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Ash Tree Dieback

Volume 554: debated on Thursday 6 December 2012

Further to my statement on 9 November 2012, Official Report, column 48WS, I am today setting out plans for the next few months to control Chalara and also publishing the interim report by the independent taskforce on tree health and plant biosecurity. The taskforce’s initial recommendations lay the groundwork for a radical reappraisal of what we can do to protect the UK from threats to plant and tree health.

The discovery of ash dieback caused by Chalara fraxinea in the UK earlier this year highlighted the importance of plant and tree health to our economy and environment. As well as providing direct employment in the forestry, horticulture and nursery sectors, our woods and forests provide valuable raw materials for many other uses, from wood fuel to construction and furniture-making. The value of woods and forests however goes beyond the economic. They provide habitats for a range of valuable habitats for our wildlife and places that are loved by communities for their beauty and the recreational opportunities. Individual trees on streets and in gardens enhance the local environment and people’s quality of life. Ash is the majority tree species in about 129,000 hectares of woodland out of Britain’s 3 million hectares of woodland. It represents just over 13% of all broadleaf cover in the UK.

Interim Control Plan for Chalara

This summarises the progress we have made in delivering the initial actions we set out on 9 November and outlines what further action we will take over the next few months. The scientific advice is that we will not be able to eradicate Chalara. Our objectives and actions for controlling the disease are therefore:

Objective 1—reducing the rate of spread

Maintain the ban on import and movement of ash trees;

Explore options for a targeted approach to management of infected trees by the end of March 2013;

Initiate research on spore production at infected sites;

Work with partners to publish targeted advice on movement of leaf litter.

Objective 2—developing resistance

Work across Europe to share data and experience on resistance to Chalara;

Work with research councils and other bodies in the UK to identify and prioritise research needs on resistance and ensure those needs are met.

Objective 3—encouraging public, landowner and industry engagement

Fund a feasibility study to accelerate the development of the ObservaTREE, a tree health early warning system using volunteer groups;

Develop a plant health network of trained people to support official surveillance and detection;

Continue to work with the OPAL consortium to develop the OPAL survey on tree health for launch in May 2013;

Support a biosecurity themed show garden at next year’s Chelsea flower show.

Objective 4—building resilience in the UK woodland and associated industries

Publish silvicultural guidance on adapting to Chalara;

Publish maps showing the distribution of important ash trees across Great Britain;

Work with the horticulture and nursery sectors on long-term resilience to the impact of Chalara and other plant health threats.

These actions are interim measures based on our current state of knowledge and will be updated as that knowledge develops over the coming months. Until the science becomes more certain, we will continue to apply a single, national response to the disease and the current ban on movements of ash trees in Great Britain will remain in place.

Landowners, voluntary organisations and the general public all have a crucial role to play in helping us implement this plan by identifying and managing the spread of the disease and adapting to its impact. The control plan sets out a number of actions to enable them to do this and new advice to landowners and woodland managers will be published today by the Forestry Commission alongside the control plan.

While our best hope of securing the future of the British ash tree lies with understanding the genetic variability in ash and identifying resistance to Chalara, the greatest area of uncertainty remains how we should deal with infected trees. To date we have been pursuing a policy of tracing and destroying young infected trees across Great Britain to slow the rate of spread. However, that is unlikely to be sustainable in the longer-term and there may be benefits from a more targeted approach. We will therefore work with stakeholders and experts over the coming months to explore the costs and benefits of a range of alternative approaches to slow the spread of Chalara.

I believe this approach will put us in the best possible position to respond with pace to the disease over the winter months while the disease is not spreading.

Task Force on Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity

In parallel to the work in response to Chalara in October, I asked my chief scientific advisor to convene an independent expert taskforce on tree health and plant biosecurity to assess the current disease threats to the UK and to make recommendations about how those threats could be addressed. The taskforce has produced an interim report which is also published today. Its recommendations are:

Develop a prioritised UK risk register for tree health and plant biosecurity;

Strengthen biosecurity to reduce risks at the border and within the UK;

Appoint a chief plant health officer to own the UK risk register and provide strategic and tactical leadership for managing those risks;

Review, simplify and strengthen governance and legislation;

Maximise the use of epidemiological intelligence from EU/other regions and work to improve the EU regulations concerned with tree and plant biosecurity;

Develop and implement procedures for preparedness and contingency planning to control the spread of disease;

Develop a modern, user-friendly, expert system to provide quick and intelligent access to data about tree health and plant biosecurity;

Identify and address key skills shortages.

I welcome these initial recommendations and look forward to receiving the taskforce’s final report in the spring.

I have arranged for copies of the interim control plan for Chalara and the interim report of the taskforce on tree health and plant biosecurity to be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

However, Government alone cannot address this issue. Industry, landowners, environmental groups and the wider public all have an important part to play. Over the coming months, we will continue to work with all those who can play a role in developing innovative approaches to protecting our economy and the environment from the increasing threat posed by plant pests and diseases. I will return when I have considered the final recommendations from the taskforce, setting out my plans for radical action to reform our approach to plant and tree health in the light of the taskforce’s recommendations.