'Sudden death' blight threat to our forests
Killer fungus from US could wipe out ancient oaks
Published 18/08/2010 | 05:00
IRELAND'S trees are under attack from a deadly disease, which experts have warned poses a huge threat to Irish biodiversity.
The Native Woodland Trust said yesterday's confirmation that a fungal disease sometimes known as 'Sudden Oak Death' had spread to Ireland could be a disaster for the country's few remaining native forests.
The fungal disease has been likened to Dutch Elm Disease, which wiped out millions of trees across Ireland and Europe in the 1970s.
The Department of Agriculture confirmed yesterday that it was investigating an outbreak of the fungal disease phytophthora ramorum, which so far has affected a small number of Japanese larch trees in the Tipperary/Waterford region.
Beech trees growing in close proximity to the diseased larch trees had also been infected, as had two noble fir trees.
The department said the disease had also been found in Northern Ireland and it was liaising closely with the North's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
"The department is taking all necessary measures to establish the extent of the infection and control the spread of the disease," it said in a statement.
The disease is a fungus-like organism which causes trees to bleed a thick red sap, and can damage and kill them.
It spread from the US, where it killed millions of trees, into Britain and then reached Ireland.
Japanese larch trees represent 3pc of the total forest tree population in Ireland, and can produce billions of spores which have the potential to spread the disease widely, with felling of infected trees the only way to eradicate it.
Native Woodland Trust Director Jim Lawlor said an outbreak of this fungus, which is related to the potato blight, could pose a particular threat to Ireland's precious remaining oak forests if Irish oaks proved susceptible to the strain.
"It is not just the oak trees themselves that are at risk, it is all the insects and birds that they support," he said.
"It could change the entire landscape if it spreads."
A good example is the spotted woodpecker; it became extinct in Ireland before re-establishing itself in Wicklow National Park, but would not survive if the oak trees that hosted it succumbed to disease.
Just 0.1pc of Ireland's native woodlands still survive, so it would be a disaster if this disease spread to the remaining oak trees.
The eradication of all mature elms in the last century showed the impact tree diseases could have on the landscape, Mr Lawlor said.
He called on the authorities to step up the removal of rhododendron from woodlands as a priority as they were a "complete pest" to other species.
This new disease could also have a serious economic impact on the forestry industry as it could spread like wildfire among plantations of single species, Mr Lawlor said.
The department said wood from infected trees could be used in the normal way if the necessary hygiene measures were taken when felling and in sawmills.