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Under attack: bilberry, beech and oak

Friday 06 March 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard fears for a secret place and a favourite wild fruit, the bilberry, which along with the oak, the beech and the rhododendron is under attack for yet another foreign invader. He asks: When will we ever learn?

I HAVE a favourite spot on a windswept moor high above Airedale in the southern Yorkshire Dales. Most of the year, it is deserted, the sound of the wind interrupted only rarely by the rumble of a passing tractor or the yearning cry of a curlew.

Yet for a couple of weeks a year, towards the end of summer, it is invaded by mothers and children from nearby hamlets taking part in an annual festival that dates back hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The bilberries are in fruit and it is time to collect them before they are gorged by the local wildlife.

Bilberry:  Dales treat at risk
Bilberry: Dales treat at risk

The tiny, purple bilberry is not a well-known plant, restricted as it is to high, acid heathland suitable only for sheep grazing – but Britain possesses more of this type of land than any other country in the world. Living here has always been a battle against nature – and the arrival of the bilberry was for generations a rare sweet treat in a year of pretty plain fare.

Being hard working Yorkshire folk, they made the most of this Dales version of manna from heaven. Sure, the kiddies would stuff themselves whilst they collected the tiny but plump berries, turning their lips and tongues livid purple, but their mums put them to more substantial use: they baked it in Yorkshire puddings to produce a dish which they delightfully named “mucky mouth pie.”

Worryingly perhaps for us locals, the bilberry has just been linked by food-faddists as one of the newly named “super-fruits” like blueberries. These, it is said, are full of anti-oxidants which allegedly help fight diseases like cancer. But before trendy supermarkets start sending out their staffs to scour the Dales moors, be warned: the bilberry is under attack from yet another foreign disease, the latest of a long line of lethal invaders to threaten our wild plants and animals.

This week, Environment Minister Jane Kennedy announced £25 million to help eradicate two imported plant diseases which are becoming a major threat not just to the humble bilberry but also to the mighty oak, the aristocratic beech, and popular shrubs like rhododendrons and camellias.

They are known as Phytophthora ramorum and Phytophthora kernoviae and it is the latter that attacks the humble bilberry as well as rhododendrons and even beech trees. Described by the Forestry Commission as “an exotic plant pathogen” is has been discovered in the South West, the North West and has spread to Scotland – and it has probably been introduced to this country via garden centres and public parks on ornamental shrubs.

Phytophthora ramorum is even more widely spread, having been imported from America where is has been blamed for causing sudden oak death. It attacks by causing a so-called “bleeding canker” when a tree’s sap begins to bleed through its bark and it has been detected in many parts of England, including an un-named “historic” park in West Yorkshire.

What particularly infuriates me about these diseases is the fact that they have been discovered mainly on container-grown rhododendron, viburnum and camellia plants in nurseries. It was first detected in the UK in 2002 and by the beginning of 2008 had been discovered at almost 700 different sites. Just how many outbreaks have gone undetected is anyone’s guess.

we have open house for any exotic plant or creature, despite centuries of

Announcing the £25 million Defra fund to fight and control these diseases, junior minister Jane Kennedy commented: “"These lethal diseases are having a detrimental effect in pristine locations, which in turn could have a detrimental effect on our local tourism industry, and our own lifestyles.”

You can say that again. And again. And again. How many times have we in Britain lost much-loved animals and plants because of what seems to me to be an almost total lack of any form of control over living imports?

Over the years, this column has discussed the problem time and time again, saying fond farewells to the elm, the red squirrel, the water vole, the signal crayfish, and dozens of riverside plants swamped by Japanese knot week and giant hogweed.

As I have written before (sorry to go on and on) the Americans turn back at their immigrations desks anyone carrying foreign food, plants, animals or seeds. In serious cases, miscreants are thrown into jail and then deported when their sentence is complete. Here, we have open house for any exotic plant or creature, despite centuries of warnings. When will we ever learn?

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