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New ‘Ashtag’ technology launches to curb spread of devastating disease

Experts at the University of East Anglia are launching a new weapon in the fight against the deadly ash disease today.

The disease, which threatens to wipe out 80 million UK trees, has seen ash imports to the UK suspended and large-scale tree felling tabled.

But quick thinking environmental specialists at UEA’s Adapt Low Carbon Group have come up with a new smartphone app which will not only help monitor the spread of disease, but allow conservationists to target infected areas.

The free ‘Ashtag’ app will make it possible for anyone to take a photo of diseased leaves, shoots or bark and send it remotely to plant pathologists to identify whether or not the tree is infected.

As well as collecting photographic evidence, the app also uses geo-tagging software to give a precise location of infected trees – allowing researchers and authorities to build up a picture of where the dieback is happening. This can then be used to target areas for culling to stop the spread of the disease.

People without a smartphone will also be able to join the campaign by uploading digital photos and location details direct to the AshTag website.

Toby Hammond of the Adapt Group at the UEA, said: “One of the biggest problems faced by forest conservationists is how to track the spread of the disease and act swiftly to reduce the impact of outbreaks. There isn’t the manpower to do it.

“But this app means we can harness the mass power of the general public to tell us where outbreaks are happening.

“We realised that time really is of the essence if we are to safeguard our forests. The spread is very fast moving so our team has worked around the clock to get the app up and running.

“We hope that thousands of people, from school groups and nature lovers to dog walkers and farmers, will use the app help to spot and report any sightings of the ash dieback so the disease can be contained.”

As well as camera integration, uploading and geo-tagging technology, the app also comes with identification guides to help users know what they are looking for.

“One of the technical challenges is to minimise false reports through the system,” he added. “We don’t want the already over-stretched agencies like the Forestry Commission being overwhelmed with reports of ‘brown leaves’, but we believe technology can help here, and have some great plant experts helping with diagnosis.”

The new app has been praised by organisations including the Forestry Commission, and the National Farmers Union. Steve Scott, area director for the Forestry Commission, said: “Our teams have reacted quickly and are working hard to examine woodlands for symptoms of the disease. We are extremely supportive of this app as any information which helps our own activity will be useful.

“The most easily spotted sign is blackened, dead leaves but we only have a couple of weeks until the autumn leaves fall; however there are other signs that woodland owners and those interested in the countryside can look for. We have a good track record of working with the Adapt Group and the UEA and we will liaise with them to ensure the information gathered can be used to best effect.”

John French, chief executive of the Adapt Low Carbon Group, said: “Adapt covers a wide range of expertise in the low carbon sector, from carbon footprinting to plant sciences. We’re delighted at how many partners are supporting this project to ‘fight the fungus’. Together we hope to play a part in ensuring our forests can be enjoyed and used by future generations.”

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