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Chalara dieback - can diseased ash be burnt?

As the devastating scale of ash dieback’s destructive payload in the United Kingdom became apparent, it was inevitable that sooner or later the ‘golden-lining’ opportunists would put their heads up over the parapet to ask if the phenomenon does not actually represent a bonanza for today’s wood-burning stove enthusiasts, reminiscent of the previous generation’s Dutch Elm Disease, which, by dumping such enormous, ex-tempore quantities of waste wood on the market, gave the nascent British stove industry an invigorating shot in the arm.

It’s certainly a question we are being asked increasingly by our customer base, who tend as a breed to be practical-minded and unsentimental (as well as being tree enthusiasts), and who would be delighted to see a reversal of the creeping rise in the price of logs.

Estimates for the number of ash trees in the UK vary from 92 million to well above 125 million, representing many billions of BTU’s to the thermically-minded if even a minority of them have to be felled due to infection. That’s a lot of winter warmth, if it can be harvested. The answer, at least in the short term is that, for better or worse, it can’t be, except with the explicit and specific permission of the Forestry Commission. Their general guidance is that for the moment, diseased wood should not be moved for fear of dispersing the infection more widely. It will probably be burnt in situ instead.

These are early days, however, and neither the full scale of the problem nor the authorities’ ability to control it is as yet completely apparent. The airborne nature of the spore dispersal, and the fact that outbreaks have occurred all over the UK, suggest that the problem might prove uncontainable. However, institutions are generally not inclined to disown problems to which they are the perceived solution, so we are probably unlikely to get an announcement any time soon that the authorities feel there is nothing much more that they can do to prevent the spread of ash dieback, even if this is close to the truth.

It is conceivable that the government might embark on a policy reminiscent of the institutionalised carnage of the foot and mouth crisis, but with ash trees standing in for livestock on the funeral pyres. If, on the other hand, a more temperate wait-and-see policy is adopted, then regulations might be relaxed in time that would see felled diseased timber being allowed to find its way to our stoves.

In the meantime, here is an excerpt from the Forestry Commission’s guidance. For fuller advice, refer to their website.

‘Ash wood may continue to be moved within Great Britain except from woodlands or other sites where C. fraxinea has either been confirmed or is suspected, and a statutory Plant Health Notice has been served. Ash logs or firewood may only be moved off these infected sites with authority from the Forestry Commission. The conditions for the movement of infected ash wood are currently under consideration.

In woodlands and sites where no infection is suspected, we recommend the simple precaution of removing leaf material from logs or firewood whilst on site, as a precaution against the possibility that the disease is not obviously apparent and could be spread unintentionally with logs and firewood.

Cases of suspected Chalara dieback should be reported to Defra or the Forestry Commission.’