THOUSANDS of trees have been planted in Hampshire as part of a pioneering project to tackle ash dieback.

The UK’s first Ash Archive has been established using £1.9 million of government funding and is the culmination of projects spanning five years to identify ash with a high tolerance to the disease.

DEFRA chief plant health officer Nicola Spence recently visited the project to plant one of the last trees in the archive. The ceremony marked the beginning of the International Year of Plant Health – a global initiative to raise awareness of the importance of healthy plants and trees to protecting nature and the environment and boosting economic development.

Nicola Spence commented: “I’m delighted to acknowledge the successes of the Ash Archive project and welcome the International Year of Plant Health by planting an ash dieback-tolerant tree.

“This is a damaging disease to our native ash trees as well as our timber industry. That’s why, since 2012, the Government has invested more than £6 million into ash dieback research and £4.5 million to strengthen border security. As it stands, we currently have some of the most stringent import controls in Europe.

“Alongside these measures it is vital that we continue to work on securing our ash trees for the future, so I’m thrilled to see the progress that has been made with the Ash Archive and look forward to the advances we can make with breeding these trees further.”

As part of the Government Ash Research Strategy, DEFRA funded two projects which studied ash trees as they grew to identify those exhibiting a high degree of tolerance to ash dieback. These were than grafted on to ash rootstocks and grown in nurseries before being planted to form the archive. Working in collaboration with Future Trees Trust, Forest Research, Forestry England, Kew Gardens and FERA, the trees will now be used for further scientific research into the disease.

The next steps for the project are to monitor tolerance levels of the trees under real-world conditions and to continue to refine the archive by removing any trees that are damaged by the disease and replacing them with newly identified tolerant trees from the wider countryside and other trials.