The Westcountry landscape could be more devastated by a disease that is threatening the nation's ash trees than it was by the infamous Dutch Elm outbreak of the 1970s, experts have warned.
The region is particularly rich in ash trees – more than 30% of our woodlands are made up of the indigenous species, as are countless miles of Westcountry hedgerow.
Imports of ash trees are to be banned after Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, said he was "ready to go" with legislation, in an attempt to stop the spread of a disease which has devastated woodland in parts of Europe.
But many ecologists believe the move has been made too late, despite warnings. They fear some areas of Somerset and Devon in particular will be laid bare of tree cover if the disease spreads from eastern counties where it has already been identified.
Dr Christopher Hancock, senior ecologist at Somerset Wildlife Trust, said: "If this disease turns out to be as infectious as it has been in Denmark, it will be worse than the outbreak of Dutch Elm Disease which so devastated our landscapes."
"We have a much greater density of ash trees in our woodland – if ash dieback disease proves as virulent, we are in trouble."
Stephen Hussey of Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) said: "The Government ban may have come too late to check the spread of the ash dieback disease, Chalara fraxinea, now that the disease has already been found in trees in other parts of England, including Suffolk, Norfolk and Buckinghamshire."
He went on: "Certainly, as a percentage of our overall tree cover, ash is more important than elm was before it was devastated. But also a high proportion of our traditional Devon hedgerows are made up of ash – and they play a vital part in how the landscape works for wildlife and as windbreaks for stock cover.
"We were just about to begin our Big Tree Plant – a scheme to put 3,000 new trees in Exeter," he added. "But many were going to be ash, so now what do we do?"
Volunteers and staff from environmental groups across the region have been asked to look out for signs of the disease – a job made much more difficult at this time of the year thanks to the fact that one of the main symptoms is leaf-loss.
Dr Hancock said that vigilance was particularly important in a place such as Somerset as the county acted as an entry point for any kind of disease moving into the region from the east.
"Go up to the Mendips and most of the trees up there are ash – they are also hugely important across places like the Levels," he said.
He also explained that, although ash trees are indigenous to this country, whips for commercial planting often come from countries like the Netherlands: "Even though ash grows extensively from seed in the UK it's not, commercially speaking, a tree for planting on – the Dutch do that well and that's why they are imported. But once the disease gets into those we have a big problem, hence the last-minute panic.
"There was an international symposium set up to discuss this disease in Norway in 2010 and it was suggested there that the UK and Ireland should ban imports," Dr Hancock added, saying it was a shame this move had never materialised.
René Olivieri, chair of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, has taken a similar point of view. In a letter to Defra this week he said it was "very disappointing" that the failure to ban the import and movement of ash trees had, "resulted in the disease spreading into the natural environment", despite previous warnings that such a disaster could happen.
He urged Mr Paterson to establish an emergency summit to "co-ordinate action to halt the spread of the disease and bring together appropriate scientists, commercial interests and representatives of landowning bodies including conservation organisations".
Some environmentalists believe the UK lags behind other countries in protecting its natural tree cover.
"There's a difference between the way we deal with imports of animals and plants," said one. "Powerful lobbies have pushed to legislate so we can fight against the import of things like swine flu and so on, but we are far weaker when it comes to the import of plant diseases.
"In parts of the USA they are so aware of diseases in trees you can't, for example, take an apple from one state to another without getting into trouble. We should do more here, because Chalara fraxinea is not the only disease threatening woodlands."