Tree felling begins at iconic East Devon hilltop plantation to stem the spread of tree disease
A large scale tree-felling operation is underway in East Devon to prevent the spread of a devastating tree disease which has wiped-out great swathes of woodland across the South West over the past three years.
In a race against time, landowner Clinton Devon Estates is harvesting 10 hectares (25 acres) of healthy Japanese larch at Otterton Hill, near Bicton - one of East Devon's iconic hilltop plantations - to halt the progress of Phytophthera ramorum and rescue a 50 year old crop of timber.
The harvesting of the mature Japanese larch crop for the timber market had originally been planned to take place over a 10 year period, but with a recent case of P.ramorum identified in woodland overlooking Sidmouth and the disease threatening to infect fully mature healthy plantations, Clinton Devon Estates has received a licence from the Forestry Commission to carry out the entire programme this spring.
John Wilding, Head of Forestry and the Environment for Clinton Devon Estates said: "Based on extensive research at the Forestry and Climate Change Centre, we believe that the only way to control the spread of the disease pathogens is to take swift action.
"When we found the infection on our North Devon estate in 2009, we took immediate action by felling a block of larch extending to four or five hectares. The trees there were only young to mid-rotation so the effects were minimal, but on the Clinton and Beer forests where the trees are so close to maturity, the financial implications of a crop becoming infected would be great," explained John Wilding.
Since 2011, CDE has brought forward felling at Harpford Wood, Wrexan's Plantation, Baker's Brake Plantation, Hayes Wood, Bovey Down and Couchill Plantation in East Devon. Further felling programmes are planned for Mount Pleasant at Aylesbeare, Peak Hill, Otterton and Primrose Valley at Knowle. All areas are replanted during the winter following felling with trees that are currently more resistant to P. ramorum.
Clinton Devon Estates has 1,900 hectares of forest, one third of which is planted with Japanese Larch, an important commercial conifer species. Forestry is a long-term crop which needs an average growing time of 60 years before it's ready to be harvested for timber.
Mr Wilding said: "If the timber becomes infected, it is inevitably devalued due to the biosecurity precautions required when processing, as well as the market reaction to a forced sale."
In 2010, the largest outbreak of P.ramorum in the South West on the Forestry Commission's Plym Valley woodland near Plymouth saw the felling of 145 hectares of a 531 hectare forest.
The forestry team from Clinton Devon Estates has worked with Parish Councils and local interest groups such as the Otter Valley Association to explain the felling plans in the Lower Otter Valley and signs have this week been erected to inform local people about the felling and restricted public access while the felling programme is carried out.
John Wilding said: "We very much appreciate the understanding of local people and groups who enjoy using the public access routes on Otterton Hill. While the landscape will change considerably for the next few years, it will reveal breathtaking panoramic views of the Lower Otter Valley, specifically from Keable's Seat on Bulverton Hill, that have not been seen for over forty years. Within the next five years, the new trees will have begun to re-establish themselves and the wooded hilltop will return.
Plea to gardeners to help stop tree disease
The Head of Forestry and the Environment for Clinton Devon Estates, John Wilding MBE, who also serves as a member of the Forestry Regulation Task Force (an independent panel of six which advises the government on forestry policy and regulation for England) has issued a public plea to gardeners to do their part in preventing the spread of Phytophthora ramorum by demanding proof from nurseries or plant suppliers that imported plants have been through a quarantine period.
Mr Wilding explained: "P. ramorum was originally imported into the UK on horticultural planting stock some ten years ago and has been spread via trade in Rhododendrons and Azaleas throughout the country since then. It has been causing havoc not only in gardens and forests but in the wider environment where native trees, shrubs and heathland are at risk. Realistically I don't think we will ever be able to get rid of P.ramorum. The challenge now is to learn how to manage it. From the lessons this has taught us, we must ensure we don't repeat this disaster by tightening up on what is coming into the country.
"Listening to plant pathologists, who know about the pest and disease threats the UK faces, makes you realise. P.ramorum is just the tip of the iceberg. Free trade is all very well but can it be right that we don't impose a quarantine period on imported plant material? I see gardening consumers as key to changing this practice by demanding from their plant suppliers a guarantee of 'clean' plants and, critically, 'clean' soil in pot grown plants. This will undoubtedly mean more expensive plants - but what price do you put on our natural environment? "