OUR NATIVE TREES are coming under threat from harmful bugs and diseases but, armed with just a Smartphone, the public can play a major role in the battle to save them – thanks to the TreeCheck app.
It’s no secret to the people who know me that I’m a bit daft about trees – I’ve grown hazel, horse chestnut and oak trees from nuts, and I’ll transplant wild-growing hawthorns and other seedlings in the garden to spots where they are more likely to survive long-term.
Growing up in the countryside during a time when children were allowed to pretty much roam free meant that trees were part of our natural playground. I would like my own two girls to have similar memories and an appreciation of native trees as they grow up.
Great Canal Journeys
I was recently watching an episode of Channel Four’s fantastic Great Canal Journeys, where thespian couple Timothy West and Prunella Scales were travelling on a barge down the French Canal du Midi. They were sadly reflecting on the loss of thousands of plane trees, that once lined the historic waterway, because of a devastating fungal disease.
Experts believe the fungus, known as Ceratocystis platani, was carried from the United States in infected ammunition boxes during the Second World War, resulting in the felling of around 15,000 trees to date.
Tree disease in Ireland
In Ireland, we are no strangers to the threat posed by imported tree diseases, both to our forests and to our sporting culture!
Characterised by leaf loss, crown dieback and bark lesions, the first cases of Chalara Ash Dieback were discovered on the island in 2012, with numbers continuing to soar annually.
By January 2016, there were confirmed findings of the fungus in 115 forest plantations across 19 counties in Ireland while there were also dozens of individual cases in hedgerows and roadsides/motorways during 2015.
In July 2015, it was reported that 100,000 young ash trees had been destroyed in Northern Ireland as part of efforts to stop the fungus spreading. It has so far been found in 100 sites that were all planted with imported saplings.
A recent article in the Journal of Ecology suggested that the ash looked likely to share the same fate as the Dutch Elm (which was devastated by Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s) and be virtually wiped out because of the combined threat of the fungus and a beetle called the emerald ash border.
Bad news for hurling but hope exists
That’s bad news for anyone interested in Gaelic sports because hurleys are famously made from ash – imported ash is used in 80% of the 450,000 hurleys produced here annually.
It’s at this point that I should stress that I am not trying to be gloomy because there is some good news.
Researchers at the University of York have been able to identify genetic markers that could earmark the trees susceptible to ash dieback, allowing trees with brighter prospects to be planted.
And in Northern Ireland, the Woodland Trust recently offered landowners subsidised recovery packs containing 45 mixed native broadleaf species for planting in areas where ash trees are likely to be lost in the future.
Other trees under threat
It’s not just the ash that’s in danger. The horse chestnut, without which there would be no conker champions, is being affected by a bacterial disease known as bleeding canker, while Japanese larch and rhododendron plants can fall victim to a fungus-like pathogen called phytophthora ramorum.
Worryingly, a fungal disease commonly known as Sudden Oak Death, which as the name suggests targets oaks, was first confirmed in Ireland in 2010 and remains a potential problem.
How can we help? The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) have jointly developed TreeCheck, a web-based smart phone App which allows the public, foresters, horticulturalists and other tree specialists throughout the island of Ireland to report any suspicious pest or disease symptoms seen on trees.
Reports are then assessed by specialist plant health inspectors and if a serious pest or disease is suspected a field inspection is conducted, possibly followed by laboratory testing.
“There are many pests and diseases which, if they become established, could cause serious damage to our forests, crops, gardens, nurseries and the countryside. We would encourage everyone to download the TreeCheck app to their smart phone, to be an extra pair of eyes whilst out and about throughout the year, and report any suspicious symptoms so that together we can safeguard Ireland’s plant and tree health,” the departments say.
They are also looking for feedback on the App so that experts can continue to refine it into the future. If you don’t have a Smartphone, you can still report suspect cases to the relevant department.
There are two reasons why I like TreeCheck – it recognises that cross-border cooperation is vital in tackling environmental issues like tree diseases, and it also acknowledges the importance of public involvement in safeguarding the environment.
So, if you think you’ve spotted an infected tree please report it because you could be helping prevent the spread of a disease that threatens our much-loved native species.
You can also read my thoughts on how the public’s contribution to nature surveys can be invaluable to conservation efforts.