The Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT) says it has “no choice” but to chop down “thousands” of trees infected with a devastating fungal disease because of fears they may fall on top of people

Trees with ash dieback – also known as Chalara dieback – are more susceptible to another infection called honey fungus, which results in butt or root rot, destabilising the tree and making them prone to falling, according to SWT.

There is currently no known efficient prevention or cure for the disease, which was discovered in the UK in 2012 and which has spread to all counties in England.

The signs are dead branches, discoloured stems, blackened tips on stems, blackened leaves and trees with little or no leaves in the spring or summer seasons.

The Forestry Commission has said there is a “high penetration” of the disease at several sites in Surrey and is supporting SWT’s decision to fell infected trees to protect visitors.

SWT will be removing what it says will be thousands of infected ash trees from November so works can take place outside the bird nesting season. The works will be completed in phases and will continue over a number of years.

As part of the first phase, the trust will be felling in four sites this winter: Sheepleas, Norbury Park, Staffhurst Wood and Shere Woodlands.

James Adler, director of land management for Surrey Wildlife Trust, said the trust “do not have any other option” but to fell the diseased trees to keep sites safe.

Director of land management James Adler (Image: Darren Pepe)

He explained the trust would only remove infected threes within 30 metres of any footpath, car park, bridleways, roads or any other areas where people may be.

He said: “We are devastated that we have to make this decision to fell infected Ash trees. But this disease is decimating our native Ash woodlands in front of our eyes. Public safety simply has to be our top priority whilst considering the most appropriate response.

“The sites will look different as the works will alter views from some pathways. But in time the woodlands will regenerate with a range of species including, hopefully, some disease tolerant Ash trees. There may be some silver linings for wildlife. Opening rides and glades will bring more light to the forest floor, so we may see more butterflies, orchids and other species benefiting.”

He added: “It’s a native tree which supports a range of native species. They are a genuine part of our British woodlands. Unfortunately, this disease is wiping them out.”

Ash trees without their leaves at Sheepleas (Image: Surrey Wildlife Trust)

SWT manages 1,500 hectares of woodlands in Surrey and has removed more than 80 dangerous or fallen Ash trees between April 2017 and March 2018.

With around 1.3million visitors every year, the trust said public safety is a key concern.

Work will be carried out using a forest harvester as the trust said it is too dangerous to use chainsaw operators due to the possibility of loose tree material to falling on workers.

The trust reassured people that ecological surveys have been carried out on all areas identified for felling to check for any protected species.

Blackened leaves are early signs of Ash dieback disease (Image: Surrey Wildlife Trust)

Matthew Woodcock, Partnership and Expertise Manager at the Forestry Commission, said: “Most parts of the country are now experiencing the impacts of ash tree decline, although the speed and severity of the disease is variable at a local level.

“We encourage all owners of woodland to think strategically about the management of their ash trees and adopt best practice to help reduce the impact of the disease on our landscape.

“We have visited several of the sites in Surrey, including Norbury Park, and can confirm there is a high penetration of ash dieback disease on these sites. Surrey Wildlife Trust has consulted with us and we support its decision to commence felling operations in the interests of visitor safety.”

He added: “Since Chalara ash dieback was identified in 2012, Government has been working with a huge cross section of stakeholders and has invested more than £37million into tree health research including funding research into the biology and pathology of the disease.

Discoloured stems from an ash tree (Image: Darren Pepe)

“Natural tolerance to ash dieback does exist and the UK is leading the way on work to identify resistant trees. This research is giving us a better understanding of the disease and will help us more effectively tackle it in the long-term.”