By Peter Schwartzstein
COBHAM, England (Reuters) - The disease blighting ash trees in Britain will be impossible to eradicate, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said on Friday but that does not necessarily mean the end for one of the country's most widespread native species.
"If we can slow its spread and minimize its impact, we will gain time to find those trees with genetic resistance to the disease and to restructure our woodlands to make them more resilient," Paterson added.
Tens of thousands of trees have already been burned in an effort to halt the spread of the airborne fungal disease Chalara fraxinea, more commonly called ash dieback.
The blight has already killed up to 90 percent of ash trees in Denmark and has now been found in the wild in several areas of Britain.
"The scientific advice is that it won't be possible to eradicate this disease now that we have discovered it in mature trees in Great Britain," Paterson confirmed.
He was speaking after chairing a meeting of the government's emergency committee COBRA, which more normally discusses national security issues.
The meeting agreed a plan of action aimed at developing resistance to the fungus in native ash trees and enlisting the help of the public to reduce its spread.
Supple and strong, Ash is the third most prevalent tree in Britain, but its contribution to the woodland canopy is such that its loss could mean the end of many animal and plant habitats.
It could also hit some of the country's most traditional woodworking industries such as fletchers (arrow-makers) and wheelwrights.
"Our greatest fear is that we'll lose our jobs," said Carol Pearce, a fletcher and archery instructor.
"Like thatching, if we lose this we lose some of our heritage," she told Reuters, speaking in her workshop in the ash-filled Surrey hills 20 miles south of London.
If the public are to be denied access to woods, a possibility forestry officials are considering, archers would lose much of their practice terrain and with it a lot of the sport's attraction.
Wheelwrights too have their concerns about what the ash tree's plight might mean for their work on horse-drawn carriages and traps, but they recognize that they might have to adapt.
"We obviously try and use English ash whenever possible, but we could always use American hickory," said Edward Crouch of Kent-based Croford Coachbuilders.
Every bit as burdensome, though, as the threat to Britain's cultural heritage is the potential cost of the clear-up.
"An awful lot of roadside trees are going to be dropping limbs over the next few decades," said Steve Collin, Senior Reserves Officer at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, which looks after an infected forest.
The Conservative-led coalition government has been criticised for failing to ban the import of foreign ash saplings sooner. The previous Labour government has been criticised too.
(Editing by Steve Addison)