The first nursery to spot ash dieback in the UK says if it had not brought suspect trees to Defra's attention the Government would have delayed further letting the public know about the disease.
Buckingham Nurseries general manager Mike Easom said a Dutch nursery supplied him with infected ash early this year and he alerted the Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA).
"Having pressed FERA, we understand that they still have not visited all the sites to get trees destroyed if necessary. We cannot find out if all other nurseries have been contacted and if they have put in place measures to get any infected trees destroyed," he added.
"We cannot understand why nurseries were not warned about the disease. When the disease was found in February, why wasn't an immediate import ban imposed and everyone in the trade and woodland owners alerted by Defra? Many more trees could have been imported from then to the end of the season - the end of March. Also, trees already in the country were not isolated and there was no movement ban put in place until 29 October 2012 - 236 days since the notice was served."
Chalara fraxinea has now been confirmed in trees in 14 nurseries, 36 planting sites and 32 woodlands.
Defra has been criticised, notably by the HTA, forestry body Confor and Crowders Nurseries, for acting too slowly to combat the disease, which could wipe out Britain's 80 million ash trees. The industry is demanding compensation and answers on how the disease was allowed to spread.
The Government banned imports and UK movement of ash on 29 October. The HTA suggested an import ban in 2009.
Easom said the nursery received a consignment of 2,000 Fraxinus excelsior plants from Holland. He put one bundle with "suspect markings" into quarantine to show a FERA inspector.
"Had we not brought them to his attention they would, most likely, have been overlooked because Fraxinus was not a species he had on his list to give particular attention to," said Easom.
On 7 March, FERA emailed to confirm Chalara fraxinea (ash dieback) in the samples were positive. On 13 March, FERA advised suspension all sales of ash, with plants quarantined.
Easom said: "We were very concerned that we had despatched ash plants that, although looking perfectly healthy, were in close proximity to the infected plants." He supplied FERA with the names and addresses of all customers to whom he had posted plants. The nursery and FERA contacted all customers, but Easom said the Government delayed attacking the problem for too long.
Easom added that now the disease has come in on the east coast, possibly carried by wind from the continent: "If knowledge of the disease had been made publicly available long ago, it is possible that landowners in the eastern counties would have spotted the signs earlier and appropriate action could have been taken.
"This matter has obviously caused us a great deal of concern because we wanted to make sure that we were not in any way helping to spread this most unwelcome disease. In retrospect, had we taken the irresponsible attitude of simply burning the trees we were not happy about and not getting them inspected, this matter would probably not have come to light and more infected young trees would still be moving around the country."
Easom said, to address the lack of trade and public knowledge, he alerted Horticulture Week, which ran the first article on the disease hitting Britain on 7 June.
Defra said of 80 mail-order customers supplied with potentially infected ash trees by Buckingham Nurseries, it has destroyed saplings at all but "a couple" of sites on which it could not work because the customers have moved house.
A Defra representative added: "We acted straight away. As soon as the disease was discovered the plant health authorities (PHA) took immediate action to minimise the spread of the disease and any infected trees were quickly destroyed. This was the very end of the planting season and as the PHA was already taking action a ban would have made no difference in February.
"A pest-risk analysis was then carried out. This formed the basis of the consultation. We have moved extremely quickly and the ban was put in place before the planting season gets underway. The industry has known about the disease itself for several years and the Forestry Commission issued a pest alert in April this year to warn that it had been found in nurseries in the UK. This was sent to key industry bodies by email."
Ash Crisis Timeline
Early 2012: 18 UK nurseries receive ash trees from Holland.
20 February: Buckingham Nursery brings ash with "suspect markings" to FERA's attention.
7 March: FERA confirms Chalara fraxinea present and requests isolation of trees.
13 March: FERA advises suspension of sales.
29 October: Government bans imports of ash and movement within UK.