Three thousand trees have been planted in Hampshire as part of a pioneering, £1.9m project to tackle ash dieback

The completion of a pioneering project in Hampshire to tackle the devastating tree disease ash dieback today marks the launch of the International Year of Plant Health (IPYH) in the UK.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has designated 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH). Countries around the world are planning events and activities throughout the year to highlight how protecting plant health provides huge benefits to people, the environment, and the economy.

The UK’s first Ash Archive contains over 3,000 trees. Established using £1.9 million of government funding, it is the culmination five years’ work to identify ash with a high tolerance to the destructive disease. Today, the government’s Chief Plant Health Officer Nicola Spence planted one of the last trees in the Archive.

‘I’m delighted to acknowledge the successes of the Ash Archive project and welcome the International Year of Plant Health by planting an ash dieback-tolerant tree,’ Nicola said.

‘This is a damaging disease to our native ash trees as well as our timber industry. Since 2012, the Government has invested more than £6m into ash dieback research and £4.5m to strengthen border security. As it stands, we currently have some of the most stringent import controls in Europe.

‘Alongside these measures, it’s vital that we continue to work on securing our ash trees for the future. I’m thrilled to see the progress the Ash Archive has made and look forward to the advances we can make breeding these trees further.’

About ash dieback

Ash dieback was first identified in the UK in 2012. The fungus penetrates the leaves of ash trees before growing inside the tree, eventually blocking its water transport systems and causing it to die. Spores travel in the wind, meaning the disease spreads easily; but projects to identify trees that are tolerant to the disease could help recover the population over time.

The Ash Archive is a major step towards restoring and maintaining ash in the British landscape. It will provide the basis for a breeding programme of tolerant ash over time, and will enable the development of orchards producing commercially available seed.

As part of the government’s ash tree research strategy, Defra funded two projects that studied ash trees as they grew to identify those exhibiting a high degree of tolerance to ash dieback. These were than grafted on to ash rootstocks and grown in nurseries before being planted to form the archive.

Working in collaboration with Future Trees Trust, Forest Research, Forestry England, Kew Gardens and Fera (formerly the Food and Environment Research Agency), the trees will now be used for further scientific research into the disease.

The next steps for the project are to monitor tolerance levels of the trees under real-world conditions; and to continue to refine the archive by removing any dieback-damaged trees and replacing them with newly identified tolerant trees from the wider countryside and other trials.

‘The International Year of Plant Health is a timely reminder of the importance of our natural environment,’ said Biosecurity Minister Lord Gardiner. ‘[We need] to protect our island’s rich heritage of trees and plants from dangerous diseases such as ash dieback.

‘That’s why we are committed to funding innovation in this field. We look forward to continuing our work with Future Trees Trust and Forest Research to develop a genetic collection of trees that will contribute to keeping the iconic ash tree prevalent in our landscapes.’

‘It’s exciting to finally see these trees planted,’ said Future Trees Trust Head of Research Jo Clark. ‘They have been selected from across Britain. We will continue to monitor them over the next five years to ensure we have the most tolerant individuals with which to commence a new breeding programme … thereby retaining ash as a tree for timber purposes as well as biodiversity.’

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