A DEADLY fungus which has the potential to kill off thousands of Lake District trees has reached Cumbria.

The first locally-confirmed case of ash dieback was found in recently-planted young saplings at an Aspatria tree nursery.

Ironically, the town’s name means ‘Ash Tree of Patrick’.

The discovery brings confirmed cases UK-wide to more than 150. The arrival of winter is expected to slow the spread and the loss of leaves will make it harder to identify.

In Cumbria and north Lancashire there are internationally important ash woodlands which have prospered on limestone pavements in Silverdale, Arnside and the Orton fells, as well as significant ash populations throughout the Lake District.

MPs including Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron and Penrith and the Border MP Rory Stewart this week expressed their concern at the arrival of the disease.

Mr Stewart said he would be convening an emergency meeting of the constituency’s forestry and woodlands think-tank to discuss the developing situation.

“The importance of this cannot be underestimated,” said Mr Stewart. “We need to identify how we can protect our trees in the future.

“We are facing a real tragedy for our native woodlands.”

Ted Wilson, a Penrith-based forestry expert, is looking to arrange a public meeting about the issue and is calling for a people’s army of ‘retired pensioners and youthful environmentalists’ to join forces to take to the countryside and help identify any spread of the disease.

Officials say the disease can kill younger trees quite quickly but it can take more mature trees years to die and for the hallmarks to be recognised.

However, some trees with the disease have shown resistance.

Edward Mills, director of Cumbria Woodlands, said there was some comfort in the fact the tree was young and recently planted, rather than being one of the natural ancients which have been around for 800 years.

“I don’t think concern about this is issue is being alarmist,” said Mr Mills. “There is very little you can do. “It’s not like foot-and-mouth, TB or Dutch Elm. You can’t create a cordon.

“It’s airborne and can travel 30km in a year.

“It’s difficult at this time of year because many of the leaves have gone so it’s harder to spot examples.

“But next autumn and over the next two, three and five years, I’d expect more cases to be found.”

Mr Mills believes the disease has actually been in Britain for a couple of years and is only now being recognised as more people become aware of it.

He said cases could cause serious biodiversity problems for the fungi and insects which rely on ash trees.

Cumbria Woodlands say the issue will be top of the agenda at a regional forestry meeting taking place in early December with talks also planned with Cumbria County Council.