HUNDREDS of trees could be chopped down to halt the spread of a disease wreaking havoc on woodlands.
Ministers are considering the cull in order to create a buffer zone as they fear the Chalara dieback of ash is here to stay.
There are now 49 sites in Scotland where the ash dieback has been identified, largely in the south and east, as those areas have exposed to the spore of the disease blowing across from the continent.
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The zone would run diagonally across Scotland from the Moray Firth to the Clyde to create a sheltered area to the west.
It is hoped that, while some more areas will be affected in the next five years, the sheltered area could remain disease-free for up to 20 years, allowing new approaches to be developed.
Statutory action is being considered which would require the removal or killing of all recently planted ash trees on any infected sites in both the buffer and sheltered areas.
Actions could include uprooting or cutting the trees before burning and deep burial, spraying the stumps or chemi-cally injecting standing trees.
All options were discussed at a tree health summit in Edinburgh yesterday, where a draft action plan to address the spread of Chalara dieback of ash in Scotland was being developed.
All stakeholders in Scots woodlands, from the forestry industry to conservation charities, are involved. They want to agree a plan quickly as the leaves on infected trees will be infectious again by early summer.
The number of infected sites in Scotland has grown by 10 since the middle of January.
The new sites are all new plantations close to the communities of Kirkcudbright, Kilchrenan (west of Loch Awe), Bankfoot (north of Perth), Ellon, Auchterarder, Dunning (Ochil Hills); Huntly and Turiff. There are also two sites near Cumbernauld.
The infected sites are at 39 new plantations, two private nurseries – one in the north-east and one in the Borders – and eight wider environment sites.
Meanwhile, experts said that if there is any infection of ash trees in cities and urban areas it is less severe. They warned homeowners not to be persuaded by contactors that their trees need to be felled at huge cost.
The Environment and Climate Change Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, who chaired the summit, said: "Scotland's trees, woodlands and forests are facing an unprecedented level of threat from pests and diseases, the latest of which is Chalara dieback of ash.
"Today's summit will help finalise a Chalara action plan for Scotland in support of wider efforts across the British Isles to manage this disease. We have taken the best scientific advice as well as seeking expert opinion from the Scottish Tree Health Advisory Group.
"Chalara is here to stay but we can put in train measures to lessen its impact and, in lower risk areas in the remoter north and west, we might also be able to delay the onset of infection by taking targeted action to remove diseased young trees before they start to have a wider effect."
He said the Scottish Government was working closely with the UK Government on tree and plant health issues and was continuing to press for better controls on the international trade in plants across Europe through the current review of the EU Plant Health regime.
The ban on ash plant imports and movement in the UK remains. There are a further 342 infected sites in the UK.
The Tree Health Advisory Group, made up from arboricultural and forestry organisations, has met three times and worked on action plans for two other key diseases – Dothistroma needle blight on pine and Phytophthora ramorum on larch trees.