A DISEASE threatening the UK’s native ash trees could have a dramatic impact on wildlife and lead to rare species being lost if it takes hold, experts have warned.

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Chalara ash dieback was first identified in the UK in nurseries and recently planted sites. Last week officials also confirmed it had been found in the wider countryside in East Anglia.

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 some areas of Denmark and is becoming widespread throughout central Europe.

The Government has announced it will ban importing ash trees and bring in tight movement restrictions tomorrow as part of efforts to stop the spread of disease.

But concerns remain that with the fungus now in the wider countryside, possibly arriving as spores blown over the North Sea, it will be very hard to stop its spread in the UK.

The Forestry Commission said it was surveying ash trees in East Anglia, and if the number and area of infected sites was small, they might try to destroy infected trees.

If it is more widespread, the focus would be on preventing further spread.

University of East Anglia researcher Chris Panter said: “As well as 80 common insects, at least 60 of the rarest insect species in the UK have an association with ash trees - these are mostly rare beetles and flies.

“Ironically, many of the rare species associated with ash depend on the dead or dying branches of old trees, but if infected trees are ultimately cleared away then even these species will suffer also.

“Ash is also important for many lichens and mosses that grow in its bark, and its seeds are an important food for wood mice.”

His concerns were echoed by the Wildlife Trusts, after chalara ash dieback was identified at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Lower Wood reserve, Ashwellthorpe, an ancient woodland and a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Rene Olivieri, chairman of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “Ash trees, as hedgerow and field trees, are an important feature in our landscape and also a key component of ecologically unique woodlands that support rare species.

“For example, upland ashwoods, such as those in the Peak District, support rare woodland flowers, a rich invertebrate fauna and important lichens.

“Their loss would have a dramatic negative impact on our natural environment.”

The discovery has also increased fears that ash trees face the same fate as the elm, which was devastated by Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.

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