ELITE trees are being bred in south Oxfordshire to survive the contagious disease which could threaten 95 per cent of Britain’s ash population.

Hundreds of trees at the Kingsmere development in Bicester were destroyed last week after they were found to contain the Chalara dieback fungus, which can kill trees.

The Government is now focusing on destroying infected young trees, which have been found in about a dozen counties, instead of trying to halt the spread by culling or using fungicides.

It is also stepping up the search for trees that can resist the disease, and the Earth Trust at Little Wittenham runs one of four seedling seed orchards where elite ash trees have been cultivated.

At the trust’s Paradise Wood, 36 different types of elite ash tree have been grown. Jo Clark, forestry research manager at the trust, said 330 out of the 1,296 elite ash trees remained.

She said: “We have been testing them and we have cut out the poor-performing individuals so there are now 330 of these elite trees remaining.

“We are reasonably confident that we will have some ash trees that are resistant to Chalara, and that could form the basis of a new ash tree population.

“The ash has been here since the last Ice Age and has a broad genetic base, so I don’t think it’s curtains for it quite yet – I think it has a reasonable future.

“The Earth Trust is at the very heart of work that could save the ash tree.”

The trust has planted about 60,000 trees in Paradise Wood, which is now the largest collection of hardwood forestry genetics trials in Britain.

Ms Clark added: “The tree populations in Paradise Wood have a broad genetic diversity, increasing the likelihood that we will be able to find genotypes that are naturally resistant to ash dieback and could be used to repopulate Britain’s forests.”

Earth Trust chief executive Jayne Manley said: “We hope that funding will be available to capitalise on the work that the Earth Trust and its partners have done to date.”

The scheme to find ash trees resistant to dieback disease is being run by the Earth Trust charity, with the Forestry Commission’s research arm, and the Future Trees Trust.

The Government has allocated about £8m annually for tree health and Ms Clark, who lives in south Oxfordshire, said she hoped the elite trees project would attract Government funding.

She added: “Seeds from the elite trees could be taken and planted near the (ash dieback) pathogen in places like East Anglia and Denmark, to see if they were resistant or not.

“Planting would have to be done in quarantine and in order to do that you need more funds. At the moment this work is being done on a shoestring by two or three members of staff.”

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has pledged to invest more funds into researching ways of combating dieback disease.

Ash dieback is caused by the Chalara fraxinea fungus and is being treated as a quarantine pest under national emergency measures.

The disease, which has infected 90 per cent of trees in Denmark, has been found at about 115 sites across the UK.

According to the Forestry Commission, there are 6,250 acres of ash woodland across Oxfordshire.