A MAJOR survey began across the New Forest on Monday to discover if ash trees have been infected with a deadly disease sweeping the country’s tree population.

The Forestry Commission has said it will start the research to determine how many at-risk trees there are and whether the killer fungus has already taken hold.

In the last week the number of sites nationally found to be infected with ash dieback disease – which threatens to wipe out the ash population – had doubled with 52 locations recording outbreaks.

In Denmark the disease, officially known as Chalara Fraxinea, killed 90 per cent of the ash population.

The fungus has become so widespread that it prompted a plea from Environment Secretary Owen Patterson, who urged the public to wash boots, dogs and even children to halt the spread.

Andy Paige, head keeper for wildlife in the New Forest, said: “We need to find out the extent of the damage, if any, in the New Forest.

“We’re going to begin a survey to find out how many ash trees there are and how many could be affected. That’s as much as I know.

“At the moment the situation is quite new but it’s evolving day by day.”

First reports of the Chalara fraxinea fungus were confirmed after imported ash trees from The Netherlands showed signs in Buckinghamshire.

The disease may already have spread nationwide, according to reports from the public.

Confirmed cases of ash dieback have been concentrated in East Anglia and the East Midlands.

But reports from members of the public who have been surveying their local countryside suggest it has spread as far north as Edinburgh, as far south as Brighton and Bournemouth and as far west as Exeter.

A map of the unconfirmed public sightings of the fungus has been compiled by researchers at the University of East Anglia.

A senior scientist advising the Government warned that the fungus will destroy ‘almost all’ the ash in the country. And campaigners said that the destruction of infected trees could affect wildlife that is reliant on hedgerows and hedgerow trees such as ash to survive.

Britain has about 80 million ash trees and they make up 30 per cent of the indigenous deciduous woodland. They are the UK’s third most common tree and the second most common hedgerow tree.