Woodburning stoves could deal a deadly blow to the British landscape as the thousands of tons of foreign wood imported to fuel them may harbour a pest that blights ash trees.
Experts have said that foreign wood could host the Emerald ash borer Beetle, which has already killed tens of millions of trees across the United States, Canada and Russia.
Any attack on a British ash tree population already debilitated by a disastrous infestation of the fungus causing ash dieback disease could wipe out Britain’s 2.2 million ash trees, the way Dutch elm disease obliterated the elm.
The proliferation of cheap imported wood as fuel for stoves could increase the risk further.
“These beetles don’t need a passport or a visa, they simply lie under the bark of a tree,” said Andrew Harvey, director of the Grown In Britain wood standards organisation.
“Wood burners are fashionable and they are more economical and environmentally friendly than oil, coal or gas, but people who pick up logs on a petrol station forecourt or who buy them with a click of a button online need to ask where their wood is coming from.
‘This beetle could change the face of Britain’s woodlands, affecting not just ash trees but the woodland flora too. It’s a terrifying prospect.”
Fears about the dark-green metallic-coloured beetle, native to Asia and discovered in 2002, have risen along with sales of wood burning stoves. Its larvae bore into the layer of wood under the bark and stop vital water and nutrients getting to the tree, which eventually causes the tree to die.
The Government’s regulatory body for the solid fuel industry says its members have reported a 60 percent increase in the installation of burners over the past seven years – a rise that has gone hand-in-hand with an increase in demand for cheap logs, many imported from Eastern Europe.
In 2012 the Government placed a ban on the importation of live ash trees in an attempt to counter ash dieback disease.
Austin Brady, director of conservation at the Woodland Trust, said: “The ash tree is already vulnerable so this would be a double whammy.
“The beetle would have a dramatic effect in just a couple of years – it can kill a healthy tree relatively easily and a weaker one even faster.’”
Professor Michael Shaw, of Reading University, a member of the independent Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce, which was set up by the Government in response to the last major threat to the ash population, said a blanket ban on foreign firewood would be ‘an appropriate response’ to the emerald ash borer.
“Firewood, unlike treated timber, is a high-volume, low-value product and you can never inspect 100 per cent of it. You can make demands about its quality, but how can you police them?”
The beetle is already spreading westwards from Russia, and imported firewood will only increase the risk.
A Forestry Commission spokesman said: “We would advise firewood buyers to be sure they buy from reputable merchants.”
The pest has done so much damage in Canada in the past decade that a 30-year action plan costing well over a billion pounds has been implemented to treat or replace trees infected by it.