Cuts 'damage ability to fight ash disease'

And Government delayed six months before acting on the potentially devastating blight

A A A

Ministers were warned by the Forestry Commission that funding cuts would leave them with "no capacity to deal with costs of disease or other calamity" months before devastating ash dieback was found in Britain, it emerged last night.

A leaked document drawn up by the commission last year said there was a "high-level risk" that government cuts to staff and funding would limit their ability to fight disease in woodlands.

The memo emerged amid growing criticism of ministers over their response to ash dieback caused by a fungus, Chalara fraxinea, which is threatening the UK's ash trees and could be as devastating as Dutch elm disease. Last night, it emerged that 100,000 ash trees have been burnt in a bid to limit the spread of the blight.

Owen Paterson, the new Environment Secretary, announced a ban on ash imports, in force from tomorrow. But the Country Land and Business Association warned yesterday that the ban could be too late to stop the disease spreading.

Ash dieback was discovered in a nursery in East Anglia in February, yet the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) under Mr Paterson's predecessor, Caroline Spelman, did not order a consultation on the disease until 31 August. The two-month consultation ended on Friday, two days after it was revealed that the disease had spread from nurseries into the countryside. By contrast, the Irish government banned imports as soon as the disease was discovered in the country.

Matthew Wilson, a leading gardener and panellist on Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time, said it was extraordinary that ministers had taken so long to act, given that the fungus has killed 90 per cent of ash trees in Denmark.

He told The Independent on Sunday: "The Government has shown precious little regard for woodlands. It tried to sell off all publicly owned woodland. Ministers don't seem to have any appreciation for the significance of our environment."

A Forestry Commission consultation document on redundancies, circulated to staff in 2011, warned: "There is no capacity to deal with costs of disease or other calamity."

A Defra "action plan" on tree health published last year, before ash dieback reached the UK, but when scientists would have been aware of its prevalence on the Continent, did not even refer to ash dieback.

Mr Paterson said the import ban would be accompanied by movement restrictions on ash trees already in Britain. He denied the Government had acted slowly. Mr Paterson told Radio 4's Today programme: "When I came into office in September, a consultation with the industry had just started and I made sure it took as short a time as possible."

Commercial imports of ash trees begin each November, so the only possibility of infected plants reaching Britain over the summer would be if individuals drove them back from nurseries on the Continent, he said.

The Shadow Environment Secretary, Mary Creagh, said: "The Government has been asleep on the job. It also ignored the Forestry Commission's warning that there was no money to tackle tree disease, and cut its cash by 25 per cent."

The president of the Country Land and Business Association, Harry Cotterell, welcomed the import ban, but said it may not be enough to stop an epidemic.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Life and Style
Duchess of Cambridge standswith officials outside of the former wartime spy centre in Bletchley Park
tech
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'