Eye in the sky targets damaging tree disease in Cumbria

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A Forestry Commission team has flown sorties over Cumbria as part of wide-ranging measures to tackle the spread of a deadly disease of larch trees.

The flights by a helicopter involved experts taking hundreds of aerial images of local woodland to spot tell-tale signs of infection caused by a fungus-like pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum (P. ramorum), which kills larch trees very quickly.

The lethal disease was first discovered on larch trees in the UK in 2009 in South West England, and since then six sites have been identified in Cumbria. Containment and early felling is vital because infected larch trees produce huge numbers of the spores that spread the disease. These can be spread some distance from tall trees by the wind and in mists, risking rapid spread of the infection to large numbers of other trees.

Ben Jones, Forestry Commission England's Plant Health Operations Manager, said:

"The helicopter covers large areas of ground quickly, giving us a good view of the forest canopy. That means we can look for disease symptoms such as dead tops and branch and shoot dieback with a distinctive ginger colour, as well as any other abnormalities. Using cameras with built-in GPS, we can pin-point areas of concern and send in ground teams to carry out a detailed inspection. We started flights in 2010, and they have proved incredibly useful."

The survey will fly over most parts of the UK, from the South West of England to the Scottish Highlands, totting up around 20,000 miles. The Cumbrian flights this year have not found any significant signs of infection in the county beyond those already known, but analysis continues and vigilance is vital. Larch trees comprise about 6.3 per cent of Cumbria's total woodland area, and the county is deemed a high-risk zone for P. ramorum infection because of its moist climate.

In another move to raise awareness of ramorum disease and its symptoms, two films have been produced by a partnership of agencies. They are aimed at landowners, forestry contractors and workers, forest visitors and the public. To view them go to the Forestry Commission website at www.forestry.gov.uk/phytophthorafilms or the Plant Health pages of the Food & Environment Research Agency (Fera) website.

The Forestry Commission is leading the programme to manage ramorum disease in trees and woodland in partnership with Fera, which is leading the effort on other plants and habitats in England and Wales.

Further information is available at www.forestry.gov.uk/pramorum, and tree pest and disease news can be followed at www.twitter.com/treepestnews.

Phytophthora ramorum is a 'quarantine' organism, and its presence on trees or woodland plants must be notified to the Forestry Commission, which must take action to contain or eradicate it. It is not harmful to humans or animals.

Larch is a durable, versatile timber that tolerates moisture and resists rotting when used in the ground. These qualities make it well suited for outdoor uses such as fence posts and panels, exterior wall cladding, boats, sheds and furniture, as well as indoor uses such as flooring and chipboard. It is easily stained, worked and finished. P. ramorum does not harm the timber, so logs from infected trees may enter the timber market, provided biosecurity measures are put in place to prevent accidental spread of the disease during timber movements.

There are about 134,000 hectares (331,000 acres) of larch woodland in Britain, equivalent to about 5 per cent of the total woodland area. Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) is the most popular species with industry and end users because of its superior timber properties, but European larch (Larix decidua) and hybrid larch (Larix x eurolepis) are also grown in Britain.

Forestry Commission England is the government department responsible in England for protecting, expanding and promoting the sustainable management of woods and forests and increasing their value to society and the environment. Forestry makes a real contribution to sustainable development, providing social and environmental benefits arising from planting and managing attractive, as well as productive, woodlands.

Article from the Forestry Commision

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