'It's a pandemic': thousands of Leicester trees to be cut down to stop spread of disease

ITV Central News Correspondent Phil Brewster reports from Highway Spinney, looking at how a deadly disease is wiping out ash trees across Leicester.

Leicester could stand to lose more than two-thirds of its ash tree population as the result of a disease that has killed millions of trees across Europe.

Ash dieback is a fungal disease that was first detected in the UK 10 years ago and has since devastated the country's ash population.

The disease was initially slow in reaching the East Midlands, but now thousands of badly-affected trees in Leicester will have to be felled.

Experts fear more than 15,000 ash trees in Leicester could be lost because of the disease

A recent inspection of the trees at Gorse Hill Spinney, near Anstey Lane found that around 250 ash trees were in such poor condition, that they represented an imminent risk to public safety, after having already lost more than 50 per cent of their canopy to the disease. 

Leicester City Council said they will begin work to remove the trees next week.

Dave Jones, the City Council’s Trees & Woodlands manager said:

'We have over 25,000 Ash trees in the city, it makes up around 15% of the ash tree population.

'Worse case scenario we could end up losing 15,000 trees or more from ash die-back'.

 'It's devastating - they will not survive this'.

Mr Jones said:

'It may be that in 10 to 15 years time, seeing a mature ash tree would be a rare sight.

'Hopefully in years to come there will be resistance strains and we'll be able to replant.

'It is necessary because the trees are very weak and brittle and they do pose a very significant hazard. We have to pre-empt the failure... we have to take them down'.

'They will not survive this'.

'We’re systematically monitoring the 25,120 ash trees in our ownership but there’s nothing we can do to stop the disease from spreading, other than by removing infected and dangerous trees'.

Mr. Jones says:

'I know trees are very emotive and the public will see tree crews out. They will see trees being felled. And the trees may still have some leaf on them and may still look alive, and they are alive, but they are gradually dying'.

'To lose potentially up to 15% of a single population of trees has a massive effect on biodiversity'.

What is ash dieback?

Ash dieback (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus) arrived in Europe from Asia in the 1990's and spread rapidly, devastating European ash trees which had no natural defences against it.

The fungus from the disease releases spores that can be blown tens of miles away, penetrating a trees leaves and eventually blocking its water transport systems and killing it.

'It may be that in 10 to 15 years time, seeing a mature ash tree would be a rare sight'

According to the Woodland Trust website, ash die-back can impact ash trees of any ages but younger trees tend to succumb to the disease more quickly.

Symptoms for an affected tree include:

- discoloured leaves

- diamond-shaped lesions where its branches meet its trunk

- the characteristic 'dieback' that leaves the tree with a severely reduced canopy.

How will it impact us?

In Britain, ash trees are the second most abundant tree species in small woodland patches after the native oak, the third most abundant in larger areas of forest, and the most common hedgerow tree species - according to the Woodland Trust.

Councillor Adam Clarke, Deputy Mayor for the Environment said: "It's a pandemic that has finally reached Leicester and a pandemic for which there is no vaccine.

'It's deeply sad that woodlands like this stand to be devastated by Ash dieback.

'We've just got to do the best we can to replenish the tree stocks and to maintain a tree canopy that currently covers 16% of the city'.

Why do the trees affected need to be cut down?

Councillor Adam Clarke says:

'Trees when their dying present a danger to the general public'.

'The vascular system within these trees is breaking down and that is breaking down the integrity of the trees.

'The branches stand to fall which stands a risk to people and dog walkers passing underneath those trees'.

He added:

'Once that risk has been dealt with, we’ll be committed to developing a long-term recovery plan that will help restore our landscape – and ensure that Leicester’s urban forest continues to be a major asset for generations to come'.

The City Council’s Ash Dieback Action Plan will be published later this year and includes a plan to replant more than one tree for every tree lost.