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KO time for conkers unless Governments acts

Friday 01 September 2006

As conker time arrives for Britain's school children, our countryside commentator John Sheard demands swift Government action to save the stately horse chestnut from following the elm into extinction

SOME years ago, I had to order sudden death in the countryside, one of the most heart-breaking decisions I have ever had to make. The victims: three mature elms at the bottom of my garden which were dying from the Dutch elm plague that was then sweeping the country.

A swift death was deemed necessary by a knowledgable neighbour because they could have fallen onto my cottage or, even worse, the next door neighbour's. So the neighbour, a dab hand with a chainsaw, dropped them into the next field and didn't charge me a penny - he just took away the timber as firewood, the sort of neighbourly act common in the Yorkshire Dales.

We never got over the gap in our view, however, and moved house soon afterwards. It was, as my wife remarked, like looking at an old and cherished friend whose teeth had been knocked out.

Facing a conker KO?

This week, the national media has been full of another threat to another of England's stately trees, the horse chestnut, provider of exquisite flower candles in spring, conkers about now and, when the leaves finally turn, a painter's feast in red, gold and brown, the sort of scene which got Constable's blood racing and has stood firm and proud in a million canvases ever since.

Horse chestnuts are under attack from yet another foreign invader, bleeding canker disease, which arrived here in the past decade from (guess) America, that close ally which in the past has given us the grey squirrel, the wild mink and, more recently, the signal crayfish, which is wiping out its native cousins in the streams and rivers of the Yorkshire Dales at this very minute!

How it got here is not known, but imports to garden centres are under suspicion so once again I finding myself asking why we have virtually no controls in this country on the import of foreign plants. Ironically, you can be thrown into jail in the USA if you are caught trying to smuggle plants, seeds or fruits past customs.

Just as we don't know chestnut canker got here, we also do not know how it is spreading. Forestry Commission scientists were first alerted to outbreaks in the South of England in 2000. Since then, cases have been reported as far apart as Lancashire and Scotland, which means we here in the Dales are surrounded.

But as Forest Research scientists admit: "Little is known of the infection process" although, as usual, they suspect global warming. Mild winters and wet springs may help the Pyhtophora pathogens which cause the disease to spread, they believe.

To lose thousands of horse chestnuts would be an absolute disaster, and not just in the countryside. This is one of the few large specimens that flourishes in urban parks and roadside verges so if the townies have their views spoiled, they might protest in such a way that this townie Government of ours might sit up and pay attention.

And there's the rub. As we reported some weeks ago (See A week in the country) Natural England, the new super-quango due to take over many of the duties of the Countryside Agency, English Nature and the Forestry Commission, has already had its budget cut … and it is not even due to start operations until October.

That augers badly for the scientists at Forest Research who are desperately trying to find a cure - or at least some preventative measures - to cure or slow down the spread of chestnut canker. Cutting their budget at this time would be like some sort of arboreal ethnic cleansing. Cross fingers and pray that it is not the time for the Great Conker KO.

Your views:

  • I am tired of hearing global warming blamed for everything that goes wrong. Warm winters certainly have an effect on nature, not all bad but global warming is a religion and a political initiative, one that employs tens of thousands of people and has spawned a financial bonanza to city financiers in carbon credit trading.

    It is a scapegoat for human stupidity, for the global spread of aliens that costs a trillion dollars every year. It lets us off the hook when it is human greed like building houses on flood plains, encouraging an unnecessary pet trade in wild creatures and generally riding roughshod over wild life and its habitats.

    Frances - Carlisle

  • Get your facts right you idiot. Bleeding canker is caused by a bacteruim. There is nothing to suggest its from the U.S.

    People like you cause nothing but trouble for us professionals with the ill informed rubbish you spout.

    A Local Govt Tree Officer

  • Now there's a thing - a Local Government Officer calling someone stupid - the words pot, kettle and black spring to mind.

    As regards the point at hand, Forest Research states that Bleeding Canker disease may be increasingly common due to our milder and wetter winters. They also state that the first incidence was recorded in America.

    Is it not possible Mr "professional Local Government Tree Officer" that the bacterium was brought here by someone misguidedly bringing in the infection? Most countries have controls on imports of plant and animal species because of such a scenario - but it only takes one to slip through!

    Matthew - Skipton

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