Census call to help conquer horse chestnut threat

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Forestry experts have called for a census of London's beleaguered horse chestnut trees to assess damage caused by drought, pest attack and disease.

As The Independent revealed on Thursday, at least one in 10 horse chestnut trees in Britain is believed to have been affected by an environmental "triple whammy," which is being compared in impact to the outbreak of Dutch elm disease which swept the country in the 1970s. The trees are being attacked by a combination of cankers killing the bark and leaf-moth larvae destroying foliage.

David Rose, a spokesman for the Forestry Commission, said yesterday: "It is imperative that we have a proper survey of the problem across London as it is the area of Britain worst hit by this. It is something that we would be willing to co-ordinate."

His calls were backed by the London Assembly's Liberal Democrat spokesman on the environment, Mike Tuffey. "Once we know the size of the epidemic we can nip it in the bud."

Calls for a rescue plan for the iconic tree, which has provided generations of children with ammunition for annual autumn conker fights, have become increasingly urgent since The Independent revealed the scale of the problem. Mark Spencer, a tree expert at the Natural History Museum, said yesterday: "Because of conker fights and the incredible impact horse chestnuts have on the way London looks any changes could be dramatic".

Carrying out a census however, would be a costly process. Mr Rose, said: "Larger-scale work would need additional resources but could yield interesting results."

Meanwhile it emerged yesterday that a treatment being developed in the Netherlands could hold the key to saving Britain's horse chestnut.

The chestnuts which line the boulevards of The Hague face a similar threat to Britain's trees. But the use of a homeopathic spray to combat bleeding canker infection and pest infestation has so far yielded positive results.

"The trial that's been running for two years is showing very good results, and we seem to be the only people actually doing anything" said Glen Atkinson, the inventor of the treatment and founder director of Bdmax, the company which is marketing the spray.

"You can't spray any kind of toxic chemicals in these public areas, so homeopathics are perfect for the job." But experts in Britain are pessimistic about the chances of saving those trees which have already succumbed to disease or been infested by the leaf miner moth.

Chris Prior of the Royal Horticultural Society said: "Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about the leaf miner, and it's very unlikely there'll be any action that can be taken against cankers as well."

One tree officer from a London borough also voiced scepticism over a possible Dutch "miracle cure". He said: "If something worked we'd be very keen to use it, but I'm not sure how it could tackle both problems at once. It sounds a bit too good to be true."