Confor takes plant health message to BBC

25 January 2018

Imports of high-risk plants and firewood must be brought to an end within five years to safeguard the health of UK forests, according to a new report by Confor.

The UK’s elm, larch and ash trees have all been devastated by imported pests and diseases, and there are many more which threaten both timber businesses and native wildlife.

Caroline Harrison, Confor’s England Manager, was invited to discuss the new report on Radio 4's Farming Today programme (link here - listen from 3 minutes, 19 seconds).

Asked specifically about the dangers of firewood being imported with bark, or without being fully dried, she said: "Our members are very worried about poorly regulated firewood imports coming into this country."

Confor's report, available here, notes that tests on imports found that 28 per cent of firewood and associated wood packaging material did not comply with strict import rules in 2017.

Phasing out firewood imports will have wider benefits for the health of the UK’s native broadleaf woodlands, as well as protecting them from disease. A scheme to bring woodlands into management for firewood would supply this product from home-grown sources.

Caroline Harrison said: “Managing native woodland by thinning makes them better for wildlife by diversifying their structure and allowing in light - and encourages remaining trees to grow better to capture carbon and provide quality timber.”

Another threat is imported plants in soil-filled pots, widely used by gardeners and landscapers. These enter the country with few checks or regulations and pose serious risks of containing invasive beetles, fungi, bacteria or other pathogens.

Any seedling trees imported for the forestry sector are covered by the Forest Reproductive Material regulations, ensuring traceability and control. But the sector is committed to working with policymakers to phase these out within five years.

Fiona Angier of the Confor Nursery Producers Group said, “Forest managers, forest nurseries and landowners represented by Confor are agreed that the only plant material we should be importing is seed, but achieving this requires improvements in the way forest planting is approved.

“It takes 2-3 years to grow the young trees for a new forest. But the uncertainty of forestry grant schemes often means that millions of trees must be planted within a window of a few months, and the number of trees planted fluctuates wildly from year to year. Nurseries, who often have to burn stock at the end of the season, cannot maintain large-scale surpluses in case of a shortfall, so the industry is obliged to import plants to fulfil orders.”