Disease threatens to fell Britain's historic oak trees

A A A

The english oak, the quintessential native tree which saved a monarch and defines the British landscape, is under grave threat from a little-understood new disease that forestry experts fear is spreading far more rapidly across the country than previously estimated.

Acute oak decline (AOD), which is thought to be caused by a previously unknown bacteria, causes trees to "bleed" black fluid and kills them within five years. So virulent and lethal is the infection that foresters believe it could devastate the countryside and urban green spaces even more than Dutch elm disease, which has killed 25 million trees in Britain since 1967.

The Forestry Commission has identified 55 sites across southern England, the Midlands and East Anglia which have been infected so far. But woodland groups believe it has already spread to hundreds more locations and accuse the Government of starving scientists of the funds to research the disease, which only became widely recognised in the past two years.

Peter Goodwin of Woodland Heritage, one of a coalition of 10 conservation and business groups asking for £10m over the next five years to find a cure, said: "This is a truly frightening disease. It has the potential to cause the death of oak trees on a massive scale and it seems to be spreading quickly – evidence suggests it has gone way beyond locations identified by the Forestry Commission.

"We're looking at a disease that has the potential to change our landscape even more than Dutch elm disease, and yet nothing is being done. We cannot afford a repetition of what happened then. Hilary Benn, [the Environment Secretary] has known about this for months and yet the scientists trying to find out how the disease works are desperately short of funding."

Experts say that, as well as spreading towards North Wales and threatening the West Country, the disease is beginning to attack the country's ancient oaks, some of which have lived for more than 400 years. It has been found in Staverton Thicks, a woodland near Woodbridge, Suffolk, where some pollarded oaks date back to the 18th century, and Hoddesdon Park Wood, an ancient forest in Hertfordshire.

Mr Goodwin, who recently sold his own oak plantation in Suffolk rather than watch it die after it became infected with the disease, said: "These ancient trees have previously resisted everything that nature could throw at them. It must be a measure of the risk that AOD poses that they are being infected as well."

The infection is not the only ailment to assail the king of British forests. Another disease, sudden oak death, caused by a relative of potato blight, has already been recorded at dozens of locations across the UK and, despite its name, affects more than 100 species of plants and trees.

Early analysis suggests AOD is far more dangerous, causing multiple oozing lesions in the bark of a tree, before gradually destroying leaf growth and leading to death. It attacks oaks which have lived for 50 years or more.

Scientists at Forest Research, the research arm of the Forestry Commission, have identified three types of bacteria believed to be the cause of the infection, but the precise mechanism of the disease is not understood, hampering attempts to control its spread.

The effectiveness of AOD in killing oaks is exacerbated by agrilus beetles, which opportunistically attack infected trees and speed their decline by boring deep into the trunk and further weakening them. One particular problem for foresters is that the method of spreading the disease, whether through the air or through animal or human contact, is unknown.

Oaks are by far the most common deciduous trees in England, accounting for 16 per cent of all woodland – double that of the next most common species, beeches and sycamores.

Hilary Allison, the policy director of the Woodland Trust, said: "The impact of the loss of the tree from our countryside and towns would be catastrophic. AOD has the capacity to be a major threat to the UK's oak woods."

The Forestry Commission is expected to announce new advice to forest owners shortly about how to manage the disease while further research takes place. "Our aim is to gain as great an understanding as possible of the condition so that we can formulate guidance on minimising the condition and managing its impact," it said.

An intrinsic part of our culture: the history

Whether it was the thick foliage that sheltered a young Charles II or the familiar leaves that provide the logo for the National Trust, the oak tree is an intrinsic part of British history and culture.

Covering 130,000 hectares of woodland and parks, the oak was the king of the primordial forests that covered the British Isles before human inhabitants discovered its durability as a timber and began planting it widely. It would be used to build thousands of sailing ships to establish Britain's naval power and its empire.

The oak was a sacred tree for the Celts, but its status as a symbol of Englishness was cemented in the Worcestershire countryside in 1651, when a fugitive Charles II was hidden from the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell at Boscobel Hall. On 6 September the Stuart monarch spent a day sitting in the boughs of a large oak, fortified by beer and cheese as Roundhead soldiers passed beneath looking for him. Most recently, the oak features on the reverse of the 1987 pound coin.

Suggested Topics
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering