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Larch Disease

Volume 527: debated on Tuesday 3 May 2011

It is very nice to have this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and it is nice to see the Minister with responsibility for agriculture here.

There is an insidious disease hitting the south-west that, if swept under the carpet, could decimate some of our most treasured ancient woodland, and cost many of the green jobs in the forestry sector that are vital to the rural economy and to the maintenance of our environment. Phytophthora ramorum is a fungus-like pathogen that is causing extensive damage and mortality to plants and trees. In particular, it has infected commercial softwoods such as Japanese larch in the south-west of England and south Wales. It was unknowingly spread by plant movements of ornamental rhododendrons to gardens across the UK.

In 2000, Forestry Commission scientists found similarities between a pathogen that had been causing leaf blotch and dieback in rhododendrons in nurseries in Germany since the early 1990s, and a pathogen in California—and subsequently in Oregon—that had caused the death of more than 1 million oak trees since its symptoms were identified in the US in 1994, gaining it the name, “sudden oak death.” In Japanese larch, the symptoms are that shoots and foliage can be affected and are visible as wilted, withered shoot tips with blackened needles, with the infected shoots shedding their needles prematurely. Trees with branch dieback may have numerous cankers on their branches and upper trunk that can bleed resin.

It is now known that Japanese larch, when actively growing in spring and summer, can produce very high quantities of disease-carrying spores, at much higher levels than those produced by rhododendrons, and they can be spread across significant distances in moist air. In August 2009, the pathogen was found to have infected Japanese larch trees at sites in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, which was an unexpected change in its behaviour. More recently, in March 2011, the disease was found in the European larch in woodlands near Lostwithiel in Cornwall. The fact that this lethal pathogen has now proved capable of infecting yet another species is a worrying development and a setback in tackling the disease, but given the similarities between the two species, experts were not surprised.

Regarding the threat to the industry, as of January 2011 some 138 statutory plant notices had been issued in the UK requiring trees to be felled due to infections on some 2,200 hectares. An estimated 1,745 hectares in the south-west are affected by the disease. That is a grave threat to our woodlands and to the 2,220 people who are employed in primary production and processing. The 15,000 green jobs in the south-west supported by the forestry sector are under threat.

Japanese and European larch, the primary victims of the disease in the south-west, are extensively used in the manufacture of garden furniture, fencing and pallets, and their value to the south-west’s economy has been estimated at £47 million. Wood prices have been hit, with landowners estimating that the disease outbreak has seen larch prices fall by 35%. Over-supply, the cost of bio-security measures and the need for the diseased timber to be handled carefully only at licensed mills has also affected profitability.

Current actions by the Food and Environment Research Agency include a strategy to control and contain the disease, reducing levels of the infective spores in the environment by felling infected plantings of the principal host—Japanese larch—as rapidly as possible. FERA is also continuing its programme of clearing infected rhododendrons from woodland and other sites. There is also an aerial survey programme in the south-west, Wales and western Britain, where the climate favours the disease, to identify possible sites of infected larch, which is then followed by contact with owners, site visits to check symptoms and laboratory testing to confirm the presence or otherwise of the disease. When the disease is confirmed, there is a programme of clearance on both private and publicly owned sites and the development of a package of short-term help for private woodland owners affected by the disease, which includes a licence system to enable the movement and processing of timber from affected larch.

Other actions include continued scientific research better to understand the disease and the overall risks to our trees, woods and forests, including the potential impacts on the UK forestry sector and its associated industries; a further survey of rhododendrons by FERA, followed up with funded rhododendron clearance agreements when appropriate; and, very importantly, encouraging owners to check their woodland, especially larch plantings, for signs of the disease and to report suspicious symptoms promptly. Owners have a legal obligation under plant health legislation to notify the authorities if they suspect that the disease is present.

Regarding the effect on the forestry industry and the Confederation of Forest Industries, felling diseased larch has accelerated the loss of productive softwood forest, and the area of such forestry is already in decline, with new planting falling to match ongoing losses. A report by South West Woodland Renaissance, a coalition of 35 sawmillers and woodland owners, warned:

“The forecast total softwood availability from the current potential productive growing stock is forecast to decrease”

by up to 50%. The loss of larch trees has caused the acceleration of lost softwood forestry, undermining local green jobs and damaging efforts to reduce carbon emissions and develop a low-carbon economy.

I turn to the felling of diseased larch and replanting. Many landowners are concerned about the considerable cost of clearing woodland of infected trees, and also that the lack of support for woodland creation is inadequate and the resource is diminishing, especially with the value of larch trees going down due to so many of the trees having to be cut down because of the disease. There is a huge disparity in the current grant system, with the grant rates providing a higher contribution to the cost per hectare of planting broadleaves than softwood, and providing no grant at all for replanting softwood in protected ancient woodlands.

May I back that up by talking about the experience of my constituent, Mr Rob White, who has lost 20 hectares of his Japanese larch under a compulsory felling notice? He is on a planted ancient woodland site and only 50% to 70% of his replanting costs would be covered—even if he planted wholly broadleaf species—and he is seriously considering the extent to which he will replant. He would, of course, like to use his common sense and replant a range of species; he has talked to me about replanting Sitka spruce and Douglas fir, which are relatively disease-resistant, and he would also like to mix in some broadleaf species. Does my hon. Friend feel that we should trust our constituents to use their common sense in that regard?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have to use our common sense and bring a mixture of trees back into these ancient woodlands, which have suffered from the destructive larch disease. From my farming background, I know that the greater the spread of varieties of tree, the lower the chance of spreading the larch disease that might still be there. I am sure that the Minister heard exactly what my hon. Friend said, and it will be interesting to see whether the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs can come up with a solution whereby we can get the forests replanted, especially the very valuable ancient woodland.

I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall; his concerns are shared by many of us. In Northern Ireland, for example, some 200 hectares of trees are under the same threat. Does he agree that trees are perceived as the lungs of the earth and that if they die, it will affect the environment as well? They are important. Does he agree that we need a co-ordinated plan that takes in not only parts of southern England but other regions such as Northern Ireland, where there has been a severe outbreak? It is clear from the evidence that the disease has jumped species.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right. It is said that such diseases often breed better in the south-west of England due to the climate, but it is amazing how, over the years, they gradually move north. Is the disease present in Northern Ireland at the moment?

The evidence from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is clear. The disease is present in 200 hectares across nine woodlands and 4 hectares of private woodland. It is a disaster for the woodland in Northern Ireland, and it is prevalent in the Republic of Ireland as well.

There are a lot of larch trees in Scotland as well. We must be concerned about the disease, which is why I am glad to have the opportunity to debate it with the Minister so that we can put the case to him. The case has been made for Northern Ireland and the south-west of England, and I will carry on. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

The industry believes that a flat-rate supplement will maintain the present imbalance of incentives, exacerbate the softwood differential and push up the cost of dealing with the disease. The Confederation of Forest Industries believes that the proposed grant system will increase the cost to the taxpayer by £1,500 a hectare. To retain a successful forestry sector in the south-west, urgent action is needed to create a more balanced grant system to allow forest owners more choice in replanting; my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) made that point. We must also listen closely to people who own and manage forests.

The Clinton Devon Estates are close to my constituency, and they have assessed what is happening with the disease. Before the involvement of His Royal Highness Prince Charles in February 2011—I understand that the Secretary of State was present at a meeting with the Clinton Devon Estates—the growing belief in the industry was that the plant health threat was poorly understood within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and that the issue was under-resourced and at significant risk of being compounded by a lack of timely action and resource.

The Clinton Devon Estates now believe that the situation is being turned around. Experts and practitioners across the field are pulling together an action plan that highlights the following: understanding and minimising plant disease threats and mitigating their risks; managing pests and diseases and mitigating their impact; a robust review of the UK’s plant import controls to learn how we inflicted the disease on ourselves, which we hope will delay future disease threats; continued resourcing of relevant Forestry Commission activities, specifically aerial monitoring and diagnostic and research work undertaken at the FC research station at Alice Holt, to provide rapid diagnostic support to field teams and resource to engage proactively with woodland owners; and adequate resourcing of rhododendron removal from the wider environment.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, many parts of the south-west have a huge number of rhododendrons. Natural England leads on the issue within DEFRA and has requested additional resources. To date, there has been no response, although I understand that the Minister is probably not entirely flush with money.

The disease needs to be treated like foot and mouth, and the equivalent of a national war room should be set up to give focus and momentum to efforts to address the threat. Unlike foot and mouth, larch disease does not represent an obvious issue to society. Therefore, it is important to keep the pressure on so that proper resources are allocated to addressing it. The proposed support measures for replanting infected woodland should be equitable to commercial softwood species and native broad-leaf planting. Significant productive areas within the south-west risk being lost, which would have a direct negative impact on the wood processing sector.

Some 11.5% of Devon, or some 77,000 acres of land, is woodland, enjoyed by all who visit it. However, a Forestry Commission survey found that 60% of Devon’s woodlands are under-managed. That is a key issue that should be addressed. I am happy that the Minister could be here for this debate, and I ask him to take these matters forward. As I said, not everybody realises what is happening to our forests as a result of larch disease, and we need to tackle it quickly. We have many rhododendrons in the west country that could spread the disease. I will be interested to hear what solutions he has.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on bringing this important issue to the attention of the House. I am happy to confirm that when I took responsibility as the forestry Minister almost a year ago and was apprised of the issue, I quickly realised its importance and the potential severity of its impact on the UK’s forests. It is right that a year on, we should be having a debate, albeit a short one, about Phytophthora ramorum, particularly in the south-west.

As my hon. Friend said, the disease was first identified in rhododendrons in this country in about 2002. It was not until 2009 that it appeared to jump species into the Japanese larch. It has appeared in other species—in Ireland it has been found in Sitka spruce—but apparently, in all such instances, the individual tree has been surrounded by highly infected rhododendron, which shows the impact of the spores. Touch wood—perhaps that is an unfortunate phrase—there is no sign that the disease is openly jumping to other species, but that is clearly the big worry.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, the matter does not affect only state forests. The vast majority of England’s forests, 80%, are not state-owned, so private forests have a serious role to play. I am sure that he will pass on my thanks to those in his constituency for how private landowners have joined the Forestry Commission and the Food and Environment Research Agency to combat the threat of Phytophthora ramorum.

My hon. Friend asked what we are doing in the widest context. I will try to address that first. DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Bob Watson, is advising us on the issues, opportunities and priorities for new research, working with others to ensure that outputs have maximum impact on what we can do and working with the Forestry Commission, FERA and the wider scientific community to develop further our strategic approach to existing and emerging plant pests and diseases, which are not unique to this country. There is an international perspective as well.

That work is setting out an agenda wider than Phytophthora ramorum to minimise the risk of new threats entering the UK, to enable us to understand more about the threats that we face, to work with society to make it more aware of threats, pathways and the risks of bringing in infection and to identify positive actions that those who manage our trees, woodlands and forests can take to improve their resilience. In addition, Forest Research, the research agency of the Forestry Commission, is, like every other public body, going through its own spending review. It has decided, rightly, to reprioritise its research work. As part of that, programmes such as biosecurity will be increased and the budget maintained.

As my hon. Friend has said, Phytophthora ramorum is not unique to this country. We do not know exactly how it came in, but it is believed to have probably come from some infected plant importation. It exists in 15 European Union member states and, as he has pointed out, the United States. In the UK, it was initially in rhododendron and the whole of that species, and it then jumped into Japanese larch. It is not so much that this is a disease of the south-west, but it appears to be a disease of larch, which is a particularly common species in the south-west—particularly Japanese larch—for the commercial reasons to which my hon. Friend has referred. Larch is an important forestry species in the south-west and in parts of Wales and the rest of England. The disease has, as my hon. Friend has said, also been found in European larch in Cornwall. I have asked whether that indicates that European larch is any more resistant, but we just do not know. It is probably because there are far more Japanese larch than European larch in the south-west.

On the Government’s strategy, whether it relates to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Forestry Commission, to deal with Phytophthora ramorum, our overall strategy on the fungal pathogen, which is the disease under discussion, is to reduce the pathogen inoculum—in other words, the spores that are produced—to an epidemiologically insignificant level by removing sporulating host plants from high-risk areas. The aim is to reduce the risk of significant tree death and other impacts. In plain English, our policy is to cut them down as quickly as possible. The point is that, while the tree is alive and standing in the wind, the fungus is sporulating and the spores spread considerably. The sooner the tree is cut down and dies, the less risk. Although the tree being on the ground and dead does not remove all risk, it dramatically reduces it. That is the fundamental objective—cut them down as soon as possible.

I should say that the timber from such trees is perfectly okay. The timber itself does not carry any disease. The bark and any foliage, however, are more risky. Bark can be burnt and used for incineration for power generation and heat and so on, but it cannot be used for mulch purposes, because of the risk that it contains disease. Small trees and useless stuff are left on the ground, because it is not cost-effective to remove them for the small risk. Once they are on the ground, the risk is much lower. That is the layman’s approach to what is happening, which is important.

Biosecurity precautions are important. Have their been any discussions with other regions in the United Kingdom and Great Britain—in other words, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales—where there have also been outbreaks, so that there is a co-ordinated plan to address the issue across the whole of the United Kingdom?

I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we are talking to bodies not only throughout the United Kingdom, but beyond. As I have said, 15 EU member states have Phytophthora ramorum. Clearly, it would be pointless for everybody to enter into their own, unique research programmes, so we are working closely with all of them on research into the disease and, as he has indicated, on biosecurity.

I have responded to my hon. Friend about our practical solutions to reduce the incidence of sporulation of the fungus, to reduce the risk of further infection. It is a massive challenge and he is right to identify the need to find out more. The Forestry Commission and FERA, together with other organisations, such as the National Trust, the Royal Horticultural Society and Natural England, are delivering a five-year, £25 million programme in England and Wales against Phytophthora ramorum. This partnership is working together to implement the measures necessary to achieve the programme’s objectives. Some of those measures are obvious and my hon. Friend has referred to them. They include the use of aerial surveillance of more than 50,000 sq km to detect symptomatic trees and to monitor progress with felling. That aerial surveillance started again a couple of weeks ago, because larch, unlike most conifers, is deciduous and we do not know when it will come into leaf until it does.

The measures also include additional funding for woodland owners to use the services of qualified agents to arrange the felling and removal of infected timber, and there has been a moratorium on felling asymptomatic larch in winter. The Forestry Commission also has statutory powers to deal with the disease, and they require the felling of infected trees on up to 2,000 hectares of private land and the public forest estate. We are also issuing licences that allow the timber processing industry to transport infected timber and utilise it in an approved manner. My hon. Friend has rightly referred to the sad fact that that has led to a reduction in the value of larch timber. I gather that it has picked up again to about 75% of its price before the disease’s outbreak, but I recognise fully that it is an issue.

That brings me to our assistance with the restocking of infected sites, which includes enhanced rates of grant aid and advice on alternative species to larch. This relates to the point that both my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) made about planting on ancient woodland sites, a number of which have been infected. We will announce shortly the new rates of grants, so I cannot use this as an opportunity to speculate on what they may be, but I can say to both my hon. Friends that we are aware of the challenges of dealing with planted ancient woodland sites. On the one hand, there is the desire for an economic return, which is why larch was there in the first place, but, on the other hand, there is considerable pressure to return them to their ancient woodland origins by using, primarily, broadleaf trees. We are trying to work out a grant system that recognises that challenge.

The Forestry Commission and FERA have regular meetings with industry associations to alert them to the various threats of the pathogens. There have been a number of reports in the media about the disease, which is helpful, and the commission maintains a series of web pages. We have talked about the problem of a number of diseases, pathogens and pests that have found their way into the UK in recent years. There is little doubt that, with increased trade, transport and, possibly, climate change, we face a higher level of challenge from those various, newly arrived organisms. We recognise that many of them may have been introduced through the international trade in plants, and we are committed to finding ways of preventing entry through that route, which brings us back to biosecurity.

A review of the European Union’s plant health regime is well under way and a number of recommendations have been made and are being considered by both the Government and industry stakeholders. A number of improvements are likely to be implemented in 2013-14. However, our import controls can be targeted only at plants and plant products that are known to pose a risk. Owing to international law, we cannot put a blanket control on all plants and trees.

It is worth mentioning that the level of infection of Phytophthora ramorum in nurseries and garden centres has been reduced significantly. Last year, only 0.16% of inspections resulted in any positive findings, which is a reduction of more than 3% since 2003. It is clearly going in the right direction. However, we may—I hate to say this, but I think it is the reality—have to learn to live with some pests and diseases, which means that we have to learn to manage them and keep them under control rather than eliminate them entirely. It will require a co-ordinated approach from our forest owners and managers, as well as our scientists, forestry experts and policy makers. It may require any of a range of different approaches, but we have to put biosecurity at the centre.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton that the Government and I take this disease extremely seriously. I am pleased that he has used the opportunity of a short debate to talk about it, describe it and challenge the Government about it. We appreciate its importance. If he or anybody he knows feels that the Government are not taking it sufficiently seriously, or has any other suggestions, I would be interested to hear from them. I am grateful to him and hope that I have been able to reassure him about the seriousness that we attach to the issue.