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Ash Dieback

Volume 798: debated on Tuesday 25 June 2019


Asked by

My Lords, extensive action is being taken on ash dieback. We have restricted the movement of ash trees from other countries and invested more than £6 million in ash dieback research. The UK is coming up trumps and leading on work to identify tolerant trees. We are conducting the world’s largest screening trials and will plant the first UK archive of tolerant trees in 2020. We are advising landowners on how to manage ash dieback and which trees to replant.

I thank the Minister for his reply, particularly for the encouraging news about ongoing research. Does he agree that neither the Government nor the country as a whole have woken up to the scale of the disaster that is already befalling us? Some of us who were around in the 1950s will remember the wonderful English elm. Ten million elms died of Dutch elm disease; now, only 100 are left. Only in 2012 was ash dieback identified in East Anglia, as a result of the import of a few saplings; it has already gone down to the Gower and up into Scotland. It would be helpful if the Minister could say a little more about what success there has been in developing strains of ash that are immune to the disease. If and when such a strain is discovered, will the Government make plans for a massive replanting across the UK?

My Lords, the ash is a very important tree in our ecosystem, which is why we are investing in trying to find, through science, the best and most tolerant trees. We are planting 3,000 of them, out of hundreds of thousands of saplings, precisely because we recognise that that work must be done. Many research faculties, such as those at Kew, are engaged in the process. It is encouraging that we are learning much more about the genome of the ash, which is much wider than that of the elm. The noble and right reverend Lord is absolutely right—we take this seriously, as we must, because our ecosystem will be in peril if we do not deal with these diseases.

My Lords, the Minister may recognise that ash dieback is a serious problem but I want to press him further. A load of other diseases are waiting in the wings, some of which will make ash dieback look like a walk in the park. Can the Government tell us what they plan to do to develop an accreditation system for UK-sourced and grown trees, so that the trees we grow in this country are sourced, grown and propagated here, rather than imported? That would address at least one source of disease, if not all of them.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. That is why our work with the UK plant biosecurity alliance and the Horticultural Trades Association is so important in forming an assurance scheme that is precisely about growing more in Britain and having heightened biosecurity.

My Lords, I have a high percentage of ash on my farm, but so far only a small percentage has been affected, which I find puzzling but gratifying. Given that ash dieback has now spread to all counties, what advice is Defra giving to those with ash on their land?

My Lords, a range. Obviously, health and safety issues are hugely important—this is why we are also working with local authorities—but in many parts we are encouraging landowners to retain their ash trees on farms, because that is how we will achieve natural regeneration. It will also highlight where we will find tolerance. It is essential to continue the research into finding the most tolerant strains—particularly bearing in mind emerald ash borer, which is also in Moscow.

My Lords, the disease knows no boundaries. Responsibility for dealing with ash dieback in Wales lies with Natural Resources Wales. Can the Minister give an assurance that there is maximum co-ordination between his department and Wales on these matters, particularly regarding preventive steps, which he has touched on and could involve considerable expenditure in the light of road safety and associated issues?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right: it does not respect borders, which is why there was a natural spread across our seas. It is imperative that there is collaboration between all parts of the United Kingdom and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland. It is essential that we see biosecurity as an international challenge.

I thank the Chief Whip. The Minister mentioned local authorities. What are the Government doing to support cash-strapped local authorities, which face huge bills for felling dangerous trees alongside roads and railways and in our towns and cities?

My Lords, that is precisely why we funded, and the Tree Council has published, a toolkit that helps local authorities to manage the effects of ash dieback; it contains guidance and case studies. I congratulate the authorities in Norfolk, Devon, Kent, Suffolk and Leicestershire, which are all working collaboratively. One of the key points is that, as part of the process, they are replanting, particularly in Devon. We are working closely with local authorities and other agencies.

My Lords, as the Minister has already acknowledged, ash dieback is part of the wider biosecurity problem in this country. Can he remind the House what additional measures the Government are taking to promote biosecurity in relation not just to tree diseases, but to all infectious diseases and other organisms that might come into the country?

My Lords, the whole issue of biosecurity is absolutely essential, which is why we have increased the number of inspectors at borders. It is important that we keep these pests and diseases out and, using the Asian hornet as an example, that we have the readiness, equipment and knowledge to ensure that, if it arrives, we eradicate it immediately. One of the problems is that in the past we have allowed things to establish when we really should have zero tolerance at the very beginning.