Though ministers finally seem to have begun listening to scientists, strengthening biosecurity demands investment
Last week, environment secretary Owen Paterson quietly published a written ministerial statement on ash dieback, setting out his department’s plans for the months ahead to try to control the Chalara fraxinea fungus – as well as releasing the interim report by the independent Task Force on Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity.
Having written in recent weeks about the dire situation now facing our ash trees, I’m glad to be able to welcome this statement as a clear step in the right direction. Finally, there are encouraging signs here that the government is starting to listen to its scientists on this serious issue.
However, with the overall strategy on biosecurity now being delayed until the Task Force produces its final report in spring 2013, fears remain that the government is still not acting quickly enough to reduce the vulnerability of our forests.
Right now we’re in the middle of the tree planting season, and while ash tree imports may be banned, there are many other tree diseases for which the public and the industry needs some guidance in the short term. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Forestry Commission already knows enough about these increasing risks to realise that efforts to strengthen biosecurity must now be stepped up.
The final report from the Independent Panel on Forestry, for example, illustrates the build-up of diseases such as Asian longhorn beetle in broadleaved trees, Cryphonectria parasitica on sweet chestnut, oak processionary moth, acute oak decline, and other fungal diseases on a range of trees.
Even though EU regulations should prevent plants being exported from regions known to have a named pest or pathogen, the accidental import to the UK of sweet chestnut nursery stock recently from an area in France – which was supposedly free of the disease but wasn’t – shows the system simply isn’t working well enough.
As I highlighted in my previous blogpost, in light of the challenges posed, not least by the increasingly international trade in trees, the scientific community is calling for far more radical controls on biosecurity, with some tree specialists suggesting quarantine for trees such as oak and pine, and a total ban on imports where necessary.
And as set out in an early day motion that I co-sponsored, we still need guarantees from the government that there will be enough money in the pot to deal with these threats. With only a handful of tree health experts left in the UK, will the funding be forthcoming to make sure we have the necessary knowledge and expertise to recognise and deal with future outbreaks?
Together with these improvements in biosecurity and funding to match, we must also look to build greater resilience in UK woodland. This is about developing larger, richer and more diverse woodland habitats throughout the country which are far more likely to be able to cope with diseases.