Page last updated at 14:38 GMT, Thursday, 14 October 2010 15:38 UK
Inside Out: Acute Oak Decline at Attingham Park
By Clive Dunn
Producer, BBC Inside Out West Midlands

Bob Thurston and Dr Sandra Denman

Watch Inside Out in the West Midlands, every Monday at 7.30pm on BBC One

The British landscape has been traditionally characterised by oak trees. Mighty and majestic, they are a symbol of British history and culture.

The oak was once king of the ancient forests that covered the country.

Now a sinister threat to the existence of native oaks has made an appearance and it is spreading.

Acute Oak Decline (AOD) has been compared to Dutch elm disease and can lead to the death of an infected tree within three to five years.

We're looking at a disease that has the potential to change our landscape even more than Dutch elm disease
Peter Goodwin, Woodland Heritage

The new disease is worrying conservationists and landowners such as the National Trust.

Brian Muelaner is an ancient tree consultant for the National Trust. He said: "They [oak trees] document human history; they have a social and cultural significance as well as an ecological one."

"Change our landscape"

The disease causes trees to "bleed" black fluid from lesions in the bark before gradually destroying leaf growth leading to death.

Peter Goodwin of Woodland Heritage is extremely worried: "We're looking at a disease that has the potential to change our landscape even more than Dutch elm disease and not enough is being done about it."

Scientists at Forest Research, a division of the Forestry Commission, are attempting to get to grips with the threat of AOD.

Dr Sandra Denman is leading the investigation. She visits infected areas like Attingham Park near Shrewsbury where manager Bob Thurston has noticed an increase in affected oaks.

Bob cut a section out of a dead oak to enable Dr Denman to analyse the infection behind the bark.

Dr Denman explained: "The current thinking is that a bacterium is likely to have a key role in causing stem bleeding. It destroys the food highway from the leaves to the roots. This organism is new to science."

Vulnerable trees

Diseased oak tree
The infection creates a cavity that prevents nutrition reaching the roots

On National Trust's Brockhampton Estate, near Bromyard, warden Iain Carter has been alarmed at the sudden number of oak trees falling foul of the disease.

Foresters like Iain are used to oak trees getting infected with pathogens. However, in the past they have been able to resist what nature throws at them. But this current onslaught presents a more dangerous twist.

The disease leaves the trees vulnerable to infestations by beetles which deliver the final death blow.

Britain is home to some of the world's oldest trees. Many oaks have already lived for hundreds of years and have resisted many threats to their survival.

Is the likelihood of a new generation of venerable oaks continuing their vital role in nature and our heritage, less certain?

Mr Muelaner concluded: "It is said that an oak spends 300 years growing, 300 years living and 300 years dying. If we lose them suddenly, we can't put them back.

"We can't recreate the habitat they sustain. If an ancient oak is killed we have to wait 500 years to restore that habitat."

Watch the full edition of BBC Inside Out in the West Midlands on iPlayer.




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