The “worst fears” of countryside conservationists have now been realised, as a dangerous tree sickness has been reported among mature trees in Northern Ireland.
Ash dieback disease first arrived in the Province in 2012, but it had been hoped that infections were contained to very young, recently-planted trees.
Infection is fatal for the trees and has no cure, leading to the virtual elimination of the species from some parts of the European continent (where it is understood to have originated).
Until now, no reports were believed to have surfaced of the disease in Northern Ireland’s established natural environment – making the Province the only place in the whole British Isles to be spared such infections.
However, the News Letter has learned that two such cases have now been found in Co Londonderry.
It has been feared for years that, once the disease spread from small, young trees to the wider environment, it could prove almost impossible to stop.
Patrick Cregg, of charity the Woodland Trust, said two trees in a hedgerow on their land at Burntollet, Co Londonderry had succumbed to the disease.
The infection was found on September 22, and reported to the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), which is in charge of fighting the outbreak.
Although Mr Cregg believes this to be the first such case to be discovered in Northern Ireland’s wider environment, he suggested that the disease is probably much more prevalent than any officials realise.
“We discovered that because we were alert and looking,” he said.
“But I suppose the challenge is: are there other cases that have gone unnoticed? That’s the $64,000 question.”
Speaking of the latest find, he added: “What I would say is that it confirms our worst fears.”
The disease is caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus Fraxineus (formerly known as Chalara Fraxinea).
It covers the tree with lesions, which can form a ring around its bark, and kills foliage.
Ash is among the most numerous species of tree in Northern Ireland, and a mainstay of hedgerows and woodlands across the Province.
The disease was first discovered in Poland in the early 1990s.
It is estimated to have wiped out up to 90 per cent of the species in Denmark.
Despite this, right up until 2012 the Province had continued importing up to 150,000 ash saplings annually from continental Europe.
Its importation into Northern Ireland and the Republic was banned in late October 2012... two weeks after the disease had already been discovered in Co Leitrim, on Northern Ireland’s south-west border.
Today, the illness has been found at 113 sites across Northern Ireland alone (mainly in woodland, but some in other locations such as gardens), with more in the Republic.
If you are concerned about possible infection in ash trees, call DARD on 0300 200 7847 or e-mail email@example.com .