Scientists use people power to find disease-resistant ash trees

A £1.2m project to recruit thousands of walkers and other members of the public to help save Britain’s ash trees is to be launched on Monday.

The aim of the AshTag project is to use “citizen science” to pinpoint trees that are resistant to ash dieback disease. Cuttings from these resilient trees could then be used to create a new, healthy generation of ash trees that could replace those ravaged by chalara dieback, which reached the UK in 2012 and is devastating many woods. In Denmark, the disease has killed 90% of the ash trees. Scientists hope to minimise the damage by building up details of resistant trees.

Gabriel Hemery, chief executive of the Sylva Foundation, one of the promoters of the AshTag project, said: “Last month scientists announced they had identified one ash tree that appeared to be resistant to the fungus that causes dieback. We want to find more trees like this. Then we can create stock to replace affected ash trees.”

From Monday, members of the public will be able to register for the scheme on the Living Ash Project website and request tags that they can use to mark ash trees, while also providing details of the trees on the website. People will then be able to monitor the health of those trees and report those that do not succumb to dieback. The aim is to find at least 400 resistant ash trees from which cuttings will be taken in order to create a new generation of healthy trees.

The importance of the project was stressed by Professor Nicola Spence, chief plant health officer at the Department for Environment, Food Rural Affairs, which is funding the project. “Forty-six species of plants and animals can only live on ash trees, so it is not only the trees we will be saving,” she said.

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