By Debbie James

The pandemic has shifted our nation’s focus from so many important issues, not least the devastating epidemic that is ravaging our woodlands and hedgerows.

Ironically it is another disease, chalara dieback, which is systematically killing ash trees.

As all great epidemics tend to do, ash dieback started slowly but is now gathering momentum. There are roads in Wales where every other tree seems to be an ash succumbing to the disease.

These trees have served us well by providing shelter for livestock, screening from noise and prying eyes, and not least the important role they play in hosting wildlife and sequestering carbon.

The loss of so many trees will profoundly change our landscapes over the next few years. Unlike Covid-19, there is no miracle vaccine to save our ash.

There is an irony in the ambition of governments to plant thousands of trees at a time when so many mature trees are being felled because disease has rendered them fragile and dangerous.

I was born in the 1960s when Dutch elm disease was gaining momentum and would lead to the eventual near destruction of all our native elms, just as blight wiped out American chestnut trees in the early 1900s, killing over 300 million trees.

Both these were the result of the accidental introduction of highly aggressive pathogens.

Despite its profound impact on our rural landscape and biodiversity, no official enquiry was ever conducted into the causes of the Dutch elm disease epidemic or into the adequacy or otherwise of the government’s response at that time.

Governments must learn from the historical experience of that disease to prevent, manage and control future diseases and, with it, learn wider lessons for plant protection.