By Peter Schwartzstein
ASHWELLTHORPE, England (Reuters) - Britain is facing its worst ecological disaster in at least a generation, as a devastating fungus that has already wiped out most of continental Europe's ash trees, appears to have taken root in rural England, conservationists say.
Over 100,000 trees have already been burned to try to stop the spread of Chalara fraxinea, more commonly known as ash dieback, and imports of foreign ash trees have been banned.
"This is going to be even more devastating than Dutch Elm Disease was," said Norman Starks, Director of Operations at the Woodland Trust, referring to the beetle-borne blight which practically wiped out British elm trees in the 1960s and 70s.
Ash trees are the third most prevalent tree in Britain, but their contribution to the woodland canopy is such that their loss could mean the end of many animal and plant habitats.
Its wood, worshipped by the Celts for its durability and prized by the timber industry for its strength and straightness, has been shaped into electric guitars, longbows, baseball bats and even the frame of the much-loved Morris Traveller car.
A walk through the woods of England's East Anglian flatlands at the peak of their autumnal bloom, gives little inkling of the impending peril.
Oak, hornbeam, cherry birch and field maple compete with ash for the meager morning sunlight.
Look closely enough, though, at the spindly ash saplings and there are the tell-tale withered and blackened leaves, yellowing bark and the emaciated trunk of a diseased tree in its early death throes.
"The bigger ones might take 10 years to die," said Steve Collin, Senior Reserves Officer for Woods and Heaths at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust in eastern England.
"But when something's eating the tree faster than it can heal itself, there's little that can be done."
Opinion is divided as to who ought to shoulder the blame for the potential loss of much of Britain's remaining woodland.
The opposition Labour party have sought to blame the delay in implementing the ban on foreign ash imports - widely blamed for the fungus's arrival in Britain - on the Conservative-led coalition government.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas was quick to note, however, that the Horticultural Trade Association had first requested preventive action in 2009, back when the previous Labour government was still in power.
But if fungal spores blew over from the continent - a possibility that must now be considered after the discovery of ash dieback in mature woodland, then "what's the point of a ban?" Steve Collin queried.
Perhaps Britain's status as an island nation simply isn't the barrier to non-native plants it was once thought to be.
"We're an overpopulated island, we've deforested our land, and the woodland we have left is small and isolated. There's simply no room for error any more," Collin said.
(Reporting By Peter Schwartzstein, editing by Paul Casciato)