Suffolk: Imports stopped to prevent sweet chestnut blight

Reader Pic - Sending you some pictures for Your Picture section of the Star,they are sweet chestnuts

Reader Pic - Sending you some pictures for Your Picture section of the Star,they are sweet chestnuts hanging on the tree,and a Seagull enjoying his takeaway Alan Thompson, Ipswich. ALAN THOMPSON [] - Credit: Alan Thompson

The sweet chestnut could be the latest of the region’s trees to be toppled by disease, it is feared.

As experts wait to see the full scale of the devastation caused to the region’s ash population by chalara dieback, the Government has moved to ban imports of sweet chestnuts from countries affected by a deadly fungal blight.

It is hoped the move will prevent the infection – Cryphonectria parasitica, which is already killing chestnuts across Europe and North America – from sweeping through nurseries and woodland.

Julian Roughton, chief executive of Suffolk Wildlife Trust, said swathes of trees around Ipswich could be affected but added that both chalara and acute oak decline remained the more critical diseases in terms of impact on biodiversity and landscape.

Mr Roughton said: “Sweet chestnuts tend not to be so good for wildlife in that it’s not so good for invertebrates, but obviously it has a landscape importance. There are some very old sweet chestnut trees, which are, in themselves, fantastic.”

He added: “Sweet chestnut as a tree within Suffolk is more restricted to free-draining soils so we tend not to get it much on the heavier clays, but we do get chestnut woods round the Ipswich area, south of Ipswich and coppice wood.

“Ash dieback and acute oak decline are the big ones in terms of biodiversity, and sweet chestnut doesn’t come close to the impact that those two diseases are likely to have. If it does take hold it will be more localised because it is a more local tree and it’s not a tree that is critical for biodiversity. Of course sweet chestnut has its place and has its value but compared to ash and oak, it’s in a different league.”

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Environment Secretary Owen Paterson announced the embargo after an independent task force set up to look at tree and plant health. He also intends to implement a national plant health risk register, which would identify new threats from pests and disease, allowing the authorities to take preventative measures to tackle future outbreaks.

There are about 44 million sweet chestnuts in Britain, with the tree prevalent in the south-east of the country.

Officials hope the sweet chestnut ban, which should be imposed before the next planting season in autumn, will prevent the quick spread of the disease.

Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser to the department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs, said the Government has learnt from ash dieback, which was widely present before action was taken to stop imports, and the ban would put Britain ahead of the sweet chestnut blight. So far only pockets of blight have been discovered in Britain.

In contrast, the main hope for ash is trees that are disease resistant. Scientists from the Forestry Commission and Forest Research are using a two hectare site at Suffolk Wildlife Trust nature reserve Arger Fen and Spouse’s Grove, near Assington, to study genetic resistance to the toxic fungus.