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last updated Dec 11, 2013
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Oak decline. Copyright: RHS

The phenomenon known as oak decline has been known in the UK for nearly one hundred years. However, in the last few years there has been an alarming increase in the number of trees affected by acute oak decline – a fast-acting problem thought to be caused by bacteria.

What is oak decline? Back to top

Oak decline is a term that describes the deterioration of oak trees, in some cases eventually leading to death of the tree. A slow-acting phenomenon known as chronic oak decline, thought to be due to an interaction between many different factors (pests, diseases and environmental conditions) has been known since the early part of the twentieth century.

In recent years another problem called acute oak decline has come to the fore. Thought to be caused by a bacterial pathogen, this can lead to a rapid deterioration of affected trees.

Oak decline is unrelated to the disease known as sudden oak death which, despite its name, does not notably affect English oak trees.

Symptoms Back to top

You may see the following symptoms:

Chronic oak decline

  • Mainly affects pedunculate oak (Quercus robur)
  • Progressive deterioration of the crown, taking many years or even decades
  • Deterioration begins with leaves becoming paler and smaller
  • Twigs start to dieback, followed by small branches
  • The dieback may progress to large branches, and in the most severe cases the tree dies
  • Others may recover partially or stabilise, although the problem may begin again at a later date
  • Recovering trees often have a healthy-looking lower crown, but with large dead branches in the upper crown projecting above the green lower canopy like antlers (known as a ‘staghead’ effect)

Acute oak decline

  • Affects mature (greater than 50 years old) trees of pedunculate oak, sessile oak (Quercus petraea) and hybrids between the two
  • A dark fluid weeps down the trunk from cracks (about 5-10cm long) in the bark. This may stop and dry out at certain times of year, and can be washed off by heavy rain
  • Multiple bleeding patches may be present, from close to ground level to high in the canopy
  • Some affected trees have died within four to five years
  • Unlike chronic oak decline, symptoms of deterioration in the crown may not appear until just before the tree dies

Control Back to top

Non-chemical control

  • Aim to achieve healthy, vigorous growth by matching the tree to its site (soil conditions, climate, etc.)
  • Evidence suggests that trees derived from those of local provenance are best adapted to the local conditions and more likely to resist pest and disease attack
  • The presence of large numbers of oak trees with extensive bleeding should be reported to the Tree Health Diagnostic Advisory Service of Forest Research (part of the Forestry Commission) (see the link below) – this will help in their investigation of the problem. Acute oak decline is not a notifiable disease, however, and there is no legal requirement to report cases
  • Current advice is to leave affected trees in situ (unless there is an immediate concern about safety) and to monitor them
  • However, if only a few trees are affected, amongst a large number of healthy trees of the same species, it may be prudent to fell them
  • Pruning of affected trees is not recommended, unless dead branches pose an immediate health and safety risk
  • Do not compost any part of an infected tree, nor use any resulting wood chips as a mulch or soil conditioner

Chemical control

There are no chemicals available for the control of acute oak decline. However, it is recommended that any equipment used for the felling or pruning of affected trees is disinfected after use.

Further information

The above is a summary of the current recommendations given by the Forestry Commission (the full recommendations can be found at Forest Research).

Biology Back to top

Chronic oak decline has been known throughout Britain since the early twentieth century. It is thought to be caused by the interaction of a range of contributory factors, which are also likely to vary between sites. Factors that have been implicated include:

Acute oak decline has so far been found most commonly in the Midlands, East Anglia and Wales, and is still the subject of extensive investigation and research. A previous case of acute decline in the 1920s was thought to have been triggered by heavy infestations of the oak leaf-roller moth (Tortrix viridana). However, it appears that the recent outbreak is caused by a bacterial pathogen. In some cases the wood-boring beetle Agrilus biguttatus is also present in the affected areas, and this could be one method by which the bacteria are spread from tree to tree (another could be rain-splash of bacteria in the fluid weeping from the bark cracks).

Quick facts

Common name Oak decline, Acute oak decline, Chronic oak decline
Caused by Acute oak decline: thought to be caused by bacteria; Chronic oak decline: various pests, diseases and environmental factors.
Plants affected Pedunculate oak (Quercus robur), sessile oak (Q. petraea) and hybrids between the two
Main symptoms Acute oak decline: weeping lesions from cracks in the bark, trees can die rapidly (4-5 years); Chronic oak decline: twig and branch dieback, ‘staghead’ symptoms in crown, slow deterioration (many years)
Timing All year
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