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.