A ban on the import of ash trees has been imposed in a bid to stop the spread of a “devastating disease”, the Government said today.
The ban will prevent ash plants, trees and seeds being brought into the UK, and movement restrictions will stop trees from infected areas being moved elsewhere in the country, as part of efforts to stop the spread of Chalara ash dieback.
The disease was first identified in ash trees in the UK in nurseries and recently planted sites, including a car park and a college campus, and last week officials confirmed it had been found in the wider countryside in East Anglia.
The discovery has increased fears that one of the country's most common native trees faces the same fate as the elm, which was devastated by Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.
The Chalara fraxinea fungus, which causes leaf loss and crown dieback and can lead to ash tree death, has wiped out up to 90% of ash trees in Denmark and is becoming widespread throughout central Europe.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said: "This is a very serious disease that demands action to stop its spread. I have ordered both an import ban and movement restrictions on trees from infected areas. This comes into force immediately."
He said work was already under way to tackle the disease, including monitoring of trees in infected areas to ensure early detection and trade bodies had encouraged members to observe a voluntary moratorium on imports.
The ban, which follows an eight-week consultation which showed strong support for such a move, is being put in place before the main tree planting season gets under way in mid November.
"By working together we can protect our native trees from this devastating disease," Mr Paterson said.
Conservationists welcomed the ban, but warned that the problem facing ash trees was symptomatic of a wider problem and accused the Government of failing to prioritise protecting woodlands.
Sue Holden, chief executive of the Woodland Trust, said: "Ash dieback is only one of numerous tree pests and diseases present in the UK.
"With more than 15 separate pests and diseases listed on the Forestry Commission website as already present, it is crucial that the wider issue is tackled."
She called on the Government to set up an emergency summit bringing together forestry, plant health and conservation experts to tackle the threats facing ash trees and other species.
And she warned: "This situation is symptomatic of the lack of priority given to the protection and safeguarding of our natural woodland resources.
"We need to make woodland and the environment a priority and create a political and economic environment that will ensure the sustainability of vibrant woodland habitats across the UK."
Under the terms of the ban, logs, woodchip and firewood, which officials say pose a very low risk of disease transmission, can still be imported but will be destroyed if they are infected. Movement of logs and firewood from sites in the UK where infection has been confirmed will be prohibited.
The Environment Department (Defra) said officials would be on high alert across the country, looking for signs of Chalara and making sure infected trees are destroyed.
There are an estimated 80 million ash trees in the UK, and it is feared that if the disease takes hold, not only the trees but a host of wildlife which rely on them could be badly hit.