Major new report, and a tree named Betty, offer hope for Britain’s ash trees

‘I believe that the findings in this report will underpin what should be a successful battle against this disease Europe-wide.’ Professor Allan Downie.

Betty stands in the beautiful Ashwellthorpe Wood, a Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve. Ash trees have grown here for centuries: the village of Ashwellthorpe, ‘the village by the spring of ash trees’, is named after them. All around her, ash trees are dead or dying. But Betty remains perfectly healthy. Unbeknownst to her, she will now become the figurehead of the battle to save Britain’s ash trees.

After three years of study, researchers from the government-backed Nornex project, led by the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, have today published an important research report into ash dieback disease.

The team compared the genetics of trees with different levels of tolerance to ash dieback disease. From there, they developed three genetic markers which enabled them to predict whether or not a tree is likely to be tolerant to the disease, and the strength of that tolerance. Betty, they discovered, was predicted to show strong tolerance. She is the first tree that the team has studied that shows this trait. Overall, the researchers think that 3% of British ash trees will have some tolerance to the disease.

As well as researching the trees themselves, the team has sequenced the genome of the fungus which causes dieback, Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (which was previously known as Chalara fraxinea), and has run studies into its virulence and population dynamics.

Potentially, this could provide all the information required to build a population of trees with low disease susceptibility, and therefore help to protect the long term population of ash trees.

Photo Credit: Nigel Mykura

Photo Credit: Nigel Mykura

While perhaps not the best known of our native trees, the ash is one of our most beautiful, abundant and useful trees. It has been estimated that there are 80 million individual ash trees in Britain, with as many as two hundred species relying on the tree to survive in Britain alone. It has been used for centuries by man, and is renowned for its qualities for woodworking and burning.

Ash dieback was first discovered in Britain in 2012, in a batch of saplings that were imported from Denmark. In that country, the fungus has killed as many as 90% of the country’s ash trees.

Since then, the disease has spread throughout Britain, with reports of the disease affecting trees from Devonshire to the Scottish highlands.

The report itself is highly optimistic. Professor Allan Downie,  Emeritus Fellow at the John Innes Centre and coordinator of the Nornex consortium, said: ‘it is astonishing that we have come so far in so short a time, and this success is due to the commitment and collaboration of my many colleagues and the funding they received from BBSRC, Defra and NERC.’ In the report itself he writes: ‘I believe that the findings in this report will underpin what should be a successful battle against this disease Europe-wide.’

The UK government is also proud of the work that has been done. Lord Gardiner, Lords Spokesman for Defra, said: ’this Government has invested more than any other country in research on ash dieback, and today’s breakthrough is an excellent example of how the UK’s cutting-edge science is leading the way to help support tree health … We want to guarantee the graceful ash tree continues to have a place in our environment for centuries to come and this vital work is a major step towards ensuring just that.’

The plan will now be to use the strains identified by the study to cultivate trees with a strong resistance to dieback.With more and more species of tree being affected by arboreal pandemics, this timely study could help pave the way for future similar research into other tree diseases.

The full report can be found here: http://oadb.tsl.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Nornex_Final_Report_April_2016.pdf

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Andy Painting

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