Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who put their names down to speak in this debate, which comes at a slightly later hour than perhaps we expected. I declare an interest as chairman of a farming company that has woodlands and a fruit nursery.
The word “crisis” is often overused in the context of environmental concerns, but the sudden realisation that the British ash could go the way of the elm in the 1970s is without doubt the recognition of a crisis. I will start by setting out the facts as I understand them. I am sure that if I get them wrong, the many experts who are due to speak will be able to put me right. Ash dieback disease is caused by a fungus called Chalara fraxinea. The disease was probably introduced to northern Europe on nursery stocks from Asia. Over the past decade it has had a devastating effect on the ash trees of northern Europe. It was first confirmed in Britain in March 2012, on young ash trees in a nursery in Buckinghamshire. Subsequently, other sites of infection were discovered, linked to imported nursery stock from Europe.
Last month, ash dieback was identified in older, native trees in woodlands in East Anglia. I will bring noble Lords right up to date by saying that today the Forestry Commission and Defra reported that after a weekend of intense activity by volunteers and experts, Chalara had been identified in 82 locations, including 14 nurseries, 36 planting sites and 32 forests and woodlands, including some in Kent and Essex. Last Friday, the count was 52 rather than 82, so the expectation must be that as surveillance and monitoring extend, many more sites will be identified.
While cases of infection in nurseries are clearly caused by importing infected stock, cases in mature trees in woodlands in the east and south-east of England are thought to have been caused by spores that were blown from the continent, or which possibly were brought in by migrating birds. In August, the United Kingdom plant health authorities undertook a pest risk analysis on ash dieback, which concluded that once trees are infected, they cannot be cured. However, the analysis also stated that not all trees die of the infection; a number are likely to have genetic resistance. Swedish research suggests that this number might be significant.
The pest risk analysis formed the basis of a fast-track consultation that ended on 26 October. On 29 October the Government introduced a ban on ash imports and the movement of trees. At the same time, Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, was asked to convene a tree health and plant biosecurity expert taskforce. A number of companies have proposed treatment solutions for Chalara, which Defra has promised its scientists will rapidly evaluate. So much for history; I recognise that this is almost a running commentary on a fast-moving epidemic.
The public reaction has been one of disbelief that once again we have been caught by surprise by yet another threat to a native tree species from invasive pests and diseases. After the disastrous outbreak of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, when we lost more than 30 million elms to a new and more virulent fungus spread by beetles, we were challenged by a plethora of tree pests and diseases, including acute oak decline, which is of great concern, particularly in the east of England; plane wilt; chestnut blight; and bleeding canker of horse chestnut, to name just four from a much longer list. Time and again we seem to act too late. For all those diseases, as for ash dieback, we put in place policies once we had found that the diseases were already with us. What we need are measures aimed at keeping out these serious pests and pathogens and such measures need putting in place years ahead of the anticipated arrival of the disease.
We knew years ago that ash dieback was a threat. We discussed four years ago with the European Commission's standing committee for plant health whether an import ban might be appropriate, but it seems that we were not able to produce the scientific evidence to justify a ban then. Instead of a ban on imports, which we now have, we carried out a small-scale survey. By the time Defra launched its Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Action Plan in October 2011, ash dieback seems to have been relegated to a low priority. Indeed, there were plenty of problems in this country on the tree health front to deal with. This allocation plan allocated £7 million over three years to tackle tree diseases. That is not just on research, but on all other measures that might together address these issues.
Ahead of that biosecurity action plan, the Forestry Commission produced in May 2011 a revised table of top pests and pathogens that threaten tree health in Great Britain—a list of about 16 species. This listed the prioritisation criteria for potential impact for each disease: its risk or probability of entry and its expected economic, social or environmental damage. Those were the right questions to ask. The problem is that having asked the right questions no one seems to have answered the questions correctly or alerted the Secretary of State that ash dieback, although not yet thought to be in this country, like many of these other diseases, was an imminent threat, that its economic, social and environmental damage could be enormous and that we should act immediately to ban imports of ash plants. Defra got permission for the ban in October. Why on earth could the scientific evidence for justifying the ban not have been produced three or four years ago when the Horticultural Trades Association and others were asking for a ban on ash imports?
We do have a taskforce convened by Professor Ian Boyd charged with reviewing our approach to plant health. Rather than dwell on our failures in protecting plant health let me list what this taskforce now needs to recommend. Landowners and the public need to be assured that whenever a suspected incidence of an infection of whatever disease is reported, a rapid identification service will be provided. Detection and identification methods using molecular approaches such as the portable DNA tests have undergone rapid development and tight targets for response rates must be set. We need greatly to increase the surveillance, monitoring and inspection of nurseries and plantations.
The Forestry Commission has lost a significant proportion of its staff in the field. Its regional staff used to be able to spend much more time in the woodlands and forests, and they knew their forests. Likewise, its research capacity has declined. Research on pests and pathogens of trees is woefully underfunded, whether in universities or research institutes, and bears no correlation with the cost to the economy of woodland pests and diseases or to their impact on society. An assessment must be made of eradication and containment methods for ash dieback and indeed for other diseases, reviewing the role of a quarantine system for plants and plant passports for species for which the import ban does not apply. We need to develop biological control approaches such as looking for natural enemies to these new pathogens.
Trees are a long-term crop and amenity. Our approach to this sudden threat must be long term. We need to recognise that within our ash population there will possibly be some strains of ash with resistance to dieback. We need to protect this diversity. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that tree health will in future be given the priority it deserves and that if the taskforce comes up both with short-term and long-term recommendations that command the confidence of experts, the forestry sector and the public, the Government will without reservation commit to implementing those measures.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on securing this timely debate. The whole House is indebted to him. I also thank him for the erudite way in which he set the scene for the debate. When I was listening to his conclusions I found myself, not for the first time, in almost complete agreement with everything that he was saying.
In a sense, he was reminding us that we can do whatever we think we can as human beings, but if nature decides to set its mind on a particular course it is quite difficult for us to shift it from that course. However, there are things we can do and things we should have done in this case.
I empathised with the noble Earl when he said that he could not quite understand why there had been such a delay in tackling this scourge. I find it unexplainable. Even from last March, I cannot fully understand why there have been so many delays. The Government have procrastinated in this respect but I do not want to delay the House on that at this stage. There are a number of questions which I hope the Minister will be able to assist us with today to help us to try to understand what went wrong and how we can put it right.
The noble Earl and government Ministers have said that there is a ban on the import of ash trees and ash saplings into Britain. I ask in all innocence whether this is actually the case. In an article in the Guardian on Saturday a horticultural trade individual was reported as saying that there was not a complete ban, only that trees were not allowed to be imported into this country from areas where the disease exists. Can it be absolutely clarified that no ash trees are coming into this country and that the report in the Guardian is incorrect? We need to nail that, if it is not true, right at the beginning.
There is also a report today that the grower, Simon Ellis of Crowders in Lincolnshire, is threatening to sue the Government. He claims that even after the disease was discovered in his nurseries, he was not allowed to destroy the plants and that the disease spread even further in this period. Is that also the case?
Another point I would like to clarify is the position about the burning of ash. One way to mitigate the cost, if it is possible, is to burn ash. As noble Lords know, ash is a fine wood for burning and is in great demand. There may be problems with burning ash that has been affected, but what about the burning of ash that has not been affected? Will the market be allowed to carry on?
On a more strategic front, this episode and this disease has brought to our attention the inadequacies of the European Union rules on animal and plant health. This again is a point raised by the noble Earl. I hope the Government will enter into negotiations with the European Union to make it quite clear that member nations must be allowed to close their borders if they feel that animal or plant health is being affected.
I also associate myself with what the noble Earl said about the strain and the stress being put on members of the Forestry Commission, and Forest Research in particular. Forest Research has the reputation of being at the forefront of all research dealing with plant pathogens and tree health. It has suffered very badly from swingeing cuts, and this cannot have helped us in our efforts to try to contain not only this disease but a host of other diseases affecting a whole range of our trees in Britain.
Clearly this is a natural phenomenon but the Government can—and must—take some action to mitigate its full effect if that can actually be achieved.
I add my thanks to the noble Earl for initiating this extremely important debate.
I was walking yesterday in woodland in Surrey, where the trees were just about holding on to their autumn glory. It was a delight that others far more eloquent than I have sought to articulate. It was Kipling who wrote:
“Of all the trees that grow so fair,
Old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn”.
Yesterday’s walk was rather more poignant than usual, given the threat to the 80 million ash trees—one-third of all the trees that make up our woods and hedges—from the virulent fungal disease that is sweeping across Europe and is now here in Britain.
On these Benches, we welcome the Government’s pledge to do all they can to contain this devastating disease. As we have heard, last week they announced the import ban on ash saplings and restrictions on movements, and on Saturday we had the emergency meeting of the COBRA committee.
However, at the moment there seem to be far more questions than answers, although it is probably true to say that that is also the case in other countries such as Denmark, where 90% of ash trees have been affected. No doubt, tonight others will focus on whether enough was done soon enough and indeed what was known when and by whom. I will focus on the need for a pragmatic response to this disease right now.
First, I will focus on the international trade in trees and the urgent need to step up biosecurity measures. It takes the outbreak of a disease, such as foot and mouth in 2001, to put a spotlight on the trade in the products we consume. Over recent years we have watched designer gardening programmes on TV and lusted over exotic and large trees, which just slot into our gardens fully grown, without a thought for where they are grown or how they get here. We do not ask whether a “British” tree is actually grown here, when in fact many are grown on from saplings in Holland, where they can grow trees more cheaply, or question the “I want it now” consumerism that is satisfied with fully grown trees shipped here from China with 1,000 litres of soil around them—a modern-day black Pandora’s box.
We need some firm outcomes from the summit on the tree trade that the Government have announced for later this week: tighter biosecurity measures as well as ways to harness the power of consumers. Other sectors have used labelling or charter marks to change supplier behaviour, driven by consumer demand, such as the RSPCA’s Freedom Food or Fairtrade products, and we need some sort of charter mark to build public confidence in the provenance of tree products, as well as helping them to be part of the solution to the growing problem of diseases affecting our trees.
Secondly, there is a need for far greater co-operation with our European partners. I know that this idea may not find favour in some quarters of this House, but more than 30 alien insects and mites, fungi, bacteria, viruses, diseases, pathogens and invasive plants are expected to reach Europe in the next few years. That tidal wave means that we have to work together to create a strategic response.
As Martin Ward, chief plant health officer at Defra’s Food and Environment Research Agency, said last week,
“We need a much better early warning system to know what is coming in to Europe … It will call for more surveys, contingency planning and better regulation of the movement of plants within the EU”.
He went on to say,
“Unless we have better biosecurity in the EU and Europe it will be very difficult to stop them coming in ... and it is very terrifying what is out there”.
Thirdly, there is a need for a rapid response to help with disease identification, as the noble Earl said. I understand that the Suffolk Wildlife Trust believes that ash trees in some of its reserves are affected, mainly in the western part of Suffolk. It has sent in samples, but there is an up-to-four-week delay in identification. Defra has some PCR machines, which provide rapid, on-site diagnostics. Does the Ministry have plans to roll out more of those machines, given the delays in diagnosing the disease at the moment?
Fourthly, there is the need for clear communication to woodland owners and managers and the public about how to respond to the disease. In recent years, ash has become a popular choice for small woodland owners. It is fast growing, strong, flexible, good for burning and, I understand, makes rather fashionable furniture. Organisations such as the charity the Small Woods Association are asking for best practice instructions about the disposal of bought-in nursery and diseased stock and are asking practical questions, such as: Does cutting, burning or deep burial provide any control benefits? If the leaves are burnt, does that put small spores out into the atmosphere?
Communication must be a top priority. Of course we need more forest research, including at a European scale, but the Forestry Commission needs to be resourced to act as a first port of call to the public and those seeking advice. It would be fair to say that, having looked at the Forestry Commission website on a regular basis over the past week, it could definitely be more user-friendly in that regard. There is a strong case for investment in the Forestry Commission to become a more public-facing agency with a public call centre capacity to respond to the increasing public interest and reporting of tree diseases.
We know that more diseases, such as ash dieback, will come to Britain in the coming years as a result of a combination of climate change, international trade and other factors. Some may die out, but others may spread rapidly, like Dutch elm disease or more recent diseases such as the widespread acute oak decline, so there is much at stake. If ash dieback takes hold, that loss of ash alongside oak in our woodlands and forests will be devastating. More than that, our trees are the stitching which holds together the patchwork quilt of beauty that is our English countryside. If that stitching unravels, the loss to us all will be immeasurable.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Earl for initiating this debate. I declare my interest as a trustee of the Tree Council, a body that emerged from the disaster of Dutch elm disease, which destroyed between 25 million and 30 million elms. In 1973, National Tree Planting Year was launched—“Plant a Tree in 73”—with cross-party support in an effort to engage the public and repopulate the land with trees. On 1 January 1974, the Tree Council was formed to continue the encouragement of planting, care and conservation of trees and to act as a critical friend and adviser to Governments.
In 1979, After the Elm was published in collaboration with the Tree Council in an effort to identify and benefit from the lessons of Dutch elm disease. Its conclusions included that controls had worked most effectively when organisations worked together strategically on a regional basis rather than being locally organised; that the amount of funding dedicated to the fight had been inadequate; and that lay members of the public were crucial in the work to identify the spread of the disease.
In 1987, the great storm wiped out millions more trees, literally overnight. Just as the Tree Council was spawned from the Dutch elm disease response, the Tree Council’s volunteer tree warden scheme came into being as a direct result of that, a different sort of tragedy. Today, we have about 8,000 tree wardens, unsung heroes, across the UK, a wonderful example of the big society at work. The volunteer tree wardens work in their communities to educate, engage and enthuse people about trees, as well as taking practical steps to improve local environments. I pay tribute to them and to our director-general, Pauline Buchanan Black, and her team who support them. On 28 November, we will be celebrating this year’s National Tree Week and the contribution of tree wardens here, in your Lordships’ House, with the Minister from the other place, David Heath MP.
At this time of a new disaster for trees in this country, the Tree Council is ready and willing to help. We have been briefing all the networks of tree wardens on what to look out for and how to report it. They have been sending in vitally important reports to the Forestry Commission on suspected outbreaks of ash dieback. Too many plant diseases and pests have been introduced into or taken hold in this country over the past 10 years: sudden oak death, acute oak decline, oak processionary moth, Asian longhorn beetle, leaf miner and bleeding canker. Estimates suggest that there are at least 80 million ash trees across the UK. If the disease follows the same progress as in Denmark, we stand to lose around 90% of our ash trees over the next nine years. That is 72 million trees: a disaster on a scale up to three times worse than Dutch elm disease.
The important issue now is not to apportion blame but to take effective action to minimise the impact not just of this disease but of each of the threats to tree health that have found their way to these shores in the past decade. The Tree Council, its member organisations and thousands of volunteers will all play their part. However, it will also be important to revisit the lessons learnt from this and earlier experiences and to find ways of ensuring that they are retained in the collective memory and mainstreamed into action plans that will continue to be followed and updated regularly to protect our tree stock in the future. Trained volunteers will be critical to the success of any plan. The Tree Council’s tree wardens are already on the case but need to be integrated within long-term strategies. The scale of this threat must not be underestimated by the Government. Once again, we face landscape changes on an almost unimaginable scale. This is a time not for blame but, as in 1973, for collaboration and action. We must all do our utmost to prevent any similar disaster in the future.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Earl on securing this timely debate. Nothing could be more timely. This is a very sad debate; the ash tree is dear to us all. It plays a major part in our landscape, both rural and urban. “Ash Grove” is a beautiful melody. Ash timber made our hockey sticks and, for those who remember them, the framework of Morris Minor estates. As has already been mentioned, it makes the most wonderful firewood in the world. I come to this debate from both an emotional and a professional standpoint: emotional since I am very fond of all trees, particularly ash, and professional because many years ago I ran my own forestry company and later, while a Member of Parliament, I was for a while the president of the Arboricultural Association.
Since “Plant a tree in ’73”, we have as a nation, happily, become obsessed with tree planting. Milton Keynes new town was called the city of the trees and our burgeoning roadside verges, roundabouts and housing schemes are testament to this, not to mention our very ambitious new forests. Demand has hugely outstripped supply; hence the mass importation of trees by landscapers and garden centres. The position is further confused by two factors. First, to protect themselves against last-minute cancellations on a large scale that would leave them with unwanted trees on their hands, many UK nurserymen have used foreign suppliers as a kind of bank to draw on rather than growing the trees themselves. Secondly, UK seed has been grown abroad and then reimported as plants in order to try to preserve the UK provenance. In any event, we have seen importation of trees on a massive scale, with 5.5 million ash trees alone in the past few years and millions and millions of trees of other species. This should have indicated quite clearly to those people responsible the need for constant vigilance, the strictest possible controls and, if necessary, immediate and direct action.
One of our greatest blessings is that we are an island nation. Surrounded by sea, we have been able to control our plant and animal health in a way that other European countries cannot. It appears that we are squandering that precious advantage. This disease was known about in Europe. Either lack of communications or bungling bureaucracy, or both, have in this case had catastrophic consequences. This disease may—I stress may—have been blown into our country. What we know for certain is that it was brought in by lorry when it could have been kept out, and that is unforgivable.
Dutch elm disease came from Canada. We have a disease in oaks that is thought to have come from Italy. There is a disease of plane trees which is currently a serious problem in France, where they are having to fell large numbers. Unless we are to suffer from these kinds of disease in the future, a whole new look at the way in which trees are imported into this country must be instigated and perhaps more consideration given to the increased use of home-grown stock.
To make vigilance really effective, communications with everyone in the industry are essential. The Forestry Commission should have its finger on the pulse—and, as has been said, be properly financed—while the Forest Research centre and Alice Holt do invaluable work. On the ground in this case, though, it was the Horticultural Trades Association that really knew what was going on as far back as 2009. It knew because its members told it. They should have been listened to, and must be in future. In the same way, the Arboricultural Association membership includes tree surgeons operating throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. They are the first to see problems, particularly in established trees. Both those groups must be listened to. It was foresters and tree surgeons who first spotted Dutch elm disease in this country and in that case, too, the Government were too slow to act.
In trying to see the way ahead, it is both too late and too early—too late to prevent the entry of the disease but too early to fully understand the ramifications of its arrival. A ban has been imposed to stop any more diseased ash entering the country, and steps are being taken urgently to establish how far the disease has spread. It ought to be possible to collect and destroy all diseased nursery stock that has not yet been planted out. For the time being, established and mature trees can only be monitored and their survival patterns studied, removing them completely when dead. This raises the question of disease transmission by timber logs, as has been mentioned, although I understand that this is unlikely.
Hygiene precautions, where practicable, may help with controlling leaf spread and so on. That is difficult to enforce, though, and I suspect it would have only a limited effect. Injecting trees is not a practical solution, given the scale of the problem—even if the method were available, which it is not. The cordon sanitaire system would be equally useless, given the distance that spores can blow, and would only be a waste of time, money and healthy trees.
All these negatives just go to show how crucial it is not to let diseases like this into the country in the first place. However, all is not lost; beware the prophets of doom; hope springs eternal. This is not Dutch elm disease, which was very different in its method of spread and always fatal. Even in Denmark, not all the ash trees are dying. Ash trees are ubiquitous in this country; they seed like weeds, grow through cracks in the pavement, establish themselves quickly and, as any gardener will tell you, are tenacious. I believe and sincerely hope that they will prove resistant to this new fungus in sufficient numbers to ensure their place in our towns and countryside in the years ahead. We must do all that we can to help them and to take steps urgently to ensure that this kind of disastrous European invasion never happens again.
My Lords, an unexpected change in the business of the House has meant that in the quiet of the evening in your Lordships’ House we have had a debate of quite exceptional quality and of importance to our country. I congratulate most warmly my noble friend Lord Selborne on his excellent introduction to this debate. With regard to both the noble Lord, Lord Best, with his particular involvement in the Tree Council, and my noble friend Lord Framlingham with his expertise, the House has already produced a debate of exceptional quality and importance. If I exclude the noble Lord, Lord Clark, it is simply because, as chairman of the Forestry Commission, I was disappointed that he decided to refer exclusively to the present year when, among everybody looking at this, there is real concern in the country as to what has been going on for some years about identifying it. Nobody in this country can pretend that we are not aware of the problem of imported disease of one sort or another. We have lived through Dutch elm disease; we live with sudden oak death and the problems of the larch, the beech and the horse chestnut. We are familiar with these problems. There is real anger in this country that there has not been an earlier identification of this problem. I looked at this. If trees were dying in Poland in 1992; if the pathogen, the asexual fungus as it is referred to, was identified in 2006; if the sexual stage of the fungus was identified in 2010; and if the Horticultural Trade Association warned Hilary Benn of the scale of this problem in 2009, what has actually been going on?
Perhaps I should have done so at the start but, in the face of much greater knowledge that has already been expressed, I declare my interest. My family own some woods in which ash is the predominant species; the natural regeneration in those woods is ash. We view the present situation with enormous alarm. We got a letter from the Forestry Commission, sent out late in October to all wood owners, saying that it will treat the fungus as,
“‘quarantine’ plant pathogen, which means that we can take legally enforceable action to contain or eradicate the fungus when it is found. This is being done by using Statutory Plant Health Notices which we serve on site owners. The Notice requires the owner of the land to remove and destroy affected plants by burning or deep burial on site”.
Does that apply to all ash? Does that apply simply to seedlings? Does it apply to young saplings? What does it apply to? There is this sort of confusion and difficulty at the moment.
I say to my noble friend, in congratulating him upon his appointment to his new position, that he has arrived at an interesting and challenging time; “May you live in interesting times”, as one might say. I say to him that I do not blame the Government for the origins of this. I do not blame them for the failure to identify it much earlier, but they do now have a major challenge on their hands. The noble Lord, Lord Best, made that very clear. He said that there were 72 million ash trees in this country; that will be two or three times the scale of Dutch elm disease. This is an issue now of enormous concern in the countryside. I am absolutely convinced that it was right to debate it tonight. I understand entirely why my noble friend may not be able to answer all the questions that have been asked tonight, but I hope that he at least draws from this debate the sense of the enormous concern in the countryside and throughout the country. We see the Forestry Commission saying that people should wash their boots and watch where they go. Are we going to ban all access to woods? Are we going to ban bridle paths, footpaths and ruts, as they are called? What are we going to do?
Obviously, we will have on Wednesday a better picture of the scale of the spread of this fungus and the difficulties that it may pose. However, I do not think that anybody should underrate the challenge that the Government now face, and the importance of taking early action to address it.
My Lords, I join those who have already congratulated the noble Earl on having introduced this debate. He did so with the clarity and incisiveness that I so came to admire when I had the privilege of serving under him in a Select Committee. I do not believe that I am alone in saying that, as I became aware of this disease and its implications, I had a real sense of foreboding and a great sense of sadness.
I came to this debate thinking of the words of a folksong:
“Down yonder green valley where streamlets meander
When twilight is fading, I pensively rove
Or at the bright noontide in solitude wander
Amid the dark shades of the lonely ash grove”.
Having lamented the passing of his loved one, he concludes:
“She sleeps ‘neath the green turf down by the ash grove”.
This is central to our tradition and culture. What is happening really is a tragedy.
As has been stressed, we also have to recognise that this is not about the ash alone: we already have what is attacking the oaks. We already know—the noble Earl and others have underlined it—that we have to look carefully at the implications of what this disease may have as it transmutes and transfers to trees of other species.
At short notice, the Country Land & Business Association produced an interesting brief for this debate. The CLA underlines:
“Information about Chalara was slow to get out to the wider landowning sector which means that we are now trying to identify infected trees when in many cases the leaves have already fallen, making it much more difficult. The CLA has called on all its members to check their ash trees for signs of the disease and to inform the Forestry Commission if they are at all concerned about the health of their ash trees”.
“If there is a realistic chance that we can contain and then eradicate the disease then it may be worth applying some quite draconian control measures”.
My only argument with the CLA in that paragraph is: why “quite draconian”? Draconian measures will be needed. The CLA briefing continues:
“We must not unnecessarily waste a valuable ‘renewable’ resource by just burying or burning it in a field. If it can be used even if only as firewood then we must allow it to go into the firewood supply chain”.
I would slightly question that. In a grave situation of this kind, we must not start moderating. We have to do the really drastic things that have to be done.
The CLA points out that at present:
“The UK’s trees are under threat from some 15 tree diseases including Acute Oak Decline and Oak Processionary Moth and we must tackle Chalara as part of a much wider strategic plan to save our woodlands … Chalara … represents a real and immediate threat to our woodlands and landscape but we must take a pragmatic and proportionate response”.
Again, I would slightly argue with the CLA. “Pragmatic and proportionate” sounds like prevarication or possible prevarication.
We really have to get on with the job. This is an emergency. We have to pull out all the stops. There is clearly a key role for the Forestry Commission in this matter. It is no time to be cutting back the human resources of the Forestry Commission when challenges of this order are becoming clear. We need to mobilise statutory and voluntary organisations and professional and volunteer personnel alike. We have to make certain that advice is given to everyone who could be involved, not least ordinary people in ordinary, simple homes who may have an ash tree in their garden. All of them have a part to play.
We cannot hold back. We must get on with the job. I hope that we will learn from this. We were discussing this in the previous debate. We very quickly must start to give the same kind of priorities to the preservation of our environment and our inheritance as we give to all the pressures for getting on with planning, streamlining planning and the rest. A lot is at stake in our society at the moment. We are neglecting the qualitative dimensions at our cost and at a perilous cost to our children and future generations.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on securing this debate. He and other noble Lords who have spoken have brought a lot of expertise to bear on this issue, so I shall just stick to a couple of points. First, this is not just a European issue; it is a global issue. I can go back as far as June 1987 to the New York Times headline that says “Unstoppable disease killing New York ash trees”. It goes on to say:
“Scientists first noticed it in the 1930s and believe that ‘ash dieback’ has progressively spread throughout the northeastern states and parts of eastern Canada”.
So it has gradually been circling the globe. Of course, we do not know exactly when it got to Europe, but we know that it is spreading here. We are not sure how it is borne, whether as noble Lords have said it is blown or carried by birds or imported in saplings. The fact is that the global movement of people and animals, as my noble friend Lady Parminter graphically put it, has created something that is really out of control. That does not mean to say that we should not try to do something about it—but in the long term we need to look to the seed banks. The noble Earl mentioned that in his introduction. I would like to agree with him very strongly on that, because there will no doubt be ash trees that are resistant and there will no doubt be the opportunity to breed from them. That is the long-term programme that we need to pursue, not just for ash trees but for oak trees and pine trees and all our woodland. We need to collect the seed from those resistant trees and breed trees for the future.
With other noble Lords, I join in looking forward to a revival of the Forestry Commission’s research programme, which was rather cut back over recent years. This should be a major part of what we do, together with the seed banks at Kew and the Natural History Museum, with all the expertise that sits in those two places. If there is one thing that we know, it is that native trees over centuries and millennia built up resistance to local pests, diseases and fungal infections. With the global movement, completely different ones, to which they have no natural resistance, have entered the country. That is what we need to deal with. In the long term, it can be dealt with only by developing these resistant strains. So while I welcome the suggestions that other noble Lords have made about controlling the disease if we can in the short term, we must look to the long term.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has spoken much good sense. I declare an interest, in that I am a Suffolk farmer. I had the e-mail from the CLA on Friday and we spent the weekend having a look at our ash trees. Today at about 12 o’clock, I sent an e-mail to the Forestry Commission to say that we had found fairly extensive cases of what looks extremely like the ash disease. What is interesting is that there were unhealthy trees in hedges and woods that were next to other ash trees that were completely healthy. That suggests that there is selective immunity. I would be delighted if any scientists from the Forestry Commission want to come and look at us, but I think that in much of Suffolk there is probably a good deal of this ash disease.
I slightly wonder whether it is a new disease. The Forestry Commission produced a very good video, which I watched this morning. Others may have seen it too. One characteristic is that inside the ash there is black wood. Ever since I was a child ash trees have sometimes suffered from having black wood inside. In fact, the story goes that if you want to use white ash to make furniture, you should take ash which grows near water as ash which has its feet in water is more likely to be cleaner than other ash.
We have already heard from other noble Lords that a lot of these diseases have been around for a very long time. We know about the other diseases that have been referred to. There is a lesson for the Government here as regards the structure of government and their priorities.
I have one or two other interests to declare. I am the president of the Suffolk Preservation Society. I was a member of the Countryside Commission for 12 years, a member of the Rural Development Commission for eight years and I was chairman of CPRE for five years. I feel very strongly that there is a real place for quangos. A quango is a body of professional people who have outside people monitoring and focusing their efforts. The function of a quango is to advise government on what to do. It is not a pressure group. CPRE is an unashamed pressure group. The Countryside Commission was not a pressure group. I think it was a mistake to amalgamate all these quangos. It has been done over a period of years. The Countryside Commission, the Rural Development Commission, the NCC and English Nature are now all called Natural England. One of the reasons it was a mistake is that the governing body is comprised of part-time people and the responsibilities are too wide for them to cover them all. That means that the staff do not focus and the right advice is not given to government and therefore government does not take action at the right time. There might well be a case for reinventing or recreating one or two of these bodies which were so crucial to maintaining the countryside that we all love.
I wish to make two other points. Dutch elm disease was spread by a beetle but there is some immunity. On the whole elm trees grow to about 17 feet and then they seem to die back. However, they are still perfectly good hedge trees. I do not think that a policy of rooting out diseased ash trees is likely to work or necessarily be the right thing to do. If ash trees are cut down they make very good firewood and I do not agree that they should not be burnt in people’s fireplaces but in a field.
The other thing that worries me is that I have heard Ministers quoted as saying that people should disinfect their boots. That is nonsense. We have never had more deer in our countryside than we have now. We have badgers, birds and the pheasant, introduced originally by the Romans as your Lordships know. We have many things that can move the disease, including feet. We should remember an important fact that is pretty damned obvious but seems to have been forgotten when people talk about cutting off bits of the countryside, which is that one of the primary functions of the countryside is to produce food. Can we imagine it being possible to close down parts of the countryside? At the moment we are short of food and food production is a primary function of the countryside, so we should not take foolish, apparently populist, action. We should think carefully and hope that the body to which my noble friend Lord Selborne referred—I am delighted that it has been set up—receives some good sensible advice from farmers, countrymen and people who know about the countryside. I am optimistic. I think that our countryside will survive. We have a multiplicity of different trees. Nature has an amazing way of coping. Sad though it was to lose so many elm trees, I do not believe that our English countryside is any less beautiful than it was 40 years ago.
My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, is to be congratulated on securing and introducing this important debate so effectively. As others have said, it has been a high-quality debate, even at this late hour. In among the shambles of the Government’s handling of business in this House, it is most welcome that we have time to debate the future of such an important feature of the British landscape.
As others have said, this is a subject that the public care deeply about. We saw that over the forest privatisation proposals and I have seen it in the last 24 hours on this issue. Yesterday morning I tweeted:
“I am speaking in tomorrow’s Lords debate on the future of the British ash tree. What questions do you want me to ask the minister?”.
I have been inundated with responses—the biggest reaction to a single tweet that I have ever had. Having discovered something close to crowd-sourced opposition and direct democracy even in the House of Lords, I will try to base my contribution on what the public have said to me in the last 24 hours.
Several wanted me to focus on action now and into the future. I will try to do this, but I would like first to put on record my understanding of the chronology of the disease in this country. In 2009, as has been said, the Horticultural Trades Association warned that we should have a ban. The Forestry Commission and Defra scientists reflected the latest international scientific opinion of the time that the disease was actually a mutant of a pathogen already endemic in Britain. However, in 2010 the science changed. Chalara fraxinea was identified then as a new pathogen, named Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus and, as late as autumn 2011, the Forestry Commission confirmed that Britain was clear of the pathogen. It was then discovered in imported saplings in February this year.
Many correspondents to me want to know why the Government did not ban imports at that point. Why did we have to wait until infection reached trees in the wild? Given that this disease has had such a catastrophic effect on ash trees in continental Europe, should we not have been more sensitive to the threat? Given that, as Defra’s chief plant health officer, Martin Ward, said today:
“Aerial spread does not happen until the summer”,
would it not have been wise to impose the ban at the start of the summer? As Tony Juniper asked me:
“Why were we importing ash trees when there are hundreds of millions in the UK already? Which other native trees are at similar risk?”.
The subject of other species takes us on to the capacity of the Forestry Commission to deal with this threat. The commission’s February 2011 staff consultation document on redundancy, following its 25% cut in funding, said, under high-level risks on page 24:
“There is no capacity to deal with costs of disease or other calamity. (e.g. Phytophthora is currently an unfunded pressure for 2011/12.) Mitigation: ensure full awareness of this loss of capacity”.
Forest Research, which is part of the Forestry Commission, is losing 60 out of a total of 222 staff over the CSR period: a cut of 28%. Thirty-eight of these staff have already gone. I would be interested to know how the Minister squares this with what his ministerial colleague, David Heath, said in the other place: that there had been no cut-back in resources applied to plant health and tree health in this country. The seriousness of this is reinforced in an interesting blog by Gabriel Hemery:
“During 2012 alone tree scientists at Forest Research have had to face an Asian longhorn beetle outbreak, sweet chestnut blight, and ash dieback. This is in addition to oak processionary moth, Phytophthora ramorum in Larch, and acute oak decline that were already big-enough problems to tackle”.
We have also, over the weekend, read of raised concerns that Scots pine is under threat from similar pathogens. Can the Minister give reassurance that not only is there sufficient protection for the scientific resource needed to work on Chalara fraxinea but that it will not be at the expense of our resilience to other disease outbreaks that could potentially arise? I suggest to him that if this is serious enough to convene COBRA last Friday—and it is—then it has the attention of the whole of Government. Now is the very best time to demand more resource from the Treasury to fund the research and monitoring that this crisis needs.
Most other questions relate to the science. Lithuania, where 99% of ash were lost to the disease, has had success in developing resistant strains of ash. Does the import ban apply to resistant strains of the species? Is the further destruction of ash trees in this country going to be sensitive enough, as others have said, to retain those trees displaying a resistance, given that there is considerable diversity in our ash stock? Are the Government instigating an intensive breeding programme of pathogen-resistant trees? Is there a role for genetic modification? What does the science tell us about the spread of the disease? If felled trees are burned, how do we prevent spores spreading through smoke plumes? If the disease has been carried across the North Sea on the wind or by birds, as the Government claim, will washing our boots—or, for that matter, our children—have any effect? If walkers’ biosecurity is a serious risk, will there be provision for the public to disinfect their footwear, as with the foot and mouth outbreak? Finally, would it be sensible, as the noble Lord, Lord King, mentioned, for forests with high numbers of ash trees to be closed to public access?
This is fast developing into a catastrophe for our natural environment. The ash tree is an iconic part of the British landscape and we should all be doing what we can to monitor the disease and follow scientific advice on how best to combat it. At a time when so many of our tree species are under threat, when we increase risk by importing so much horticulture, now is the time to value plant science, invest in urgent research, work with European partners and value expertise. I look forward to the Minister’s reassurance.
The noble Lord talked exclusively about the present year and the past year. Has he nothing to say about how it could be that a disease that is well established and was recognised in the continent of Europe some 15 years ago could not be identified, and why the precautionary principle that one would think would be important in these issues and the need to take action were not recognised? Will the noble Lord comment on that, because he is otherwise in danger of making what could have been a valuable contribution appear to be too much party-political?
I am delighted to contribute, although I ran out of time some time ago and it is always amusing to be accused of being party-political by the noble Lord. However, I refer him to an article in the New Scientist, dated 31 October, by Andy Coghlan, in which he talks through the science. It is clear that the science changed in 2010. It is also clear that Ministers were not consulted by officials in 2009. That is something we can discuss at a later date. I am looking forward to the Minister’s reassurances.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Selborne and all noble Lords for their extremely helpful contributions in this debate.
The ash is one of our most recognisable trees and we have about 80 million of them in our country. This debate focuses on the dangers to them posed by Chalara fraxinea, but of course it goes much wider. I must declare an interest as a grower of trees, including ash. The Government are taking the threat posed to the British ash tree extremely seriously. Let me start by setting out very clearly the current situation, our scientific understanding and the action we are taking. Ash dieback is a disease caused by a fungal pathogen that has devastated ash across northern Europe. With ash trees representing 5 per cent of Britain’s woodland cover, the potential impact of this disease on our landscape is significant.
I am going to try to avoid being party political, but before 2010, the scientific evidence in Europe indicated that the organism responsible for ash dieback disease was one that was already widespread and native in Great Britain. This precluded the use of import restrictions as a means of control. In 2010, new scientific evidence was published which correctly identified the pathogen that caused the disease. Between 2009 and 2012 the Forestry Commission inspected 15,000 individual ash trees across the country located in more than 8,000 groups. Of these, 103 trees were discovered to be in ill health. None of these was identified as caused by Chalara.
In February 2012, a routine nursery inspection discovered Chalara, and this finding was confirmed on 7 March. Immediately, the UK plant health authorities deployed additional resources to carry out trace-forward inspections of material known to have been supplied from the infected nurseries. Over the summer, 1,000 at-risk sites were identified and 100,000 saplings were destroyed. In parallel, the authorities developed a pest risk analysis, required, as noble Lords know, as the basis for intervention. Once completed, this analysis was fast-tracked into a shortened consultation to discover the extent of Chalara in Great Britain. During this time, the industry instituted a voluntary moratorium on imports of ash planting material, and I offer it my strong thanks.
On Friday 26 October, this consultation closed. From the early afternoon of Monday 29 October, the movement of ash from anywhere that is not a certified pest-free area—right now, nowhere has that label—became a criminal offence in time for the start of the main UK planting season at the end of November. During the consultation period, Chalara was confirmed in the wider environment in East Anglia. These trees had no apparent connection to nurseries and suggested the presence of Chalara in Great Britain for quite some time. It is possible that this infection was caused by spores blown by the wind from continental Europe, but further investigation is ongoing.
I turn now to the current situation. As my noble friend Lord Selborne said, this morning’s situation report confirmed Chalara in 14 nursery sites, 36 sites where ash has recently been planted and 32 sites in the wider environment. Over the weekend, we have confirmed that, in addition to the cases in the wider environment in East Anglia, there are also cases in Essex and Kent.
Our scientific understanding suggests that Chalara is not currently spreading. The period of spore release is normally the summer. In the winter, the main method of spreading the disease would be movements of ash material. This, as I have said, is now banned. As ash leaves fall to the ground, there exists a risk, although it is rated as low, of the spread of the disease through the long-distance movement of leaf litter on, for example, boots and tyres. In answer to my noble friend Lord King, we have no intention of unwarranted closure of woodlands to those who wish to enjoy them, but we ask woodland visitors to ensure that they take appropriate precautions when leaving woodland.
Our understanding of Chalara continues to develop. Last Thursday, Defra Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Ian Boyd convened a group of international experts to understand better the epidemiology of Chalara fraxinea. We are dealing with considerable biological uncertainty but we are determined to make the best use of the science available to tackle this pathogen.
I will perfectly understand if the Minister cannot answer this question now, or he may like to put a letter in the Library. He made an interesting point about why this was not identified earlier. In a sense, it was. Something that had killed 90% of the ash trees in Poland was thought to be a pathogen that was already widespread and established in this country. But we did not lose that number of trees at that time. How was it that something that killed all those trees in Poland could be thought to be widely established even if it did not kill any trees in this country?
My Lords, I am not sure that I shall be able to answer my noble friend’s question entirely. I said that before 2010, the scientific evidence indicated that the organism responsible for Ash dieback disease was one that was already widespread and native in this country. But new scientific evidence was published in 2010 which correctly identified that that was not the pathogen and that a different pathogen caused the disease. I hope that that is helpful.
Professor Boyd concluded that: spores are mainly dispersed by wind during the summer; transportation of leaf litter should be avoided; Chalara will infect any form of ash, so exotic species in which Chalara is not pathogenic could act as vectors; latency from infection to overt disease is a matter of months; wood products would not spread the disease if they were treated appropriately using simple methods; trees probably need quite high doses of spores to be infected and may only become infected under specific conditions that are currently not understood; data from Norway suggest a spread rate of the infection front of 30 kilometres per year; once infected, ash trees cannot be treated; Chalara itself tends to kill only young trees; older trees are weakened and die from other causes and this can take years; there appears to be innate genetic resistance in some trees; and it appears that trees within forests tend to die most quickly because of secondary infection from, for example, honeydew fungus.
We are guided by the science. Our first priority is to establish the distribution of Chalara in Great Britain. This will inform our plan for tackling the pathogen. In this surveillance, we are determined to strike the right balance in the necessary trade-off between speed and thoroughness. There are two main surveillance operations under way. First, the Forestry Commission, whose staff have been working weekday and weekend, is undertaking a survey throughout Great Britain that will cover more than 2,000 10 kilometre by 10 kilometre squares in which sample trees will be examined. These survey areas are dispersed across the entire country, with an initial focus on East Anglia and the south-east, which are the areas at greatest risk of wind-borne infection from mainland Europe. To date, the Forestry Commission has inspected more than 1,000 of these squares, and we expect the survey to be substantially complete by the end of the week.
Secondly, the Food and Environment Research Agency is working hard to inspect sites that have been traced as receiving saplings from nurseries that have handled suspect consignments. In addition, we have asked a number of organisations, including the Country Land & Business Association, the Royal Forestry Society and the Royal Scottish Forestry Society, for their members’ help with surveillance over the next few days. I am enormously grateful for the positive way in which they have responded. This rapid surveillance will give us an indication of the extent of Chalara in Great Britain, equipping us to tackle the pathogen. On Wednesday, the Secretary of State and I will welcome industry representatives and stakeholders to a specially convened ash dieback summit. Ensuring that we are working with the science and with stakeholders is crucial to the effective management of the disease.
Noble Lords asked a number of questions. I will do my best to address them. The noble Lords, Lord Clark and Lord Judd, asked whether we could still burn ash firewood. We can. There is a very low risk of spreading the disease by moving firewood, but it will not be possible to move logs from affected areas in the United Kingdom where a notice has been served. One noble Lord asked whether burning trees would risk dissipating spores in the smoke. The indications are that that is very unlikely.
The noble Lord, Lord Clark, asked what the ban meant. All imports of ash-planting material are banned, as no pest-free areas exist in other countries. Movements of ash within the United Kingdom are banned pending full surveillance activity that will determine the pest-free zones.
Several noble Lords asked about Forestry Commission funding. While the Forestry Commission’s overall budget has decreased since 2010, it is not true to say that funding for plant health has decreased. The Forestry Commission’s budget for plant health research, which was £1.4 million in 2010-11, will be £2.1 million for 2014-15. Fera is responsible for plant health across the board. Its budget for plant health research was £667,000 in 2010-11 and will be £1.45 million in 2013-14. Defra has also allocated £1.3 million for each year of the current spending review period under the tree health action plan, and £800,000 for tree health research under the Living with Environmental Change programme for each year of the current spending review period. This funding will go one year beyond the current spending review period and will total £8 million over four years.
My noble friend Lady Parminter asked about the time taken for testing. In the lab, culturing an organism takes up to three weeks. Fera has adopted and developed a molecular method that reduces test time to less than four hours under ideal testing conditions. Following parallel trials of cultural and molecular tests, we are confident that the molecular procedure is robust, so it is currently our chosen diagnostic lab method.
My noble friend Lord King asked to what types of trees the Forestry Commission orders applied. Eradication action is required when the disease is found in nurseries or sites of recently planted ash. Containment notices are in place for those sites where the disease has been found in the wider environment pending the outcome of surveillance that is currently in progress.
The Government are taking further action in the full knowledge that Chalara will not, as some noble Lords mentioned, be the last pest to threaten our shores. Taking my noble friend Lord Selborne’s point, the Secretary of State has asked Professor Ian Boyd to convene a tree health and plant biosecurity expert task force to review our strategic approach to plant health as a whole, while at the European level, our negotiators are working to improve the pace of decision-making, the targeting of risk and the level of international co-operation within the EU plant health regime.
Furthermore, we are quickly bringing forward actions in our October 2011 tree health and plant biosecurity action plan—part of which, in answer to my noble friend Lady Parminter, importantly involves public engagement—to address the serious pests and pathogens not currently present in the UK.
I thank all noble Lords for their comments and suggestions, all of which I will take back. Chalara fraxinea is a serious threat to our ash population. We will continue to strive to understand and control it. We are also learning important lessons, which will help us combat future tree diseases.
House adjourned at 11.11 pm.