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Fears killer disease could infect all of Kent's ash trees by 2023

PUBLISHED: 07:00 28 November 2019

Infected ash trees. Picture: Kent Downs AONB

Infected ash trees. Picture: Kent Downs AONB

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The entire population of Kent's most widespread tree could be infected by an incurable killer disease over the next four years.

Around half of the county's ash trees have shown signs of infection from a fungus pathogen known as ash dieback. It rapidly kills young trees and slowly brings about the death of twigs and branches within the crowns of mature trees.

The disease has plagued central Europe and the UK since the 1990s but the pathogen has intensified in Kent over the past 12 months, leading to urgent and costly reactive health and safety tree works, largely carried out by Kent County Council.

Potential recovery measures will be discussed by KCC's environment and transport committee on Friday, November 29, following the publication of an alarming report on the latest epidemic.

A KCC paper says: "Kent is undergoing an ash decline, which will inevitably result in changes to our landscape and wildlife as profound as those experienced during the historic elm and lime declines."

Kent's native tree species, European ash, supports 112 invertebrate species and is recorded in 89 per cent of the county's land-space, largely spread across the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The recent intensification of ash dieback comes after fungal spores, carried by winds in the south west of England, spread eastwards into mid and West Kent over the past 12 months.

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It has led to an increase in the number of infected trees by an average of 28pc in the past year.

The rising cost of felling - cutting down the tree - or safety interventions has also caused alarm after increasing by over 1,000pc over a five year period.

Less than 1pc of ash trees in Bluewater and Stone were infected with the disease in 2017, but one-quarter of them were found with it in 2019.

Fears have now been expressed that 100pc of ash populations across Kent will be affected by 2023, if the present upward trajectory continues.

KCC spent around £5,696 in April 2014 safely intervening or felling infected trees, which rose to £66,000 in March 2019, but this is expected to reach the millions in the future.

A KCC report adds: "With as many as half a million trees growing on private and unregistered land adjacent to the public highway, the eventual longer-term cost to KCC or Kent could be as high as £400million."

Recovery measures continue to be considered by KCC and Kent Resilience Forum partners, including recent scientific inroads made into the planting of genetically resistant trees.

Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty unit's director, Nick Johannsen, said: "It's great news that the genetic basis of the resistance to ash dieback has been identified."

He added: "It gives hope that the millions of ash trees we are losing to the disease could eventually be replaced in part by resistant ash trees."

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