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Trees: Sudden Oak Death

Volume 725: debated on Thursday 10 February 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to counter the spread of sudden oak death in trees.

My Lords, the Forestry Commission and the Food and Environment Research Agency, working in partnership with other organisations, are delivering a five-year programme in England and Wales against Phytophthora ramorum. The Government take this very seriously. Infected Japanese larch is being cleared from 7,920 acres of woodland in an effort to halt the spread of the disease.

I thank the Minister for that reply and praise the work that is being done by the Forestry Commission and the other organisations involved. However, since Phytophthora ramorum jumped species into Japanese larch, is it not now spreading at an alarming rate through commercial plantations, particularly up the west side of Britain, and is this not, indeed, a potentially disastrous position? Are the Government satisfied that the resources that are being put into research, particularly into the nature, behaviour and means of preventing this disease, are sufficient?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw attention to the dangers of this disease, which I think was first discovered in viburnam. It then moved to rhododendrons and bilberries, but then, far more alarmingly, it moved into Japanese larch where it is difficult to detect other than from above by use of helicopters. We have put considerable funds into research into it. Defra is funding a five-year £25 million programme against this organism and against Phytophthora kernoviae. We will continue to assess what is happening. At the moment the advice is that the best possible policy is to fell the timber. Some of it is on Forestry Commission estate, some is on private estates. We will continue to do that as appropriate, particularly in the west of England.

My Lords, we recognise it in its early stages by identifying it flying above the woodlands because it seems to appear in the top of the larch when the larch is in needle. As the noble Baroness will know, Japanese larch is deciduous so one can identify this organism only in the summer and spring. However, we have made great progress in identifying possible areas where it occurs and then going into the woods on foot to identify it.

My Lords, it is clear that the Forestry Commission is well aware of the risks associated with not treating or responding to this disease. However, as revealed by the commission in a recent memo to staff, it is equally clear that the Government have not given it funding to deal with it. To use its words:

“There is no capacity to deal with costs of disease or other calamity”.

Why have the Government not allocated money to the Forestry Commission to deal with this very real threat, which the noble Lord has outlined? Furthermore, how do they expect voluntary groups to be able to fund these crucial activities on top of buying forests at market rates?

The noble Baroness is being somewhat misleading. I have made it very clear that we have a £25 million programme over five years to identify ways of dealing with this disease. That is the important matter. As with all plant diseases, it is then a matter for the individual owners, whether they be the Forestry Commission or others, to take appropriate action to fell that timber and sell it on the open market because it still has some value, even if that is depressed. Compensation for felling trees has never been paid, under either this Government or previous Administrations, when a plant disease of this sort occurs, and we will continue with that process. However, we think that the Forestry Commission is perfectly adequately funded to do this. Further, parts of FERA—the plant health division—are actively recruiting extra staff, particularly to identify diseases at airports and other locations, to try to prevent any more diseases of this sort coming into the country.

The south-west is one of the epicentres of this virulent infection, which one expert has said could impact on woodland management and forestry in the same way that FMD did on dairy and beef farming. Will the Minister comment on lessons, both positive and negative, that have been learnt from the way in which Dutch elm disease was handled in the 1970s?

My Lords, obviously we want to learn from that. I appreciate what the right reverend Prelate had to say. The disease is largely in the south-west at the moment and that is where most of the timber is affected. That is why we are trying to clear fell as much as possible not only of Japanese larch but of rhododendrons, which are the sporulating species that are likely to spread this disease. As the right reverend Prelate will be aware, rhododendron grows close to the ground. The Japanese larch, being tall trees, will allow this disease to spread over greater distances. That is why we are moving very fast to get as much as possible of the almost 8,000 acres felled as soon as possible.

My Lords, first it was the elm, then the oak and the horse chestnut. Is there something sinister in all this? Is it climatic and do neighbouring countries suffer from the same diseases in the same breeds of trees?

My Lords, Phytophthora ramorum appeared in this country and on the west coast of the United States at the same time. It is called sudden oak disease because in the United States it is killing off oaks in very large numbers. In this country it has affected five oaks, but it has translated itself from the rhododendron to the Japanese larch, which is a major forestry tree. That is why we are very worried. My noble friend is right to point to a number of other diseases. I refer also to acute oak decline, the oak processionary moth, the red band needle blight, which affects Corsican pine, and the horse chestnut bleeding canker. We are well aware of these dangers and are conducting research into them. We will continue to carry out all the appropriate research that we can. These diseases might result from climate change or a host of other things. The department, the Forestry Commission and FERA will continue to research all possible methods of controlling such diseases.