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North Wales

Ellie Harrison gets up close to a strange and wonderful coastal habitat, and Tom reports on the deadly disease that is ravaging our native ash trees.


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Ash.

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As much a part of the British countryside as green hills

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and leaden skies.

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But this beautiful landscape now faces a terrible threat.

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The reawakening of a hidden killer.

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Ash dieback, the deadly pathogen that had ravaged trees

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across Europe, emerged here on our own shores last year.

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It was identified as Chalara fraxinea.

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A lethal fungus brought to Britain on windblown spores

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and imported saplings.

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It's arrival sounded the death knell for our beloved ash tree

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and ash dieback became a household phrase.

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BBC NEWS THEME

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Britain's ash trees under threat.

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The Government's emergency committee meet

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to discuss the killer infection.

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A ban on the import of ash trees will come into force on Monday.

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We are all being urged by the Government to wash our dogs,

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our boots, even our children, if we venture into woodland this weekend.

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In the wake of the 2012 crisis,

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and in an effort to protect our trees for the future,

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the Government has taken the unprecedented step

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of making plant health as important as animal health.

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The trouble is it all seemed a little too late for the ash.

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So, what now?

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Things have gone eerily quiet over the winter as the fungal spores

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have lain dormant.

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But with life returning to our countryside, the question is,

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is the advance of the disease now simply inevitable?

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We need to get down in the ground, dodge the nettles, and we are

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going to start hunting for fallen...

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they're called rachises.

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They are basically these bits. You see these bits here.

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What will have happened, you see, is last year, the infection would

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have occurred down here and then obviously, as it is a deciduous

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tree, the leaves fall off, they drop to the ground, the leaves rot

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and all we will be left with are little leaf stalks like this.

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They will have blackened up but it's not just them.

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We want the blackened up and the fungus growing out of it,

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the little mushrooms growing out of it. That is what we need to get.

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How big are these mushrooms? Something to make an omelette with?

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An omelette for maybe a hobbit.

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The signs of ash dieback are easy to spot on the trees,

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but to understand how it spreads, you need to find

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the highly infectious spores that come from the fungus itself.

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That's exactly what plant pathologists from FERA,

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the Food and Environment Research Agency, are trying to do.

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So the brown marks that you see on the bark of the tree, that

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tell-tale sign, that's not actually what's giving off the spore itself?

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No, not at all. That's non-infectious.

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The fungus is actually killing the tissue,

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producing toxins and killing the tree.

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It's really quite chilling to think something this small

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could end up felling something that big.

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It's amazing, isn't it?

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Paul and I are struggling to find anything

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-but one of Paul's colleagues has had some success.

-Look what I've found.

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What have you got there? Hang on a second, Ian's got something.

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-Really small.

-Hey, that's looking quite good. Have a look at that.

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-This one here?

-Right in the middle, have a look at that, Tom.

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-Put your hand lens on that one. Look at that.

-Looks like a sort of...

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It looks faintly mushroom-shaped but it's very...

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You can see it actually growing out of the stalk.

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-What do you think?

-Can I have a close look?

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That's certainly the best we've found so far, Ian.

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-Good job, well done.

-Ian's got it!

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The commonly-held view is that the Chalara fraxinea fungus IS now

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reproducing in Britain. That would mean nowhere in the country is safe.

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But no-one has been able to confirm those worst fears until today.

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My goodness. That's quite strong.

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You see, this is the sample we put in there. Look at that.

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It's coming up. If that goes up, that means it's positive.

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So it looks like we've got Chalara in that sample?

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We've got the sporing stage of this particular fungus picked up from the

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ground which has never been found in the UK before, so this is a first.

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The first time we have found this infective stage of ash dieback

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-in Britain.

-Absolutely.

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This indicates that this is the first-ever finding of it in the UK.

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In some ways, you don't know whether to be pleased

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or horrified with news like that, do you?

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Yeah, I mean, from a pathology point of view it's an exciting finding.

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That line is proof that we have infective Chalara in Britain.

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-So we've got a positive?

-Yes, that's the positive control there.

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Look at this.

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-You found it.

-Yes. Honoured(!).

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You don't know whether to be honoured or not, really,

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with something as dangerous as this, as lethal as this.

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-It looks like it is here to stay.

-Hmm.

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In any battle, the first stage in beating your enemy

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is to know your enemy. And now we know.

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As we've heard, it's here to stay.

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A slim hope that maybe the infection was just

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blowing in from the Continent has just evaporated.

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So, does this mean the march of infectious spores

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sweeping through our forests is now simply unstoppable?

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Professor Chris Gilligan from Cambridge University chairs the

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Independent Tree Taskforce set up in response to last year's outbreak.

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He's been keeping close tabs on its progress.

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We know something about the rate of spread across the continent,

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so we can use that to think then about how to model and predict

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what's going to happen to the spread throughout the UK.

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And you've got a little bit of the green,

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-particularly on this Kent and East Anglia area.

-That's correct.

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And as we run it forward, you'll see the year changing up here

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and the intensity of the colour changes.

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With red indicating high probability.

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Wow. We've now moved nearly ten years hence to 2022.

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And you've got red area which is high risk,

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still predominantly in a south-easterly area.

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But some risk affecting all of England

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and quite a bit of southern Scotland as well.

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If predictions are correct, we ARE going to see the disease

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gain a stranglehold over the next decade.

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But there are still things all of us can do to slow its progress,

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from brushing off our boots and tyres, to monitoring

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and reporting damaged trees in our local area.

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Generally, though, when you look at our intervention, are we talking

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about delaying the spread of this disease

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rather than having a hope of stopping it?

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We're not going to stop it.

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It would be very unlikely that that would occur,

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when, as we saw, that spread right across the continent of Europe.

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So actually, delay is really important because it buys us time

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to find ways of fighting it?

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It really is important to delay the epidemic where we can.

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I suppose it gives more time for our ingenuity to find

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-a way of fighting back?

-Absolutely.

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The prospects don't look good.

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But, as I'll be finding out later, the battle isn't over yet.

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The North Wales coastline.

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Rocky, weather-beaten cliffs hug the Irish Sea.

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A typical coastal scene on the face of it.

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But look a little closer and you'll find something quite bizarre.

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A living labyrinth.

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Surely one of the most intricate things that

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mother nature has ever created?

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It might look a little bit like a sponge,

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but believe me, this stuff is really quite solid.

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And it's built by one of the finest ecological engineers out there.

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The honeycomb worm, or Sabellaria alveolata.

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Their reef-like homes

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are predominately found on the west coast of the UK

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and are currently recognised as a threatened habitat.

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But a couple of marine scientists from Bangor University

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are undertaking some pioneering research to try and help

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regenerate reefs that might be struggling.

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I'm meeting Dr Andy Davies to find out more about how

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they build these peculiar homes.

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How are you doing, Andy? It looks like a moonscape, this.

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The tunnels are built from sand and shell by the worm colonies,

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who favour safety in numbers.

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There are many, many hundreds of them, if not thousands in this area.

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And they all grow together in, like, a semi-detached

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and a terraced housing style to form this honeycomb.

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So they're known as the honeycomb worm.

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As you can see, the tube is formed by individual worms here.

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The further down it goes, the more safe it is from predators.

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-You love these, don't you?

-I do. I love them. Anything which is reefy.

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Well, I've never seen them until today

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-and I might start loving them, too! We'll see how we go.

-Brilliant.

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In the same way that coral reefs support a host of marine life

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in the tropics, these sand tunnels built by these humble worms

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are massively important for biodiversity on our shoreline.

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Fellow worm fan Steve Newstead

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works alongside Andy at the School of Ocean Sciences.

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These marine-minded chaps love the worms so much,

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they are studying them in a way they've never been studied before.

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They are the first scientists to develop test tube worms,

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rearing larvae under laboratory conditions,

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to get a better understanding of their crazy tube-building ways.

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-How are you doing, Steve?

-Hi, Ellie.

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-What is it about these worms you love so much?

-These worms are great.

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They form these fantastic hummocks,

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these sand formations that we find on the shore.

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They are habitat engineers, OK.

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What they are doing is creating niches,

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pockets for other species to live within them.

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They are providing an attachment site for possible algae

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to start growing.

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They are also providing some protection from some water

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movements, in maybe the lee of the water and so on.

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They provide this function that enhances the biodiversity.

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Wow. So we can see them coming out now, they are under the water.

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You can see the little black hairy feelers that are coming out.

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That's them feeding when they are submerged in water.

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They will come out of the tube by a few millimetres.

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And they will extend their tentacles out

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and capture organic particles and filter feed that way.

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And then all of a sudden they will retract?

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They will retract in when a predator or something comes along.

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My big head, in this case. How do they build these amazing structures?

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They are unique because they excrete a biological cement, where

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they will collect sand grains from around them, from the water column,

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and they will excrete this cement and then stick them together.

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They are almost building like a dry stone wall around themselves.

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They will do that straight after their larval stages.

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And they will then build this tube for the rest of their life.

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To give the worms the best start in life,

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the boys grow them on slates in sea-like conditions in these tanks.

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-Can we have a look at one?

-I will just show you this one here.

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These little ones, around eight weeks old,

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are forming the first tunnels.

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-Still quite delicate.

-Really, still quite small.

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We have the settlement here, on the slate plate, OK.

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And these are the small hummocks and the small tubes we have got there.

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The aim is for these slates to eventually be attached to

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existing reefs, so the youngsters continue to grow

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and strengthen communities in areas where they may be struggling.

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But to find out which reefs need a bit of help,

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Andy and Steve monitor them using a sophisticated bit of kit.

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A balloon on a string with a precariously-dangled camera.

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OK, Ellie, now we've got the balloon up,

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what we want to try and do is slowly walk the camera over the reef.

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What the camera is doing is it is taking images every four seconds.

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Once we've stitched the images together,

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we'll get this panoramic view of the reef.

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-You are basically mapping out where this honeycomb reef is?

-Absolutely.

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Once you've got that, what are you going to do with it?

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We want to try and see how the reef changes over time.

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We want to map this over the years and see how much it grows,

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how much it reduces,

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to try and get an understanding in the changes of the reef itself.

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I love the way it is just a balloon and a camera.

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-It is like super-accessible science.

-That's it, very simple indeed.

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-No lab coats required for this?

-Not at all. No!

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So, aerial images to show scale, plus a bit of close-up counting

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using this grid split into centimetre squares.

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We just put that on there.

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Should roughly equal how many worms there are in this bit of reef.

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Simple. OK, five per centimetre square, I think.

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-Five per centimetre square?

-Yes.

-Perfect.

-All right.

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So, five worms in one centimetre square works out

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as 50,000 in one metre square.

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Multiply this by the total area of reef, 77 metres square, equals

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a rough estimate of 3,850,000 worms, all living in one amazing reef.

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So have you found, by doing this survey over time, that there

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have been more of them or less of them? Have they changed at all?

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Since in about the last year, we have seen the reef expand,

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about 20 to 30% in size. It can grow very quickly.

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By doing this, and mapping year on year, season on season,

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we can see how the reef expands or contracts.

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So things are looking OK here in North Wales at the moment,

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probably thanks to this pair keeping an eye on them.

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But the honeycomb reefs are at a constant threat of storm damage,

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cold weather, and human feet trampling on them.

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It may not be as exotic as the Great Barrier Reef, but these

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amazing sand tunnels stuck together by biological cement, by the tiny

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honeycomb worm, are hugely important to the biodiversity on our coast.

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The ash dieback epidemic that swept through mainland Europe is here.

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And there's no way of stopping this deadly fungus,

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Chalara fraxinea, from spreading throughout the UK.

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So if we can't save our treasured ash, does it mean it will go

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the same way as elm in the 1970s and become a rural rarity?

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The Woodland Trust has other ideas.

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It's recently planted thousands of young trees at Pound Farm

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in Suffolk, right in the firing line of the disease.

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In the wood over there are thousands of infected trees.

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In fact, it was one of the first places where ash dieback was seen.

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So, with the wind blowing as it is, from there to here,

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it won't be long before infection is rife in this field.

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So, we can expect these young saplings to soon

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succumb to the disease.

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So why plant healthy saplings right next door to an infected wood?

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According to the Woodland Trust's Austin Brady, there is

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method in this madness.

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So this is one of your sacrificial ash, is it?

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Yes, if we take the vole guard off this young ash tree,

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you can see this is one of 25,000 trees we have planted on two fields

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and there are 11 different provenances of ash

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from all over the UK. We have deliberately brought them back here

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where we know the disease is present, to try and find out

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which of these varieties is going to be resistant to ash disease.

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It seems almost cruel, to put them in harm's way like this,

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-deliberately to expose them to a deadly fungus?

-Exactly.

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But what we know is from experience on the Continent, maybe two

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or 5% of trees have natural resistance to ash disease.

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What we're trying to do is speed up that process and find out

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as quickly as possible which of the UK's ash trees might be resistant.

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What the Woodland Trust is doing may be a radical step,

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but its plans are to find replacement trees,

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not a cure for ash dieback.

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One thing that strikes me is this is still a sort of...it is a post-apocalyptic solution.

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It's not going to save existing ash trees, is it?

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You are exactly right. We are going to lose a lot of ash trees

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but we don't want to just stand by and watch that happen.

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We are doing what we can to try and breed some resistant trees

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-for the future.

-The scale of the task is huge.

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130 million ash trees across the country.

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Are we seriously talking about potentially replanting that number?

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I think in some woods, if the ash disappears, there will

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still be a woodland and some of those woods will recover.

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In other parts of the country, the impact could be more serious,

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where ash is a dominant part of those woods and they are the

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areas where we really need to think about a different kind of response.

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If the disease is as serious as we think, we are unlikely to ever

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replicate exactly what was there before in terms of ash?

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The woodlands will evolve. There will still be ash but less?

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Exactly, but woodlands evolve and change, you know,

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life and death in the forest is part of the whole process.

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Just what's happening here

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is something which is a bit too quick and a bit too sudden.

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This isn't the only plantation of its kind.

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Hand-in-hand with landowners and charities,

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the Government has planted a quarter of a million trees

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across the south-east,

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simply to see which ones can survive the onslaught.

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And that means standing back and watching possibly

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hundreds of thousands of young trees being martyred to the cause.

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While here they're letting nature take its course, there are those

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using a more technical approach

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to finding a tree with natural immunity.

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The basis for this work

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can be traced back to one miraculous tree in Denmark.

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The story starts just under 100 years ago

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on the Danish island of Zealand.

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In the 1920s, Danish foresters started selectively breeding ash

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for good timber. And they came across this in the forest, tree 35.

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They were so impressed by its strong form, that they decided to

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clone it along with 38 others

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to make sure they had good wood supplies.

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80 years later, in the middle of the last decade,

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ash dieback hit Denmark.

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90% of the country's ash trees were killed or badly damaged.

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Among them, the 39 selectively-bred clones.

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Except, that is, for tree 35,

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which stood tall amongst all the devastation.

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There seemed to be something in the genetic make-up of tree 35

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which made it able to withstand the full force of ash dieback.

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Now, this remarkable tree has led to a scientific

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breakthrough in the fight against the disease.

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At these laboratories in Norwich,

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just a few miles from the epicentre of last year's outbreak,

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scientists have managed to decode tree 35's resistant DNA.

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So this is how you unlock

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the genetic secrets of the resistant ash?

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Yes, the first step is to get some ash leaves which are frozen in here.

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What I'm going to do is take a small amount of this ash material.

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I'm going to put it into one of these tubes here

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so that we can break it up.

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The John Innes Centre is part of a multi-million pound

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international project working to create a formula for a super-tree

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for the future, based on tree 35.

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The project's head, Professor Allan Downie, is showing me how it's done.

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-OK, so, I'm making a sort of ash soup.

-Just drop it in.

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And then you'll find a pair of long forceps there

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that you can pick it back out again with.

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The liquid nitrogen freezes the ash leaf soup

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so it can be pulverised into tiny pieces.

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-It's like a rather aggressive microwave!

-It is a bit!

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So, now that leaf which was a leaf material, it's now a powder,

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and what we're now going to do is add a little bit of liquid

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to dissolve the DNA.

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The DNA is broken down further and purified before technicians

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at the Genome Analysis Centre set about the critical

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task of sequencing the billions of strands of DNA on a computer.

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This incredible and complicated process has allowed scientists

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to crack tree 35's DNA code, the first step in creating

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an ash tree from scratch that can live with the disease.

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We're the first to see these results.

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What is on here that is so important, so critical?

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We have all of the genomic information from the tolerant tree,

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tree 35, on this chip, so all of the DNA sequence is here.

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And we did it really quickly. We want to move things forward

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and try to understand the genetics of the inheritance of tolerance,

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and this is the first step that allows us to build a map

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and get an idea of why this tree has tolerance to the fungus.

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This has been a very high profile potential environmental

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disaster for Britain. We've seen huge coverage on this story.

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How does it feel to be maybe part of that solution?

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It would be wonderful to be part of the solution,

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but the problem is enormous, and really, it would be absolutely

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fantastic, but it is going to take a long period of time

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and the breeding is going to take time.

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For you at the moment, do you think the best chance is breeding up

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new resistant or tolerant, as you would have it,

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trees rather than trying to protect the ones that are there?

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Certainly, for the large population of

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ash in Woodlands, I think if we could breed for tolerance,

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and identify trees that can live with the fungus,

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then that would help greatly, and what we're trying to do here is

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trying to give nature a bit of a helping hand by identifying the

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right kinds of trees to take forward and do the appropriate crosses.

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Whether it's the natural immunity of the Woodland Trust saplings

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or a synthetically produced super-tree,

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we may be able to fill the inevitable holes that are going to

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appear in our countryside with something stronger.

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What should be a proud procession of ash is becoming a slow death march.

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And there's little doubt that a similar fate awaits

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many of our ash trees across Britain.

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But there is a glimmer of hope.

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The ingenuity of our conservationists

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and genetic scientists is speeding the arrival of

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a new generation of ash trees which will show the fungus who's boss.

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Ellie Harrison gets up close to a strange and wonderful coastal habitat, and Tom reports on the deadly disease that is ravaging our native ash trees.