CONFIRMATION that a disease which kills ash trees has spread to the North-East and North Yorkshire has prompted fears for the future of the region's woodlands. Joe Willis reports.

DEADLY ash tree fungus dieback has been discovered at nine sites in the region, raising fears that millions of trees are at risk and historic landscapes could be changed forever.

The Forestry Commission today revealed that the Chalara fraxinea fungus had been found in woodland near Guisborough, at a site east of York, in North Yorkshire, and at a third location near Wooler, in Northumberland.

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Further cases have been found in recently-planted saplings near Sedgefield and close to Seaham, both in County Durham, as well as sites near Richmond, between Bedale and Thirsk and near Tadcaster, in North Yorkshire.

The disease has also been confirmed in saplings near Newcastle International Airport.

Defra said it did not reveal information on individual cases, however it is thought the saplings were either burnt or buried.

Officials are still deciding what to do with the diseased trees found in woodlands.

Conservationists in the region last night expressed alarm at the spread of the disease.

Experts estimate that there could be millions of ash trees in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, with the species credited with giving the landscape much of its character.

Geoff Garrett, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority's senior trees and woodland officer, said that as well as mature trees, the authority had recently planted 250,000 ash saplings.

“Ash is such an important tree in the broadleaved woodlands of the limestone uplands of the Yorkshire Dales that we are treating the potential impact of the disease very seriously.

“If the disease were to take hold in the national park, it would irreversibly alter the character of our woodlands which in turn would have a dramatic effect on the landscape, altering it forever.”

One confirmed case is near the border of the North York Moors National Park, where there are thousands of ash trees.

Peter Barfoot, director of conservation at the North York Moors National Park Authority, said staff were working closely with the Forestry Commission.

He added: “We are deeply concerned about the situation and will be guided by the Forestry Commission.

“The fungus is wind-borne for up to 30km and we have thousands of ash trees in the national park.

“In the southern part of the park on limestone is mainly ash. There is great concern there.”

Peter Facey, from Butterwick Trees, near Stockton, said his company had 150,000 ash tree seedlings which it was unable to sell because of Defra restrictions.

Mr Facey said the company's trees had been checked by Government officials and no disease had been found.

He added: “We grow all our own tree from seeds collected locally. In the long-run this could be a good thing for us because it will stop nurseries from importing trees just to save customers a few pence.”

Nationally, Chalara fraxinea fungus has now been found in 115 sites, the Environment Department (Defra) said last night.

The latest figures show the disease has been found in 61 locations in the wider countryside, as well as 39 planting sites and 15 tree nurseries.

The figures were compiled after an intensive survey by hundreds of officials over the weekend.

Martin Ward, the Government's chief plant health officer said: “We have thrown all possible resources at this surveying exercise which has given us a much clearer picture of the distribution of the disease to inform our evidence base.

“The science on Chalara is still emerging and the more evidence we have, the greater our knowledge and understanding of this disease and the better we are able to tackle it.”

The findings of the survey were revealed as Environment Secretary Owen Paterson held a summit with representatives of industry, conservation groups and experts to discuss the problem.

The Chalara fraxinea fungus, which causes leaf loss and crown dieback and can lead to tree death, has wiped out 90 per cent of ash trees in some parts of Denmark and is becoming widespread throughout central Europe.

There are fears that the UK's ash trees are facing a similar fate to its elms, which were destroyed by Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.

The Government has been accused of being too slow to respond to the threat of the disease, but ministers insist they are taking the problem seriously and have brought in a ban on imports of ash trees.