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Tree Diseases

Volume 573: debated on Thursday 9 January 2014

We have made rapid progress towards implementing three of the independent taskforce’s recommendations: we have produced a prioritised plant health risk register, undertaken work on contingency planning and initiated recruitment of a senior chief plant health officer. We have accepted the remaining taskforce recommendations, and we are working with stakeholders to develop a new plant health strategy, to be published this spring, which will set out a new approach to biosecurity for our plants.

Is my hon. Friend satisfied that sufficient attention is being given to import checks? Are we doing sufficient to help other countries manage the risks of pests and diseases that may be transferred in plants and woods exported to the UK, and how are we agreeing priorities for action?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. We have introduced further restrictions on, for example, the import of sweet chestnut and plane trees before the 2013-14 planting season. Our negotiators are successfully influencing the review of the EU plant health regime, which will maintain strict controls and simplify the broad range of legislation.

The Minister will know that this year is the 150th anniversary of the death of one of our greatest poets of the countryside, John Clare. He wrote a great deal about diseased trees—there was a plague of oak disease in his lifetime—and he was certainly a great defender of the English countryside. What does the Minister think John Clare would have thought of giving up our ancient woodland and replacing it with new growth?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing a cultural dimension to our proceedings so early this morning. I share his concern, and that of John Clare, for ancient woodland, and that is why the guidance is very clear. In any discussions about development, the guidance we offer to all local authorities is very clear that ancient woodland should be protected.

There are a number of threats, as my hon. Friend will know. We are of course concerned about ash, although ash dieback is a disease that takes several years to progress, and we are obviously concerned about larch as well. Across the range of species, we maintain under review all potential threats that are not yet in this country.

I want to press the Minister on the issue of protecting our ancient woodlands. Today’s written ministerial statement talks about planting lots of new trees, but does he accept that that is no replacement for the destruction of ancient trees? The quantity of new trees will not be a substitute for the diversity and quality of such woodland.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point out that, given the maturity of such ecosystems, ancient woodland has a whole range of things that new planting cannot hope to replicate. That is why the planning guidance is absolutely clear that the hierarchy should protect ancient woodland.