A disease which is threatening to wipe out millions of native ash trees has reached the Westcountry, it has been confirmed, prompting fears the region's landscape could be changed forever.
Experts are warning that ash dieback disease will produce widespread "landscape change" in the rural environment as vast swathes of ash woodlands disappear.
The deadly fungus has been detected by the Forestry Commission in imported saplings recently planted in Devon, the furthest west the disease has travelled so far.
Conservationists predict that as it takes hold, cherished trees will be lost, leaving gaps and holes in the unique hedgerows which criss-cross the region's countryside and affect the habitat of wildlife.
David Rickwood, site manager for the Woodland Trust in Devon, has called for an urgent audit of nurseries in Devon and Cornwall in order to track down where diseased young trees may have been planted.
"This disease will be quite devastating – more so in some areas than others – but we are talking in effect about landscape change," he added.
"Devon is renowned for its hedgerows and the effect will be very visible – we will start to see holes and gaps appearing.
"It is early and we are keeping our fingers crossed but I think someone is going to have to do an inventory of nurseries who have unwittingly imported this and decide what to do.
"There may just be a small window of opportunity."
Britain has 80 million ash trees which cover about 5% of all woodland and provide food and shelter for birds and more than 100 types of insect.
The disease could kill 90% of the tree species over 20 years.
The Government has imposed an import ban on ash trees, and a nationwide survey is being carried out to find out how far the disease has spread.
It is hoped scientists will find a natural resistance within the UK's population of ash trees which will make the next generation resilient.
A collection of genetically superior, super-resistant ash from forests, including those on Prince Charles' Duchy estate in Cornwall, could be conservationists' last hope.
The Forestry Commission revealed that the Chalara fraxinea fungus had been found at a site west of Exeter on Friday.
Defra, the environment department, yesterday refused to identify the location but said it was a recently-planted site, located on the north west edge of Dartmoor.
A spokeswoman said it was "not in the wider environment" and confirmed that the plantation would now be destroyed.
The latest official estimate calculates that the greater South West contains more than 46,000 acres of ash forest, or about six million trees.
The Woodland Trust says in places like Dartmoor, the amount may be just 10%.
But towards the east of Devon that figure may rise to as much as 80%, and the effects will be "truly devastating," he warned.
"It will be bigger than Dutch elm disease," he added.
Clinton Devon Estates, which owns and manages large swathes of Devon has planted 200,000 trees this year. The estate has almost 5,000 acres of commercial and amenity plantations.
Of this, around one fifth of the hardwood plantings are accounted for by ash, literally tens of thousands of trees.
John Varley, estates manager, said the disease should serve as a wake-up call.
He argued there should now be a proper inventory of all native species to fill a "massive hole in the system".
"People are not going to wake up and find the landscape devoid of ash – it will take 15 or 20 years," he said.
"But the Westcountry is one of the most wooded areas in England and we will have a greater percentage of the impact.
"Over the weekend 1,500 people from Government agencies have been running around trying to find out where the ash was."