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Ash dieback shows that history’s lessons are yet to be learned

Dutch elm disease taught researchers much about how to fight tree diseases. But their findings have yet to make their way into policy, says Clive Potter.

The Dutch elm disease epidemic of the 1970s has become a common point of reference following the discovery of ash dieback in the UK. Caused by a fungus spread by a beetle, this pathogen killed 35 million trees, reshaping the farmed landscape of large parts of lowland England. It was one of the country’s most dramatic environmental events in living memory, removing an entire tree genus from the countryside within a decade.

Dutch elm disease took everyone by surprise. But viewed in retrospect, the epidemic has much to teach us about how tree diseases spread, and how they might be prevented. Despite such hindsight, however, Chalara fraxinea, the fungus that causes ash dieback, is probably already too widespread to be contained.

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