The horticulture industry has reacted with concern to news that movement and imports of ash are to be lifted for some nurseries.
A letter to stakeholders from Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA) principal plant health and seeds inspector Derek McCann said: "Ministers have decided to retain the current requirements of permitting imports and movements from pest-free areas (although none are currently designated) but to provide an additional option of permitting imports and movements from designated pest-free places of production."
Former HTA tree and hedging group chairman Steve Ashworth said: "What a surprise that FERA wishes to downgrade the quarantine after the serious measures taken just one year ago, much trumpeted to offer resilience by slowing the spread of Chalara in the UK.
"My initial reaction is that it's far, far too soon. It would be better if nurseries tested to be clean were allowed to move their own FERA-vetted stock. In several years' time, when Chalara is ubiquitous in GB, then will be the time to lift the ban on imports. The authorities appear to be under the illusion that an area specified as 'disease-free' will not be used as a safe haven from which to trade stock from any source."
European Nurserystock Association UK member Tim Edwards said: "Lifting the ban is a bad thing. There will be requests to import ash that could be contaminated into the UK. They had to lift the ban because it was no longer logical, because the ban was to stop the disease getting in and it is now here.
He added: "But it is very disappointing because people will think that as soon as the ban is lifted ash dieback is no longer a problem. Chalara is out of control and we will lose 90-95 per cent of all ash. If we can identify resistant trees given a few generations we might even have trees that produce seed that is reliably resilient."
Edwards said recent Queen Mary University of London research on ash tree sequencing is "a step forward, but it should not be portrayed as an end to the problems faced in the UK".
He added: "It seems likely that 90 per cent of our ash will be lost. Even if a resistant strain could be identified, it would take years to produce meaningful quantities of seed and seedlings, and it would take generations to see those into the countryside, by which time most of our existing ash will be long gone.
"Our woodlands and hedgerows are going to change dramatically. This does not seem to have been recognised, even now. It is important that the press play their part in educating professionals on this."
HTA tree and hedging group secretary Dave Gilchrist said: "This sends out mixed messages and doesn't make for a straightforward approach. Having enforced restrictions, why change it?"
HTA policy manager Gary Scroby added: "This is a halfway house. Some people will say it's a mixed message and some will say it's long overdue. People will say why have a ban if ash dieback is endemic in the UK? Defra would have come under pressure from Brussels if it hadn't lifted it. They're trying to salvage some of the market - if there is any market left."
FERA inspector Ed Birchall said stakeholders including the horticulture industry have backed the plan. "One option would be to forget about ash, another would be to continue with no movement and the middle line is some movement allowed but under controls,"he added.
Code of conduct - Proposal targets pest and disease awareness
The Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA) has made proposals to the HTA tree and hedging group about an industry-standard code of conduct for pest and disease awareness in nurseries.
Boningale Nurseries chairman Tim Edwards said the Plant Health Task Force report suggested a trade-based assurance scheme and FERA head of plant health public engagement David Slawson discussed it with the industry.
The HTA wants an outside agency to set it up, paid by FERA. Slawson said: "The Chalara management plan looks at the feasibility of an industry-led Charter Mark but it's early days." Hot, dry summer conditions are "not ideal for Chalara", so it has not spread as much as expected.
FERA's 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden reached 50.2 million people, added Slawson, and there may be an exhibit in the marquee at next year's show.
Total Chalara findings confirmed by the Food & Environment Research Agency - 571 Chalara findings.