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Seven square miles of woodland are to be wiped from the West landscape as the battle to control a virulent tree-killing fungus intensifies.

The Forestry Commission and private landowners in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset are being forced into a rapid programme of felling to combat the spread of phytophthora ramorum, which was first discovered in the region in 2007.

Over the next four months, more than 4,700 acres of Japanese larch are to be cut down – an area equivalent to more than seven square miles and nearly a tenth of the size of Bodmin Moor.

Experts said the disease control programme would have a significant impact on the Westcountry landscape, where larch has become a common commercial species.

Conservationists said the clearance programme would have a similar impact to the Great Storm of 1987 when hundreds of thousands of trees across the country were toppled by hurricane-force winds.

The Forestry Commission, which manages the UK's public forest estate, said it was having to remove nearly 1,000 acres of infected larch across 14 sites in the South West.

Private landowners in the three counties have been ordered to fell 4,000 acres of larch – some 300,000 tons of timber – before the end of March.

Nick Best, operations manager for the public estate in the South West, said the programme would have a significant "visual" impact.

He said: "We are where we are, we have got to deal with it. We have got to try to prevent it spreading. This is about disease management.

"We have got to do everything we can to protect our existing larch plantations and the wider ecosystem. We know it has infected rhododendron and then vaccinium, which is a heath land species.

"It is not just forests that at risk, there could be other systems at risk if the disease decides to jump again."

The phytophthora ramorum fungus was first identified in a 2007 in rhododendron bushes, many of which were on heritage garden sites in Devon and Cornwall.

Buoyed by recent wet summers and strong winds, it leapt species, first to bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and then to the Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi), a common cash crop.

The foliage of infected Japanese larch – a versatile timber commonly used outdoors – produces spores at about five times the level that rhododendron does, and can be dispersed considerable distances.

The Woodland Trust said the disease was "a huge threat to non-native larch" and is fearful it could leap to other tree species.

Spokesman Paul Hetherington said: "There are concerns because it has already moved from one species to another. It seems to be spreading quite quickly in some parts of the country and has had a devastating effect.

"This clearance work is almost going to be similar to the Great Storm of 1987, when huge Forestry Commission plantations were wiped out overnight."

Forestry Commission work has already been carried out at Glyn Woods, near Bodmin and Plym Woods, near Plymouth. Felling is due to start at the commission's Idless Woods, near Truro, this week.

John Ebsary, area forester for Cornwall, said: "We have already felled 30 hectares of infected larch trees in the Glyn Valley, and we have to carry this work out in Idless. Woods.

"The work will mean some areas of the forest are closed to the public for short periods for safety reasons, but we will try to keep disruption to an absolute minimum."


Extpub | by Dr. Radut