HUNDREDS of trees on the edge of Bicester were being destroyed last night after a deadly disease was found on a new housing estate.

The Chalara dieback fungus, which can lead to leaf loss and tree death, was found on the Kingsmere development of 1,500 homes during a government inspection.

Experts last night warned the case – the first of its kind to be discovered in Oxfordshire – meant the county’s ash trees could be hit by widespread felling.

Guy Lambert, of Kingsmere developer Countryside Properties, said: “The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has inspected the site and has found that about 20 per cent of the ash trees are infected.

“The trees are in the process of being removed and destroyed. We will be removing all 313 ash trees even though we only have to take the infected ones away.”

He added the developer was in discussions with Cherwell District Council over replacing the trees, which were imported from Holland and Germany.

Karl Lofthouse, an arborist at Harcourt Arboretum, said: “At the moment a lot of the outbreaks are being reported in new plantings that have probably been brought in from nurseries.

“Whether it has got into the native population remains to be seen but, if it has, the potential for county-wide felling is inevitable, I am sorry to say. It is early days though, so apart from vigilance there is not much we can do.”

Mr Lofthouse called on the people of Oxfordshire to keep their eyes open and report suspected cases.

According to the Forestry Commission there are 6,250 acres of ash woodland across Oxfordshire.

Neil Clennell, head of conservation and education at Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, said: “The ash is one of the three most common British trees, and there are hundreds in most of the larger woodlands in Oxfordshire, including our nature reserves at Foxholes and Sydlings Copse. It would be devastating, not only to the landscape but also to wildlife, if these are lost.

“Mature ash trees can be home to woodpeckers, bats, and many insects – they are an integral part of the woodland ecosystem.”

Mr Clennell said the trust had not found any signs of the disease in its trees but said it was taking precautionary measures to prevent spreading it, such as not using ash timber in any of the hedgerow maintenance or fencing work.

Oxford City Council spokeswoman Louisa Dean said officers were on the lookout for Chalara across the city’s parks but had not found any problems. She said: “We inspect trees regularly anyway and will continue to do so.”

Dieback is caused by the Chalara fraxinea fungus and is being treated as a quarantine pest under national emergency measures.

Following a survey carried out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Chalara has been found at 115 sites across the UK.

Hundreds of people from government agencies and stakeholder groups have been surveying more than 2,500 sites across the country – the largest operation of its kind.

Defra is urging people to report any suspected cases of Chalara they may come across and to only buy plants from reputable suppliers.

Anyone visiting a forest should not remove any plant material such as sticks from the woodland and, where possible, clean soil, leaves and plant material from their footwear, clothing, dogs and wheels before leaving.

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