Conker trees are facing extinction say experts

Conkers SUS-161021-073518001
Conkers SUS-161021-073518001

The conker could disappear from Britain within 15 years warn environmental experts.

Horse chestnut trees, which produce the annual schoolboy favourite are facing the twin threat of disease and an invasive moth which destroys their leaves say scientists.

They predict that two million horse chestnut trees will be lost in the next 15 years, while they are no longer being planted because they only survive three to five years before they are killed by the leaf-miner moth.

The moth has spread throughout the UK after arriving in southern England from Europe around 13 years ago.

Its larvae cause the leaves on horse chestnut trees to turn brown early and drop in summer, before the conkers have had time to develop.

It also leaves older trees more susceptible to diseases such as bleeding canker, a fungal disease which can cause a black, gungy ooze and eventually death.

According to research from the Forestry Commission, there were only four cases of the disease reported in 2000 but by 2007 around half of the horse chestnut trees in Britain showed symptoms. It is now believed to be even more widespread.

Tree expert Professor Stephen Woodwar, from the University of Aberdeen, said: “Horse chestnuts are being decimated in places and eventually most will disappear.

“Bleeding canker is now widespread and once it is in a location most of the trees in that area suffer from it and die within a couple of years.

“I suspect that Britain actually has more than two million horse chestnuts but it is entirely plausible that two million trees will be wiped out within 15 years.

“It is very sad because these are very beautiful trees when they are in bloom as well as people being able to collect conkers from them.

“They are being hit by pests and diseases which are now so thoroughly established that there is now no realistic prospect of controlling them.”

Dr Glynn Percival, of the University of Reading’s Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory, said most of the new horse chestnuts are killed before they are three years old.

“We have been germinating the horse chestnut in pots and in the ground to monitor how long they survive,” he said.

“They get infested with leaf minter caterpillars and most of them are gone by year three and none are left by year five.

“Leaf miner defoliates the leaves and they cannot produce enough to grow from year to year. That means there are no new horse chestnuts coming through.

“More mature trees are strong enough to resist leaf miner but they slowly deteriorate from bleeding canker.”

The Forestry Commission carried out a widespread investigation earlier this year to assess the extent of the cankers’ spread.

It found symptoms of bleeding cankers in half the trees it surveyed.

The game of conkers has been a perennial favourite going back hundreds of years.

A World Conker Championship takes place at Northamptonsire every year and since it began in 1965, the championships has raised about £400,000 for blind and visually impaired charities.

John Hadman, secretary of Ashton Conker Club, said: “I can’t imagine that the horse chestnut will become extinct, it would be a disaster if that did happen.”

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