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Ramorum in Epping Forest

Ramorum infected rhododendron plant

Discovery

During the Conservators' 2016 annual tree health survey, a new disease which could seriously threaten Epping Forest trees, ramorum disease, was discovered at its very earliest stage in some rhododendron bushes. The outbreak has been found at the Warren Plantation in the north of the Forest near to the M25 and Waltham Abbey.

Spread from elsewhere

Phytophthora ramorum, which causes ramorum disease, is an algae-like organism that can spread through both spores and a network of thread-like rootlets in the soil. Spores generated on certain host shrubs and trees, especially larch and rhododendron, can carry the infection several miles from their source, blown by the wind, and in moist air currents. Spores can also be transported by people, animals and equipment.

Ramorum disease is called 'Sudden Oak Death' in North America. However, the name is misleading in the UK, where our two native species of oak have proved much less susceptible to the genetic strains of the organism already here. Therefore the name ramorum disease is now used. The disease is responsible for destroying more than three million trees to date in the UK since it was first identified in 2002 but has so far mainly been located in the South West of the country.

This new discovery at Epping Forest, which is home to over 85% of the UK's ancient native beech trees, is of special concern. Beech trees are particularly susceptible to ramorum disease, and if its spores were allowed to multiply and spread, it would have the potential to destroy this internationally significant population of trees, some of which may be over 1,000 years old.

Response

Working closely with guidance from the Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) and the Forestry Commission, a two-to-three year programme to remove the rhododendrons and larch trees from Epping Forest and its Buffer Lands is being undertaken.

This work is aimed at safeguarding the future of the beech forest and contributing to the national strategy to contain the spread of the infection. In addition to the clearance of bushes and larch trees required at the Warren Plantation over the next few months, the programme of work will eventually include removal of rhododendron at Knighton Woods and Wanstead Park.

Whilst these sites are at some distance from the outbreak site in the north of the Forest, they contain trees which are susceptible to the disease and which could spread it much further. Wanstead Park, nearby Bush Wood and George Green, contain important sweet chestnut plantings amongst which are the three-centuries'-old 'Repton' sweet chestnuts. As well as threatening these ancient trees, the spores can multiply rapidly in any sweet chestnut, old or young, and can then be spread very widely.

Whilst there are some locally notable ornamental rhododendron varieties and some historic plantings in Epping Forest, these are not unique specimens. However, cuttings of the scarcer varieties will be sent to the Royal Horticultural Society Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia Group, who may wish to conserve them and grow them on in locations where they can both thrive and be closely monitored.

Long term management

Longer term we will be allowing natural regeneration of the cleared areas with native plants such as oak, birch and bramble. To protect Epping Forest's natural aspect and its status as a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC) the Conservators' management policy excludes planting within the main body of the Forest. When removing plants from sensitive and popular sites, such as Knighton Wood, Buckhurst Hill, we will take into account the visual impact of the clearance, and attention will be paid to the natural aspect, visitor access routes, views and vistas from pathways and general sight-lines.

Working with partners

We are working with partners such as national plant health and forestry agencies on a strategy that emphasises early destruction of infected and likely infected plants. The Forestry Commission is helping to minimise the spread and impact of the disease, and monitor and protect the health of trees and plants in and around the Forest. Epping Forest District Council have been notified of proposed tree works and measures being undertaken to control the disease. The Friends of Epping Forest support the removal of rhododendron and other alien host species.

Advice to visitors

Ramorum disease infects plants only, and there is no risk to human or animal health. Visitors do not have to be excluded from the Forest, but the public are asked to help minimise the spread of the disease by:

  • Keeping to marked paths, Forest roads and hard footpaths when and where directed
  • Not removing any plant material from the Forest, such as cuttings
  • Removing soil and mud from boots and shoes before entering or leaving the Forest
  • Keeping away from any felling operations and respecting any safety notices
  • Never bringing plant material, soil or garden waste into the Forest
  • Remain vigilant and looking for signs of this disease in the surrounding area.

Reporting instances of ramorum

If you spot the disease in garden plants, please report this immediately to the Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) on 01904 405 138 or email planthealth.info@apha.gsi.gov.uk

If suspected symptoms are found in trees and woodland, please alert the Forestry Commission, via its Tree Alert on-line disease reporting tool.

More information

Detailed information about ramorum disease in the UK is available on the Forestry Commission's website

Published:
25 November 2016
Last Modified:
29 September 2017

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