STAFF cuts to the Forestry Commission could have a catastrophic effect on Britain's efforts to tackle ash dieback, a North Yorkshire MP has warned.

Hugh Bayley, Labour MP for York Central, pictured below, questioned the ability to deal with the disease, which he suggested would be hampered by the reduction in staff numbers.

Addressing the Government front bench during Environment Questions, he said: "Ash is a huge and important part of woodland scenery in Yorkshire, especially in upland areas, ash dieback is increasing at an alarming rate with over 500 cases having been identified.

"You have reduced the staffing of the Forestry Commission by over 500, how are you going to deal with something that is going to be a catastrophe for our woodlands, without shifting other departments within your ministry?"

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Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment, replied: "We will make our dispositions on the resources within Defra in the autumn, but I would like to assure you that I have made plant health our absolute priority, right up there with animal health.

"I've been to Australia, New Zealand, to see what they are doing on bio-security; weve had the plant taskforce which has made some very important recommendations such as the risk register, which we are already implementing."

On the specific issue of ash, he said there was no easy solution.

"There is sadly no magic potion that we can spray on ash trees yet," he said. "We are testing 14 of them, but the real answer is to find a genetic strain and for that reason we put out 250,00 young ash trees to see which ones are resistant."

Since 2010, more than 500 posts have been axed from the Forestry Commission. At the same time, nearly 500 cases of chalara fraxinea have been found, most of them in Kent and East Anglia.