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Native Tree Species (Disease)

Volume 557: debated on Thursday 24 January 2013

Last October I introduced a ban on the movement of ash trees, and as recently as last week I introduced tighter controls which require notification by importers of consignments of certain oaks, sweet chestnuts and plane trees, allowing plant health inspectors to target inspections.

I instructed Professor Ian Boyd to convene the independent taskforce on tree and plant health, chaired by Professor Chris Gilligan. I welcome its interim recommendations, which presented radical ideas to safeguard Britain’s trees from disease, and I keenly await its final report, which will be published in the spring along with the updated Chalara control plan.

Hillier Nurseries, which is in my constituency, is the United Kingdom’s leading grower of trees, and one of the largest growers in Europe. Last year it supplied trees to the Olympic park. It is imperative for the control plan for ash dieback and other tree diseases to be robust and responsive, but what reassurance can the Secretary of State give the company that the Government will support a programme involving the breeding of disease-resistant trees?

My hon. Friend has asked exactly the right question. We know from scientific evidence that Chalara cannot be eradicated, but that there is likely to be a percentage of resistant trees. I have asked DEFRA’s chief scientist, Professor Ian Boyd, to work with experts in genetics, as a priority, to establish the best ways of identifying and developing the sources of that resistance. He began his work in December. We are also working closely with industry—including splendid companies like the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency—on an updated version of the Chalara control plan, to be published at the end of March.

The truth is that the Forestry Commission is in absolute chaos. A total of 530 posts have been lost, 60 of them—60!—in forest research. The Secretary of State has the gall to stand at that Dispatch Box and act as if the world is all right and what he is saying has put everything in order. That is not the case, and he needs to get a grip.

I think that there may have been a question lurking in the humbug somewhere. The fact is that we have enormously increased research on plant diseases. I pay tribute to all those in the Forestry Commission and the DEFRA agencies who conducted a totally unprecedented survey of the whole United Kingdom—2,500 pieces of land, each 10 kilometres square—and analysed where the disease had come from. We know that, sadly, it has blown in and that there is a genetic strain, and we will work with companies such as Hillier’s to find it.

16. What role does my right hon. Friend think the public can play, not only in the response to ash dieback but in our wider approach to tree health? (139078)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his much more constructive question. The public can play a key role. We know that there is a genetic strain that is resistant; we have seen it in Denmark and Holland. Organisations such as the Woodland Trust can play a vital part in helping us to identify the trees that are resistant so that we can start to breed from them.

The Secretary of State may know of my interest as chair of the John Clare Trust, which runs a campaign called Every Child’s Right to the English Countryside. The likelihood of any child’s visiting any green space is halved in a generation. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), we need an army of people to go out into our forests and woods, to act as detectors of disease, and to help us to fight it. We need that army of people to go into the country’s green spaces and act in the same way as the membership of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who are good at noticing any decline in the bird population.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is exactly the way in which we will confront some of these diseases. As I have said, a number of trees are resistant, and it would be enormously helpful if the public became involved in searching for them. There are some 80 million ash trees in the country; officials cannot spot them all, but the public can, and that could be immensely beneficial. I pay tribute to the members of the public who paid a key role during the week in which we surveyed the entire United Kingdom.