There is a small hope that unique British races of the species—isolated from continental Europe 8,500 years ago—may prove unusually resistant to the blight.

During the 19th century, as global trade increased exponentially, so did the incidence of tree blights. In the early 20th century, after rich countries instituted biosecurity regimes, the growth rates slowed, and in America, at least until recently, remained fairly linear. But in Europe, around 1960, the infection rate picked up, very likely due to the trade-boosting effect of economic integration. This not only spread diseases around the continent itself. It also made the law-abiding countries of northern Europe, such as Britain, susceptible to the sloppier customs regimes of the continent’s southern fringe.|btn

A group including the Confederation of Forest Industries, the Woodland Trust and the Ramblers Association urged ministers not to scrap the Forestry Commission, which manages publicly owned forests in England and Scotland.

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph today, the group warned against any plans to merge “the Forestry Commission with Natural England or the Environment Agency”.

They said: “A merger would distract front-line staff at a time of threat from tree pests and diseases, and it would threaten, over time, the professional expertise built up in the Forestry Commission.”

Two trade bodies, the Horticultural Trades Association and the Confederation of Forest Industries, warned the Commission of the potential threat of fungal disease in 2009.

But despite this 70,400 trees were brought in from abroad and now ash dieback- or chalara fraxinea – is now threatening to wipe out 80 million trees in Britain.

The infected Forestry Commission sites include Thetford Forest, in Norfolk, one of the biggest lowland forests in England with more than 19,000 hectares of woodland.

Also affected are Rendlesham Wood, a 1,500 hectare forest in Suffolk; Theberton Wood, a 25 hectare patch of woodland in Suffolk; Eggringe Wood, which forms part of a stretch of woodland on the Kent Downs covering 1,598 hectares; and the 400 hectare Elham Park Wood in east Kent.

The Forestry Commission also had to destroy 50,000 saplings at Dalbeatie Forest in Dumfries and Galloway after they were found to be infected.

It is understood the 70,000 imported ash trees represented 4.2 per cent of the total planted.

UK government correspondence quoted by the Guardian – Ash dieback: government claimed its ‘hands were tied’ on import ban, 9 November 2012 – suggests EU rules hampered measures at national level to counter ash dieback. In fact, each member state has the right to introduce national emergency measures to protect themselves against imminent danger. There is no EU rule that prevents them from doing this. Member states have the obligation to inform immediately the Commission and other Member States. The European Commission can trigger a procedure for action at European level only after it has received such notification from a member state. The Commission began its procedures on regulating Chalara fraxinea – the pathogen behind the latest outbreak – as soon as it received a request, i.e. on 29 October 2012.

The government claimed it was powerless to ban imports of infected trees because its “hands were tied” by EU and world trade rules when it was warned in September 2009 that ash dieback disease could have a huge impact on the British countryside, the Guardian has learned.

Head of plant health Roddie Burgess replied to the HTA chair that it had become apparent “fairly recently” that the disease – which the commission understood to be caused by Chalara fraxinea – had a form caused by a different fungus called Hymenoscyphus albidus. This, he said, “was widespread across Europe, including here in Britain.”This fact alone precludes us from initiating an emergency response under the European Union plant health directive and we would also fall foul of our international obligations under the World Trade Organisation.”

Last night it emerged that the Forestry Commission was warned in 2009 about the threat of the disease and urged to block imports of ash trees but failed to do so.

The Horticultural Trades Association, which represents growers, visited Denmark in 2009 where its members were “alarmed” by the damage caused by the disease.

The Forestry Commission, however, thought that the disease was caused by a fungus already endemic in Britain, making a ban ineffective. It has since been discovered that the fungus is a new one.