Pests and diseases now 'business as usual'

25 January 2017

Tree pests and diseases have now become “business as usual” for forest and woodland owners, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry was told.

John Wilding, Head of Forestry and Environmental Economy at Clinton Devon Estates, listed the range of pests and diseases which had blighted the business over the last decade. 

He said each one had brought new lessons, with the arrival of chalara ash dieback in the south-west raising serious questions about importing pests and diseases through young plants. 

“Pests and diseases are now very much business as usual," he said. "One real area of concern is the import of large containerised plants. Phytophthera ramorum showed that we are moving ecosystems within a pot. The plant and soil could contain untold numbers of bugs and beetles.” 

Mr Wilding, a member of the review group which reported on the P ramorum outbreak, said one positive to emerge from that period was much closer working between the private sector and the Forestry Commission’s plant health team, especially on aerial surveys which allowed early identification of the disease and a rapid response. 

Dr Kat Deeks, Biosecurity Officer for Forestry Commission England, was asked whether more could be done to prevent new pests and diseases arriving in the UK. 

"More can always be done,” she said. “But we are doing as much as we can within the resources we have.” 

Dr Deeks said there was positive evidence that the action plan put in place to tackle P ramorum was working, with the number of Statutory Plant Health Notices (SPHNs) relating to the disease falling from more than 200 in 2013 to 50 last year. The monitoring for P ramorum in 2016 involved 30 flights over forest and woodland covering 55,000 hectares, she said, adding: “The steady decrease in SPHNs since 2014 shows the P ramorum programme is having the desired effect.” 

In terms of chalara, she said almost 300 10km grid squares including 1000 sites had been assessed in 2015 and a similar number in 2015 - with half of the squares found to have trees affected by chalara.  

The latest disease, sweet chestnut blight, has been found recently for the first time in the UK in a woodland location (in Devon) - following isolated cases in 2011 and 2016. 

Dr Deeks said that the follow-up to the confirmation of the sweet chestnut blight outbreak included surveying local areas with the support of the Animal and Plant Health Agency, as well as a 'trace forward' exercise. This involved identifying the source of the affected trees - by going back to the nursery which originally supplied them 20 years ago - and trying to find other affected trees from same consignment. 

John Wilding also highlighted the threat presented from firewood imported with bark. He said he was “staggered” that this happened and added: "Kiln drying might help but standards are important. We should be de-barking imported firewood as an absolute minimum.” 

Restricting the importation of firewood is one of the plant health recommendations in Confor’s report, A Thriving Forestry and Timber Sector in a Post-Brexit World - as well as requiring phyto-sanitary certificates for all imported materials, and achieving consistent planting levels to avoid the reliance on imports. 

Confor Chief Executive Stuart Goodall said: “As Kat Deeks highlighted at the All-Party Group, many of the rules and regulations governing tree pests and diseases are European. Brexit presents clear challenges as we will need to ensure future trade arrangements do not make the import of pests and diseases more likely. 

“There is a clear issue around resources. I don't doubt that the Forestry Commission is doing its level best with the resources available. However, having lots of controls in place makes little or no difference unless we have enough people to police things - enough boots on the ground.  

"We also need to ensure that the public and those trading in wood and plant products understand the dangers and take action. At the moment, we appear to be short of resources and that means the approach is often reactive, not proactive, which makes the arrival of more pests and diseases increasingly likely.”

Pictured after the APPG Forestry meeting above are, left-right: Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive, Confor; Martyn Day MP (SNP member of APPGF); Chris Davies MP (Conservative chair of APPGF); Dr Kat Deeks, Biosecurity Officer, Forestry Commission England; John Wilding, Head of Forestry and Environmental Economy, Clinton Devon Estates; Lord Clark of Windermere (Labour Vice-Chair of APPGF)