Ash Dieback - A Techy Way To Help

Amid the well-publicised concerns about the spread of 'ash dieback' in British woodlands various bodies including the Ramblers and the Forestry Commission have issued advice to walkers. Meanwhile the University of East Anglia (UEA) has come up with 'Ashtag', a neat way for the general public to help track the spread of the disease using smartphones and digital cameras.

Ashtag, 22 kb

Chalara dieback of ash – known as 'ash dieback' – is a disease caused by the Chalara fraxinea fungus which affects ash trees and can lead to tree death. It was unknown in Britain until earlier this year when the first cases were traced back to ash plants imported from the Netherlands.

Denmark has already lost an estimated 60-90% of its ash trees, and it is feared the disease could now devastate the 80 million (or so) ash trees across Britain.

The Foresty Commission says public access to woodland areas doesn't pose a signficicant risk to the spread of ash dieback, which it is believed may be spread by rain splash, by insects or by the movement of diseased material.

However walkers should, they say, follow information on official signs in infected areas to avoid accidentally spreading the disease. Woodland walkers can also act as an extra set of eyes, they say, reporting any trees which they suspect may be infected.

What do if out walking this autumn:

  • Follow information and advice on any official signs – such as disinfecting boots
  • Keep a lookout for any signs of the disease – guidance can be found here
  • Report any suspected cases to the Forestry Commission immediately

'The tragic news about ash dieback reaching Britain need not stop people from enjoying a woodland walk this autumn' said Ramblers Senior Policy Officer Justin Cooke.

'Walkers, who often know their local woodland well, can play an important role in identifying trees which they suspect might be infected and reporting them to the Forestry Commission.'

Meanwhile quick thinking environmental specialists at UEA's Adapt Low Carbon Group have come up with a new smartphone app which will not only help monitor the spread of disease, but allow conservationists to target infected areas.

The free 'Ashtag' app enables anyone to take a photo of diseased leaves, shoots or bark and send it remotely to plant pathologists to identify whether or not the tree is infected.

As well as collecting photographic evidence, the app also uses geo-tagging software to give a precise location of infected trees – allowing researchers and authorities to build up a picture of where the dieback is happening. This can then be used to target areas for culling to stop the spread of the disease.

People without a smartphone will also be able to join the campaign by uploading digital photos and location details direct to the AshTag website.

Toby Hammond of the Adapt Group at the UEA, said:

'One of the biggest problems faced by forest conservationists is how to track the spread of the disease and act swiftly to reduce the impact of outbreaks. There isn't the manpower to do it.'

'But this app means we can harness the mass power of the general public to tell us where outbreaks are happening.'

'We realised that time really is of the essence if we are to safeguard our forests. The spread is very fast moving so our team has worked around the clock to get the app up and running.'

'We hope that thousands of people, from school groups and nature lovers to dog walkers and farmers, will use the app help to spot and report any sightings of the ash dieback so the disease can be contained.'

As well as camera integration, uploading and geo-tagging technology, the app also comes with identification guides to help users know what they are looking for.

'One of the technical challenges is to minimise false reports through the system' he added.

'We don't want the already over-stretched agencies like the Forestry Commission being overwhelmed with reports of 'brown leaves', but we believe technology can help here, and have some great plant experts helping with diagnosis.'

The new app has been praised by organisations including the Forestry Commission, and the National Farmers Union.

Steve Scott, area director for the Forestry Commission, said:

'Our teams have reacted quickly and are working hard to examine woodlands for symptoms of the disease. We are extremely supportive of this app as any information which helps our own activity will be useful.'

'The most easily spotted sign is blackened, dead leaves but we only have a couple of weeks until the autumn leaves fall; however there are other signs that woodland owners and those interested in the countryside can look for. We have a good track record of working with the Adapt Group and the UEA and we will liaise with them to ensure the information gathered can be used to best effect.'

Find out more at the Ashtag website, or visit the Twitter site at @AshTag_Adapt and use #ashtag to spread the word.

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