A DISEASE that threatens the existence of ash trees could see the devastation of Northern Ireland’s “naturally scenic landscape”, says a UUP MLA.
The first cases of ash dieback were confirmed in Northern Ireland on Friday when the tree fungus chalara fraxinea was identified in imported young saplings at five sites in Co Down and Co Antrim.
Land owned by the National Trust at Runkerry, close to the Giant’s Causeway on the north Antrim coast, is believed to be one of the affected areas.
Statutory notices have been served on owners of the plantations requiring the destruction of around 5,000 affected ash saplings and associated plant debris.
North Antrim UUP MLA Robin Swann said the spread of the disease could have a considerable impact on Northern Ireland’s forested areas.
“As ash makes up nearly half of our tree population, the spread of this disease will be dramatic on our forested areas,” he said.
“This disease knows no borders, land or sea, forest or private garden.
“Unfortunately, at this time of year as trees lose their leaves the disease is nearly impossible to detect but if anyone suspects they have infected trees on their property I urge them to contact the department of agriculture immediately.
“The spread of ash dieback will see the devastation of our naturally scenic landscape.
“Our department must leave no stone unturned or no leaf uninspected to ensure that they prevent the spread of ash dieback further than the five sites already detected.”
Northern Ireland is currently one of the least forested areas in Europe, with the Forest Service estimating that there are just over 105,000 hectares of woodland or eight per cent of the land area.
Of this, about 32,000 hectares are made up broadleaf trees, such as oak and ash.
James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth in Northern Ireland, believes authorities should have acted as early as two years ago to safeguard ash trees in the Province.
“Given that we knew what was happening in other parts of Europe, we should have been better prepared for this,” said Mr Orr.
“Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland’s dominant tree cover is hedgerows. This problem can be rooted out and it may be possible to contain it but we need to act fast.
“We need to maintain a fortress approach to imports from all locations because if this takes hold, it will spread like wildfire with devastating results.”
The virulent fungal disease is believed to be spread through the air by the wind and through movement of diseased plants, with ash tree imports now banned by the Government.
But with time between a plant being infected and new spores being formed taking a year, it could be several years before the full impact of this disease becomes apparent.
The Department of Agricultural and Rural Development (DARD) said ash woods were among the richest habitats for wildlife and important for mosses and lichens.
Andy Crory, nature reserves manager of Ulster Wildlife Trust, said: “Our wildlife is already under huge pressure and this issue emphasises the need to do all we can to ensure that nature is more resilient in the future.
“Any response to deal with this disease must take a precautionary and science-led approach.
“Ash trees are genetically diverse so it could be that some will have a level of resistance to ash dieback.
“If we destroy all those considered infected, or that are near a source of infection, then a naturally resistant population may never emerge. Reducing our ashes literally to ashes could devastate the environment and still have no effect on the disease.”
A DARD spokesperson said that the department is continuing to monitor sites but could not confirm the specific locations of affected areas.