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‘Norwich scientists must lead dieback fight’

PUBLISHED: 06:30 07 December 2012 | UPDATED: 10:10 07 December 2012

Dead Ash tree leaves with the Chalara ash tree disease in Wayland Wood near Watton. Photograph Simon Parker

Dead Ash tree leaves with the Chalara ash tree disease in Wayland Wood near Watton. Photograph Simon Parker

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There were renewed calls today for Norwich scientists to be given funding to lead the UK’s fight against ash dieback disease.

They come as the government sets out interim plans to halt the disease’s spread, in which ministers suggest the best hope of saving the British ash is to understand genetic reasons some trees are resistant to dieback.

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman said world renowned plant genomics experts at the John Innes Centre, based at Colney’s Norwich Research Park (NRP), should lead the investigation.

He said: “Norwich has a particular part to play and I’ll be urging the government to explore every opportunity for the work to be done at the Norwich Research Park.”

So far there have been 291 confirmed infections in the UK; 17 at nurseries, 119 at recently planted sites and a further 159 in other areas such as woodland. The biggest concentration is in East Anglia.

Mr Freeman added: “Our county is the hardest hit in this first wave of the disease and the NRP is world centre of excellence in plant science. We are home to the problem, but we may also be home to the solution.”

As a result of the disease’s spread the government banned all imports of ash trees at the end of October and since then has been trying to get a better understanding of how widespread the problem is.

Yesterday ministers announced interim plans to slow the spread including initiating research on fungus spore production at infected sites and sharing data with other European countries.

The plans will also see a tree health ‘early warning system’ set up using volunteers to raise the alarm when they spot an infected tree and publishing maps of important ash tree populations in the UK.

Meanwhile ministers will also fund a bio-security themed event at the Chelsea flower Show next year.

A UK risk register for plant health will be established and a chief plant health officer appointed at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

But ministers will also now look to set out further research priorities, with genetic variability of ash trees and chalara resistance high on the list.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said: “While the science tells us it won’t be possible to eradicate this disease, we mustn’t give up on British ash. The plan I have set out today shows our determination to slow the spread and minimise the impact of Chalara.

“It will also give us time to find those trees with genetic resistance to the disease and to restructure our woodlands to make them more resilient.”

The government has previously shown confidence in the John Innes Centre’s capabilities by backing it with £90m of funding earlier this year.

Meanwhile the centre has also this year attracted £6.2m from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with a further £2.5m from the government, for research into strains of wheat that are less reliant on fertilizer.

Professor Allan Downie from the John Innes Centre said: “Unlike with previous epidemics, scientists can make use of genomic tools to develop resistance to the fungal pathogen in our native ash population.

“We are investigating how we might be able to help forest researchers make use of such genomic information to identify potentially resistant trees.”

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