By Melissa Clark
CLIMATE change may have triggered a fungus outbreak which threatens to devastate Scots pine.
Red band needle blight has already affected 11,500 hectares of Scottish woodland.
Moray, Aberdeenshire and the northern Highlands are already badly affected and the disease could spread to other areas of Scotland unless it is controlled.
Forestry chiefs are considering the unusual step of spraying fungicide from the air to protect woodlands, which employ 13,000 people and generate £500 million annually for the Scottish economy.
The blight is caused by the dothistroma fungus which causes the needles of coniferous trees to die and fall out, usually killing the tree.
The disease was first identified in England in 1954 but experts believe gradually rising temperatures north of the border could be behind its spread.
Hugh Clayden, of Forestry Commission Scotland, said: “What we most need to do right now is buy time by reducing those area that are most heavily infected, to reduce overall spore production.
“We can look at other techniques too, like heavy thinning and pruning to increase the air flow and reduce humidity.”
He added: “We also need to start thinking what has become the unthinkable to Scottish foresters over the past 20 years and consider aerial spraying.”
The Forestry Commission Scotland would need consent to spray fungicide from the air. The approach could make the problem worse if the fungus proves resistant.
The Scottish Government has confirmed that it is working closely with the forestry industry to raise awareness of this infectious disease.
Scottish government environment minister Paul Wheelhouse said: “We are very aware dothistroma has the potential to impact severely on Scotland’s forests and on the forestry sector. The arrival of new, exotic pests couples with potential climate interactions are a major concern.
“That is why the Scottish Government, through Forestry Commission Scotland, has been working very closely with the industry to raise awareness of the disease, not only to help forest managers identify it and assess its local severity but also to highlight the measures that can be taken to slow its spread and limit the damage it can cause.
“As part of this process Forestry Commission Scotland will be working with the forestry sector in the coming months to develop a detailed Scottish Action Plan to implement the published GB Dothistroma Strategy.
“This will set out practical actions designed to minimise the economic impact of DNB, prevent significant damage to native pinewoods and support the long-term sustainability of Scottish forestry.”
Alison Johnstone, Green MSP for Lothian, said: “The Scottish forestry sector supports more than 13,000 jobs and is worth almost £500 million to the country’s economy, so the threat posed by needle blight must be taken seriously.
“Woodlands are an important part of our natural and cultural heritage and are vital public spaces that promote wellbeing and exercise.”
Only 1% of the original Caledonian woodlands exist today in some of the more remote areas of the country.
The cherished woodlands are known for some of the UK’s rarest wildlife such as black grouse, red squirrels and red deer.
The Forestry commission are trying to conserve the Caledonian pinewoods and reduce the deadly disease spreading.
A Caledonian forest, Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire, has a 25-year agreement with Scottish Natural heritage in a bid to maintain low levels of disease and pests that could potentially cause destruction.
The estate has a responsibility to ensure the trees are protected so that the disease can be controlled.
At Ben Lawers in the Highlands, large areas of mountainside were fenced in 2000 off so red deer could not affect the trees.
This project also helped with the conservation of wildflowers such as Alpine Foxtail.