Alba Trees sales manager Grant Murray, speaking on behalf of forestry body Confor, called for a "buy British trees" campaign. "We have been lobbying for a ban on all imports of all trees for years," he said. "Imports of ash should have been stopped at least five years ago. The fact that it happened was because the trade continued to be allowed to import so it was almost inevitable."
Murray said he feared the public would blame the horticulture industry for the loss of wild ash in the UK after the Food & Environment Agency (FERA) found the first outbreak in the natural environment on the Woodland Trust's Pound Farm in Suffolk last month, with further findings made in Essex and Kent this month.
He added: "They blame the Government, sure, but if we lose all our ash because it saved some money by buying cheap in Europe from diseased areas, I don't think the public will forgive us. That's why we need to radically rethink import policies."
Murray said lucrative mixed planting schemes including ash would be cut if a movement ban remained in place, which could lose Alba 20 per cent of its business.
Shelley Common Nurseries owner John Middleton agreed: "It is long overdue to apply for protected area status from the EU for the whole of the UK from the importation of hardy ornamental nursery stock. The head of plant health, Dr Stephen Hunter, warned MPs in 2003 in the select committee that the greatest threat to the biosecurity of this country was the importation of hardy ornamental nursery stock, yet this has been ignored."
Majestic Trees Managing director Steve McCurdy said: "FERA sits on things until it's an emergency" but later clarified this comment was not related to tree imports.
He added: "I think much tighter regulation is required on who we import from, with me being totally in support of the ash import ban.
HTA business development director Tim Briercliffe was due to meet with Defra minister Lord de Mauley this week to seek compensation for growers: "It is hugely disappointing that Defra has not acted more quickly as we first raised it with them in 2009 following a tree and hedging group tour to Denmark where the disease was seen first hand.
"Our advice was to ban imports then. We are looking for Defra to provide compensation for growers."
J&A Growers owner Jamie Dewhurst said: 'The Government has not banned imports, it has just insisted that ash trees come from a pest-free area. It is possible for anywhere in Europe to be declared a pest-free area so imports may continue after inspections.
"We cannot rely on the Government to sort out this mess. The European plant health regime has proved to be inadequate."