“From winter, plague and pestilence, good Lord, deliver us!”


The Revd Canon Dr Dagmar Winter, Rural Officer for the Newcastle Diocese, writes:

Our Litany which has at times felt a little antiquated, can sometimes be surprisingly and sadly topical. Let's hope the coming winter won't bring us too much water and snow on already well-saturated earth!

Two particular plagues or pests affecting the countryside have been making the news lately: Ash tree disease and Schmallenberg virus. Both are a problem in Northumberland and those affected need our support. So here's some background information.

Canon Graham UsherFor Ash Tree disease, I put my questions to Canon Graham Usher (pictured right), Rector of Hexham, an ecologist and Chairman of the North East Regional Advisory Committee of the Forestry Commission.

What is the ash tree disease and where has it come from? Why has it suddenly sprung up now?

It’s caused by a fungus with the Latin name Chalara Fraxinea and causes the loss of leaves and the dieback of the crown (the top part) of Ash trees, leading eventually to death. The disease seems to have originated in Poland and slowly spread across Europe. This appears to have been through the spreading of the fungal spores carried on the wind, on human clothing, and through the trade in plants and seeds. It might have been in this country for a few years but it was first seen in nursery plants earlier this year and then also in the wild, particularly in East Anglia .

Will this have an effect on Northumberland? Are trees here already diseased?

In early November a massive survey was carried out in every 10km square on a map of England. The disease was found near Wooler at that stage but this is a fast moving story.

Denmark's ash trees have been decimated by this disease. What does this mean for that country? What would it mean if this happened here on the same scale? Would it really matter, would I notice?

You are right, the disease was devastating for ash trees in Denmark, but about 10% of the trees there seem to have some resistance. This means there is some hope for the future. The advice at the beginning of November is that we should not go out and fell every infected large Ash tree. The UK, too, might have resistant strains that recover and they will be vitally important for the future. About 7% of Northumberland’s trees are Ash so there might be a big effect on our countryside. I fear we might see a similar change in our landscape as when Dutch Elm Disease struck us.

Obviously, the Forestry Commission and Defra are trying their hardest to limit the disease. Are you doing anything as Chairman of NERAC? Is there anything I can do or ought to be aware of?

I really wonder if we can limit it now. It’s in a lot of places and you can’t trap spores. But the Government are giving this a major priority. The emergency committee, COBRA, was activated and has drawn up an action plan. The Forestry Commission staff have been working flat out with others on that and I’ve been trying to support the staff and keep the regional committee informed during a fast changing story. And there will be the need to do a much more extended survey once the leaves come back on the trees next year – and that will need volunteers to learn how to identify the disease and survey their local area. For now, please clean dead leaves off boots and shoes if you are going from one place to another – that’s a simple way of contributing to bio-security.

Anything else we should bear in mind?

Unfortunately, this is just one of a number of tree diseases that we have faced in the last few years. It’s quite frightening how Phytophthora has been attacking rhododendron and larch; there’s Oak Processionary Moth and Chestnut Blight having a huge impact in the south. Sometimes there is success and it seems that an outbreak of the Asian Longhorn Beetle in Kent was contained and eradicated this summer – at the expense of every tree and bush in the area. But there is lots still to learn about these diseases as we plan for the future.

Thanks to Graham for this helpful information.

And to the Schmallenberg Virus (SBV).

Pass the vaccine my dear...SBV is a new emerging livestock disease that has been detected in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. It affects cattle, sheep and goats (to the best of our knowledge not humans) and is transmitted by midges who have come across from the continent. While the disease does not kill and animals do recover, there is a significant loss in milk yield in cattle and likelihood of late abortions or birth defects in sheep and goats. Animals also suffer from fever and diarrhoea - it's not what you want! As one of our farmers said to me recently, "SBV is always at the back of your mind".

SBV was first identified in November 2011 in the German town of Schmallenberg, hence the name. Due to the proximity to the Channel, the highest number of cases by far have occurred in Sussex. However, the virus has now been found in North Yorkshire and Northumberland, and as far afield as Orkney and Ulster.

The real problems associated with the disease – when they affect developing lambs and calves during pregnancy – only occur if the animal is exposed to the disease during a small window early in the pregnancy. Once exposed, the animal then develops immunity, so the ideal scenario is for the disease to spread through an area ahead of the breeding season, leaving immune animals which are then not susceptible.

Farmers in Northumberland hope that with the tups going out later than in Southern England, we might miss the midges which cause the birth defects in sheep. Those with autumn calvers have been holding their breath.

Some scientists believe that the virus has overwintered and fear it will spread across the UK in 2013. The farming press reports that a vaccine against SBV is in preparation and could be available before the end of the year, pending the regulatory process.

It's yet another disease causing farmers unwelcome stress, both financially and emotionally.

“From winter, plague and Schmallenberg, good Lord, deliver us.”





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