Forty years ago the Dutch elm disease ravaged woodlands and farmlands all over this country and wiped out a handsome, beloved tree that was synonymous with our traditional landscape. The elm tree, painted by Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, has almost vanished from our land.
And it seems we have learnt nothing. For the past ten years, a fungal infection called ash dieback disease has been destroying ash trees all over the world, and yet our government has done nothing at all about it. Ash dieback has already destroyed 90% of the ash trees in Denmark, one of our nearest neighbours, yet until last week it was completely legal in England to import ash saplings from Denmark. Now several British woodlands that planted the imported saplings have been found to harbour dieback disease. 100,000 trees have been hastily destroyed - but it is too late.
What the government should have done was to ban ash imports as soon as the disease was identified.
The whole idea of having to import ash saplings is completely ridiculous. Few trees are more naturally prolific than the ash, and I regularly throw away little ash seedlings, one or two feet high, that sprout as weeds in my garden. Their long, pinnate leaflets are rather similar to those of an elder tree but more pendant. They are seeded by the beautiful clump of three ash trees in a neighbour's garden, visible from my kitchen window. This grove was planted as a boundary marker a hundred years ago and looks wonderful when the moon is in the high branches. I wonder how long they will last now? Wherever there are ash trees, their winged seed-pods, airborne on the slightest breeze, scatter themselves widely and germinate readily without human help. To admit we are paying for imported ash saplings is a damning admission of horticultural incompetence.
It's like paying to import air.
If Britain now loses its ash trees, this will be an environmental tragedy. We are losing our native trees one by one and they are being replaced by unsuitable imports such as the ghastly Leylandii and the hideous Thuja. Our native birds, butterflies and insects cannot live and survive in the alien species. The officials who are supposed to take care of our woodlands and our environment are doing a very poor job.
Lenten Meditations: Saturday 25 March
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