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Call for churchyard check on ash trees

09 November 2012


Under threat: ash saplings in Old St Pancras's churchyard, in London

Under threat: ash saplings in Old St Pancras's churchyard, in London

PARISHES are being urged to check their churchyards for any signs of the fungal disease that is threatening Britain's ash trees.

The manager of the charity Caring for God's Acre, Sue Cooper, said: "You will find ash in churchyards, but usually only in a naturally wooded part, or hedgerows where it has self-seeded. However, that does not mean we should not be vigilant in trying to stop this fungus spreading."

The infection Chalara fraxinea, (ash dieback), which causes bark and leaves to wither and die, is already well-established on the Continent, and at least 82 sites have been discovered in East Anglia and the south-east, and seven in Scotland. No treatment exists; so the fungus poses a serious danger to the estimated 80 million ash trees in the UK.

Several dioceses have already asked those responsible for church open spaces to carry out checks after first looking at the advice posted on the Forestry Commission's website, www.forestry.gov.uk. Any suspect trees should be reported to the diocese and to the Forestry Commission.

The website for Oxford diocese warns: "If you find no signs of infection, this does not mean that your trees will remain unaffected in the long term. Monthly inspection is recommended until further guidance is received from the Government."

The planting of ash trees in churchyards was actively discouraged in the 17th and 18th centuries, as the tree had associations with folk remedies that stretched back to pre-Christian times. "Elm was popular in the 18th century, and lime and horse chestnut were popular with the Victorians," the vice-chair of the Church's environmental group Shrinking the Footprint, the Revd Nigel Cooper, said. "In the 20th century, it was flowering cherries.

"Ash trees are in the minority in our churchyards, but that is not to say we should not be concerned."

The Christian environmental and nature conservation movement A Rocha is asking people to send it photos of suspect trees to pass on to DEFRA and the Forestry Commission. "With many parishes looking for more natural wooded churchyards, ash often get established in more out-of-the-way corners," the group's UK conservation director, Andy Lester, said. "Churches could be primary contaminants. They can act as a store or source for the disease to spread. We are about to survey London's Anglican churchyards, and I wouldn't be surprised if we found ash in two-thirds of them."

The Forestry Commission is burning infected trees found in concentrated locations, such as nurseries, but not individual ones discovered in woodland. There, it imposes strict bio-security, banning the movement of felled wood and asking people to clean tools, vehicles, and clothing after contact.

A Church of England spokesperson said: "We understand the concerns about the recorded outbreak of Chalara dieback which affects ash trees. Traditionally, yews and elms have flourished in our churchyards, but, of course, where we have ash trees, we would be on the lookout for any signs of disease."


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