Suffolk: Ash dieback threatens county’s ancient woodlands
NEARLY every ancient woodland managed by Suffolk Wildlife Trust now has a confirmed case of chalara ash dieback disease - including one of the UK’s most important sites, the EADT can reveal.
Experts said yesterday they were “deeply concerned” that the toxic fungus had been found at Bradfield Woods, near Bury St Edmunds, as the number of cases in Suffolk hit 53.
The ancient site, which has stood since the Ice Age and consists of about 40% ash, is home to ancient ‘coppicing stools’ that have been managed by man since the medieval era and are considered to be culturally unique.
Four other ancient woodlands, including those near Assington, Stowmarket and Needham Market, have also had confirmation of the disease.
Results for Groton Wood near Hadleigh, the only ancient woodland so far unaffected, have not yet come back from the Forestry Commission’s labs.
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Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT) chief executive Julian Roughton, warned the disease would transform Suffolk’s woodland landscapes and have potentially devastating implications for the historic management of the national nature reserve at Bradfield.
He added: “It is a massive disappointment and we are obviously deeply concerned. In terms of ancient woodland, Bradfield’s is one of the single most important ash woods in the country for its nature conservation and because of the cultural importance of the historic management that has happened there over many, many centuries.”
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Mr Roughton, who said the wood’s veteran trees - some of which are more than a 1,000 years old - provided a “direct link” to medieval wood management, said SWT had now stopped coppicing the ancient ash as a precaution.
“We are currently awaiting expert advice on the implications of the management of veteran trees.
“It was due out from the Forestry Commission today but has been delayed for another couple of weeks. There are two schools of thought. Some say coppicing may help protect the tree and others are saying no, it might make them more vulnerable, so we are waiting for this clarification.
“But until then we are not coppicing the veteran ash.”
He added: “The implications for Bradfield Wood would be massive, not just in terms of potential scale of the change because ash is such an important feature within the wood, but in terms of the whole nature of the woodland.
“It would be quite difficult to continue the historic management that we have been doing at Bradfield Woods if we were no longer to coppice ash.”
But Mr Roughton, who previously said Suffolk was at the “frontline” of the disease, said there was much to learn about Chalara.
He added: “What is interesting is that in the samples that we took, there were no obvious symptoms of this Chalara infection. They have been tested and the presence of Chalara has come through as confirmed.
“Could it be that the fungus is present and not the disease? Does it mean that the test is not reliable to tell the difference between pathogenic and non pathogenic fungus?”
Mr Roughton said it is possible that Chalara is “ubiquitous” in Suffolk’s woodlands and some other stimulus is needed to induce it to make viridiol - the chemical that actually poisons the ash.
He added: “This highlights the uncertainties behind understanding how this disease actually takes hold.
“But what we know is that Charalra has been picked up elsewhere where we have ancient woods and the symptoms are there to be seen.”
Bull’s Wood in Cockfield, Arger Fen near Assington, Bonny Wood, near Needham Market, Comb’s Wood, near Stowmarket, all have confirmed cases of the disease.
Grove Farm, near Thurston and Lackford Lakes between Bury St Edmunds and Mildenhall are also affected as are dozens of other none SWT sites across the county.
More than a fifth of the UK’s 257 cases are in Suffolk.
Countrywide the disease has been confirmed at 135 established woodlands, 105 recently planted sites and 17 nursery sites.
A spokesman for the Forestry Commission advised visitors to woods to remove mud and leaf litter from their shoes before leaving.
A Defra spokeswoman said they were still investigating the disease. She added: “There are still uncertainties about the way in which Chalara fraxinea causes disease, and this will be the subject of further research.
“Evidence suggests that it is possible for the organism to be present without causing disease. This is consistent with the evidence that there are some species which are resistant to the disease, or which can tolerate its presence without damage”.