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Sudden Oak Death

They're felling trees in the Afan Valley, but why? Kevin Ashford has the answers in his latest blog

You can only be impressed by nature at times, can’t you? Even when it seems to be at its most destructive.

I was at the Afan Valley Forest Park this week which is a pleasure in itself – there are moments of breathtaking beauty as you wander among the acres of trees.

I wasn’t there for the scenery though, beautiful as it was – I was investigating something rather more sinister.

They’re cutting down trees in the Afan Valley – thousands upon thousands of them.

It’s something the Forestry commission does anyway but this is on a huge scale. No less than a million will be felled in Wales this year as the authorities try to prevent the spread of a fungal disease that some reckon is as big a threat to our woodlands as the Dutch Elm Disease epidemic of the 1960s and 70s.

It’s called Sudden Oak Death but don’t be fooled by the name – it hasn’t affected oaks in this country (so far at least, but more of that later).

It got its name after millions of American oaks had to be cut down because of the disease. It came to this country about a decade ago but didn’t cause too much alarm as it only affected rhododendrons (and they don’t have a huge number of fans among the countryside community because of the way they’ve invaded many areas).

Watch Kevin’s interview with Owen Thurgate from the Forestry Commission

However in the last couple of years, the fungus seems to have mutated in some way (which is the first impressive characteristic it’s shown) and jumped species so that now larch trees are being infected too – and that is much more serious as Japanese larch trees make up just under ten per cent of Welsh woodlands.

Phytophthora Ramorum to give it its Latin name kills its victims quickly (although I should say poses no risk to humans) – and spreads at the same speed and this is the second fact that impressed me.  The infection passes on in two ways – presumably to make it more efficient.

The fungus drops spores into the soil around affected trees but it also spreads them huge distances by ‘puffing out’ pathogens from infected needles at the top of the plants.

This wasn’t such a problem when rhododendrons were the fungus’s home but launching from the top of a towering larch makes Phytophthora a pretty fearsome foe – especially as there’s no chemical been developed yet to tackle it.

The only option at the moment is to fell the larches in huge numbers before the spore-spreading season starts in May and Autumn. That is going to change the way a lot of our woodlands and forests look – and for some time to come. It could be up to forty years for trees to grow back to restore the same skyline.

That’s not the only worry. This bug has jumped species once – it could do it again. Bilberries (that I love picking while out walking) are already at risk – there is a fear that our native oaks could fall victim too. Publicly, those given the task of trying to tackle the problem saying they’re acting swiftly to stop this killer in its tracks.

Privately many admit that Phyophthora Ramorum is almost certainly here to stay – and we need to learn how to live with it.

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