large, often veteran oak trees. Certainly you can see some in parkland environment that are suffering from it.

He added: “If AOD becomes widespread and extensive it does not bear thinking about. Oak is an exceptionally important tree in terms of woodlands, the wider landscape and the biodiversity it supports.

“We have veteran oaks of amazing ages – you just could not imagine that at a time when we are threatened with the loss of ash trees that something significant could affect oak trees on a wide scale.”

Mr Roughton said that the chalara outbreak had helped focus attention on tree diseases.

He added: “Getting a clearer picture of how it is affecting oak trees in Suffolk would be very important because I suspect it is under recorded.

“Chalara has also highlighted the value of citizen science in identifying where we have tree diseases.”

Mr Roughton said although AOD has not been found on SWT sites it is causing a “a great deal of concern.”

Symptoms of AOD include dark weeping patches on the trunk, severe crown deterioration and D-shaped exit holes caused by the Agrilus biuttatus beetle.

Mr Roughton said he believed that the cause of the disease is probably bacterial with the beetle “taking advantage” and possibly finishing off dying and declining trees.

Lady Caroline Cranbook, a tireless campaigner on rural issues, said AOD is “rife in East Anglia” including in the grounds of her Great Glemham home, near Saxmundham.

She added: “At Great Glemham we have already lost dozens of oaks, including one of our largest and best which died within a year.

“Diseased and dying oaks are obvious along the roadside hedgerows, in the woods and in the parks. For instance, oaks at Little Glemham, Helmingham, Heveningham, Houghton, Staverton Thicks – extremely ancient oaks thought to be the last surviving wildwood in England – and Sandringham are infected.”

Lady Cranbrook said she thought it was important that AOD was mentioned in the same breath as ash dieback, which has now been recorded at about 130 sites in the east.

She added: “The oak is such a feature of the British landscape and the British tradition, the woods, the hedgerows the parks. Without the oak there would be nothing.”

Peter Goodwin, co-founder and chairman of trustees of Woodland Heritage, a charity dedicated to the proper management of British trees, said he first saw cases of AOD 14 years ago and that it is “far more serious than the ash chalara which is grabbing all the headlines.”

He added: “For a start it is the iconic tree of England and while the ash is serious, the removal of English oak from our landscape is a total disaster.”

Money raised by the charity has helped pay for an international bacterial taxonomist, a micro-biologist, a molecular scientist and a laboratory assistant at Forest Research – the research agency of the Forestry Commission.

Mr Goodwin said: “The department for environment food and rural affairs (Defra) are absolutely culpable in underfunding this problem, so my charity Woodland Heritage began raising money and has done some incredible things to bolster that team of scientists and we are getting results now.”

A Defra spokeswoman said: “We are taking the threat of exotic tree pests and diseases extremely seriously.

“We have already invested £8 million into tree health and plant biosecurity research, and we are about to award a £1 million project to increase our understanding of the distribution, severity and causes of Acute Oak Decline.

“A Plant Health Task Force has been set up to look at what can be done to prevent tree pests and diseases from entering the country in the future and provide us with the most up-to-date and robust evidence to help us make decisions. This work will make a significant contribution to improving how we protect the health of our trees and plants.”

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