A SURVEY across Hampshire has shown the county is currently free of the ash tree disease.

The disease is now established in East Anglia and there have also been confirmed cases in Berkshire and Kent, sparking huge concern nationally that millions of trees are at risk and the landscape endangered.

A national survey overseen by the Forestry Commission last week found no confirmed cases in Hampshire.

Hampshire is one of the most wooded counties in southern England with the New Forest and swathes of trees in the South Downs National Park east of Winchester. The national park is 23 per cent wooded (some 38,000 hectares).

Nina Williams, forestry and woodland development officer for the South Downs National Park, said: “The latest report from Defra is that it is here to stay and it is likely to come this way. In Europe it travels 30 kilometres a year with the spores spreading on the wind. The nearest case to the South Downs National park is about 20km away, near Horsham in Sussex.”

In Hampshire beech is predominant as the underlying rock is mainly chalk. Ash's importance is that it is a pioneer species, the first trees that colonise a clearing but in Hampshire it tends to be scattered through woods so its loss would not devastate the landscape in the same way that Dutch Elm Disease did in the 1960s and 70s.

She said it was unclear yet how the alien disease would affect mature British trees The woods are increasingly important economically in the national park area, worth an estimated £22million annually to the local economy. “It is a growing economy. We are working very hard with local businesses, the big estates and individual owners to maximise forestry.”

Andrew McIndoe, managing director of Hilliers, which has nurseries at Ampfield and Liss, said: “We have a substantial stock of it. The implications are very serious. It is going to spread.”

But Mr Mcindoe added: “We have to take the necessary precautions but we also have to wait and see and not get into too much of a panic about it, that this is going to change the face of the countryside.”

Ashes are being monitored by the county council. Trees on the highway will continue to be inspected as part of the council’s tree safety inspection programmes.

Council arboriculturists will also be on alert for signs of the disease on any ashes.

Planting of the common ash tree has been suspended on the council’s landholdings and in any work being carried out, such as planting hedgerows along rights-of-way.

Councillor Mel Kendal, deputy leader and executive member for environment and transport, said: “We are just as concerned about this issue, and its implications for Hampshire, as the Government is for the whole of the country.

“We will work closely with the relevant Government departments, including the Forestry Commission of course, as well as our district council partners, to do whatever we can to minimise the spread of this disease and prevent the loss of ash tree species from Hampshire’s landscape.”

Anyone who identifies signs of the disease in species of ash should report the infected tree to the Forestry Commission by emailing plant.health@forestry.gsi.gov.uk and also notify arb@hants.gov.uk.