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Tree Health in England

Volume 822: debated on Thursday 9 June 2022

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the health of trees in England; and what progress they have made towards developing a variety of ash that is resistant to ash dieback.

I know that two fundamental assumptions will underly all the contributions to this debate by your Lordships: first, trees are absolutely essential for the environment, the future of the climate and human well-being; secondly, many of them are in a very poor state indeed. They are under threat, notably because of ash dieback.

In 2018 the Government produced their Tree Health Resilience Strategy. Four years later is a very good time to ask the Government what progress has been made on what they set out to do in that. What success has there been? I know your Lordships will want to focus on a range of issues, not least bio protection, but I want to concentrate on ash and elms.

We know how ash dieback came into the country, how rapidly it spread and how devastating its effect has been. But there is some good news to report. In 2009 it was reported that researchers from Queen Mary University of London and Kew sequenced the DNA from over 1,250 ash trees to find inherited genes associated with ash dieback resistance. About this, Professor Richard Nichols said:

“Now we have established which genes are important for resistance we can predict which trees will survive ash dieback. This will help identify susceptible trees that need to be removed from woodlands, and provide the foundations for breeding more resistant trees in future.”

This is obviously very hopeful, but the words are “This will help”. It would be good if the Minister could say anything more certain about how far it is now possible to identify resistant trees and whether they are being successfully developed.

There is more good news. Research from the Nornex project led by the John Innes Centre in Norfolk was reported in April. It has developed three genetic markers which enable it to predict whether a tree is likely to be tolerant of disease, and even whether it is likely to be mildly or strongly tolerant. In particular, it has developed a tree it has named Betty that shows strong tolerance. Again, it would be good if the Government could say any more about the timescale and when any significant proposals for replanting might come about.

All this is encouraging, and I recognise that this kind of research is complex and time consuming, but there is an urgency about this task. It is now some 50 years since the devastation caused by Dutch elm disease. It was once one of the most familiar and loved trees of the English landscape, painted by John Constable among others, but 25 million elms were wiped out: 90% of the population. Again, there is some good news to report here. Apparently, in 2019 some elms resistant to the disease had been developed, but the information is somewhat sparse.

More recently, nursery and garden centre company Hillier has described a variety of elm called Ulmus New Horizon that it states is 100% resistant to Dutch elm disease. It has been cultivated since the 1990s, but it took until 2019 to build enough stock to launch it commercially. This is not a native English elm and, from what has been said, it looks as though we will not be able to get native elms back, but it is a closely related hybrid.

It is also worth noting the Great British Elm Projects, which stated:

“This involved a propagation programme … of a large number of Sapporo Autumn Gold elms, a disease resistant hybrid developed by the University of Wisconsin.”

I also note the Centre for Forest Protection, which was established as part of the 2021 English trees plan and launched in May this year along with the new Forest Research Holt Laboratory. Their work will be vital for the future.

A lot is going on around the place, and I recognise that research takes a long time, especially with slow-growing organisms such as trees, but with the kind of genetic testing now being used for the ash, which was simply unavailable 50 years ago for the elm, surely it must be possible to speed up research and replanting. We cannot afford to wait 60 years for the ash, as we have for the elm. There is an urgency because of climate change. As has been well put:

“Trees are the ultimate carbon capture and storage machines. Like great carbon sinks, woods and forests absorb atmospheric carbon and lock it up for centuries … They also … help … Prevent flooding … Reduce city temperature … Reduce pollution … Keep soil nutrient-rich”.

The Government have a policy to try to increase tree planting. Their target, as set out in 2018, was to increase tree cover in England to 12% by 2060 by planting 180,000 hectares of trees, including a new northern forest. Can the Minister say anything more about what progress has been achieved towards that target?

To conclude, there is good news, but there is urgency about this task. If more money was put into research in this area, would it in fact speed it up? If it would, it would surely be justified. It is obvious from what I have said that research is going on in all sorts of different institutions in different places. Does Defra have a special subunit monitoring what is going on and keeping on top of it? It would be very useful if it had, because this information needs to be widely propagated and kept under permanent review.

My Lords, I think we are all extremely grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord for introducing this important debate. It is not just the loss of diseased trees that we need to consider but all the consequences. Ash holds a special place in the ecosystem of woodlands. Because of its characteristics, it is a good tree for reducing atmospheric CO2, while 1,058 species from birds to lichens are associated with ash. As with elm trees, the large-scale loss of ash is having a significant impact on a range of species and habitats, as well as the economics of broad-leaved woodlands.

Much is known about the phenology of autumnal leaf fall, gene tolerance and microbial symbionts associated with resistance of ash, but progress on that alone will not solve the problem. Far too many in the forestry establishment still think that disease is an act of God and wilfully do not look at the influence of us humans and the effect we have on this situation. That influence is called management; more accurately, I call it bad management. We know that most of our woodlands in this country are in bad condition—what an indictment.

Planting blocks of the same species with a view to clear-felling is a recipe for increasing disease and pest problems and is unnatural. For over 50 years I have banged the drum for working with nature and for mixed, uneven-age forestry. Dense woods put the trees under pressure and ash, like oak, is very intolerant of lateral competition. Stressed trees are more susceptible to disease. Dense stands lead to quiet, humid conditions, which increase spore production and retention within the stand.

Some enlightened companies, such as SelectFor Ltd, have been pursuing irregular silviculture and continuous cover for many years. It has backed its belief with scientific research, using the universities of Salford and York. Initial results indicate that even with genetically tested trees other factors, such as environment and management, are involved in the trees’ ability to survive infection. The University of Birmingham’s work supports this: initial results show that ash survive better if planted alongside cherry but worse if planted alongside lime.

These bits of work demonstrate the importance of management and Defra should help to fund them. Management should feature strongly in the forthcoming government paper. On funding, how much is Defra spending on trees and disease research in the current year? What is the budget for the next two years? Why are some NGOs receiving 100% grant support when taxpayers’ money is better utilised to leverage private sector finance?

I also ask my noble friend to stop everybody using the facetious slogan “right tree in right place”. I remind him: right tree—lodgepole pine; right place—Flow Country in Caithness; result—disaster.

My Lords, hear, hear. I declare an interest as chairman of the Woodland Trust. Ash dieback is very serious. The study in 2019 showed that the long-term economic and environmental cost would be about £7 billion over the next 10 years. Ash supports more than 900 other species, of which 44 are entirely dependent on ash. They are very important—particularly, in my view, because they are the most prevalent form of standard trees in hedgerows, and hedgerows with standard trees are vital for the movement of species across the countryside that will be required with climate change.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, outlined how some trees appear more resistant, or at least tolerant, of ash dieback, but there is a long way to go before we are in a position where we will have tolerant seed stock on a widespread scale and are able to plant trees that will persist in the environment. The reality is that we should not hold our breath on the research. We need to take steps now. One of them is not to cut down trees that have ash dieback unless they are a risk to human health and safety. We are unnecessarily destroying trees that may recover or show signs of tolerance or resistance.

Ash dieback is only one of the diseases that affects trees. There is now a pathogen, pest or disease for almost every single species of tree that we have in this country—and if not here already they are lurking somewhere on the continent, ready to come. It is vital that we take tree health and biosecurity seriously across the board, particularly in view of the fact that we are dashing to plant and regenerate trees in the face of climate change: there is no point in increasing the tree cover if it is promptly going to die.

In conclusion—I have already had two minutes and 15 seconds on my timer—I urge the Minister to think about three things in terms of tree health measures. First, let us really have a drive to reduce imports by promoting the UK nursery sector. Will he support—as he is already doing—and promote even more firmly the UK and Ireland Sourced and Grown accreditation system, which aims at all tree stock, from seed to mature tree, being grown in this country or Ireland?

Will he tell us and get on with—this is more of a government-wide issue—the delayed last stage of implementation of the UK sanitary and phytosanitary regime? We still have distressing examples of new pests getting past port controls: the recent introduction of the pine processionary moth in April is just one example. So, when will we finally get the SPS fully implemented?

Lastly, will the Minister tell us when we will see the new version of the GB plant biosecurity strategy and, particularly, its associated industry plant health accord? It is vital that the whole tree planting and nursery industry, along with the conservation world, is massed behind this effort if we are to see healthy woodlands providing places for biodiversity, places for people and combating climate change—and I have finished before the end of my alarm, which was going to quack like a duck.

My Lords, I must first declare my interest as co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Gardening and Horticulture Group—and what a mouthful that is to say. I would like to make a general point first about the three types of trees: there are those that are involved with forestry; those involved with woodland management; and those involved with arboriculture—the amenity parts of trees. I have a suspicion that the Government take the arboricultural side of things less seriously, and I hope I can be told I am wrong by the Minister when he comes to sum up. But they are an extremely important aspect when dealing with the health of trees.

I will not dwell on the issue of ash dieback, as it has been so comprehensively dealt with by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and others before me. I want to concentrate now on threats to come. I have been told that there are at least 47 pests and diseases beyond our shores, at present, but which may reach our shores in the next decade. Therefore, it is extremely important that every measure possible is taken to deal with that issue.

I spoke a year or two back to the director of horticulture at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens and I thought that their policy on new trees was a lesson for us all. First, they seek to buy from British sources only—British nurseries. If that is impossible, they will buy imported trees but those are then, rather like dogs of old, quarantined for six months in a special area before they are allowed out into the wider community.

That may be a counsel of perfection not possible for all, but it chimes with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that we need to increase production in tree nurseries by helping and supporting them. I guess there is a limit to the number of sites on which they can produce, but it is important that they have some knowledge of the future orders that might be placed by local authorities or the Government. They need good warning, because it takes up to five years to produce the sorts of trees required for such schemes.

Next, it is important that the public are warned loudly, clearly and frequently about the dangers of bringing in a few little plants that they saw abroad and think would be rather nice to have at home. That is one way in which pathogens, pests and diseases can come in.

Finally, there is the position of the Government in dealing with both research and, more importantly, biosecurity measures for imports. I hope there will be both thoroughness and speed because, if things take too long and are too bureaucratic, living creatures may die on the way to their destination. That must be avoided. It would help if the Government had a list of the most dangerous pests and diseases and concentrated their controls on those they regard as the most difficult to deal with. That would help the nursery trade and others to deal with a very serious situation.

Among the 47 is the emerald ash borer. On this pessimistic note, because it might nibble horribly at trees that we hope are resistant so must not get in at any cost, I rest my case.

My Lords, I begin by declaring my interests in the register and explaining that I own some ash trees. One of my abiding memories of the Platinum Jubilee weekend was the obvious impact of ash dieback on the tree cover of Cumbria: everywhere were black, skeletal twigs protruding through the tree canopy. This pandemic predates Covid and moves more slowly, but it is a real pestilence just the same. We have not talked about it as much as Covid-19, fortunately, but the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, has done us a good turn in bringing this debate.

We should not be surprised by something such as this happening. After all, Dutch elm disease occurred in this country’s living memory and, before that, in the 1930s. Pundits have predicted this kind of thing and historians of nature, ecology and the environment have chronicled this kind of happening regularly, from time to time over the centuries. That is not to say it is not sad. We regret that the landscape, as we know it, is losing a very important component and is dying in front of our eyes. But something else will emerge. While it is destroying part of our living world, it is not destroying the world itself.

As other noble Lords have said, I understand that some trees are likely to be resistant. As long as they are spared the woodman’s axe and their natural offspring are allowed to grow, we, in partnership with plant breeders, will be able to replenish our countryside’s ash trees. As has been said, the life cycle of trees is long. It is not the end of the ash, any more than Dutch elm disease completely wiped out the English elm or wych elm.

It seems to be agreed that tree nurseries spread the disease from spores contained in stock raised on the continent. In this context, we need to be clear that we have always had phytosanitary arrangements and being in the single market did not affect that. As others have said, we have to tighten them up. I suspect that, in addition to a number of pernicious plant diseases, we will see more invasive species that are likely to carry out a lot of damage. I put it to your Lordships that the grey squirrel has probably done more damage to British tree cover than ash dieback has. We have to plan for this happening. The problem is that, like generals, we are always tempted to fight the last war. It has also been suggested that spores may have blown over the North Sea. If that sort of thing happens again, it will be rather more difficult to deal with.

What should we do? First, we should breed and propagate resistant ash trees. Secondly, we should replace them but, if that is expensive, with diversified species, as has been said. We should not be too frightened of these alleged non-native species, such as sycamore, beech and Spanish chestnut. The greater the diversity we have, the greater the chance is of some of them dying.

If an outbreak of some disease is discovered, we should monitor it, destroy it and—I add this deliberately —properly compensate for those trees lost. It is much cheaper to spend a bit of money and properly wipe out the disease than for people not to report it and then for it to run out of control.

Finally, we obviously must cut down and destroy the infected trees. It is on this point that I wish to conclude, since many of these trees are on the edge of the highway. For safety reasons, they have to be taken down quickly. For that to be done, it is necessary to have traffic lights, which require a permit from the local authority. These require a payment. I gather that the amount varies significantly from local authority to local authority. It looks to me as if some are profiteering from it. I ask the Minister to look into this and suggest that permits should be issued either free or for a nominal sum. It does not seem right that local authorities look as if they profit from this, in the same way that it was said that some suppliers of PPE did in the Covid outbreak.

My Lords, like us all, I have a great love of trees and have been involved with them one way or another all my working life. I attended a meeting at the Forestry Commission’s headquarters in Savile Row in the 1960s, called to discuss Dutch elm disease. Despite the testimony of a roomful of experts in both arboriculture and silviculture, the Government insisted that the situation was not serious. They maintained that Dutch elm disease had been with us since the 1930s, that there had been many peaks and troughs and that this was just another peak. How wrong they were and how tragically that illustrates the need for government to maintain the closest possible contact with organisations that have experts in the field, such as the Arboricultural Association and the Woodland Trust.

The English elm has gone, destroyed by a shipload of logs from Canada. No longer can we enjoy that great majestic cauliflower-crowned tree, so beloved by landscape painters and an intrinsic part of our English countryside. We tried to save it: we pruned it and injected, but all to no avail. However, there is a glimmer of hope. Every year, the elm produces large amounts of new growth in our hedgerows. It increases in size until trunks are about as thick as your wrist and then they succumb again, but it keeps coming. It is tenacious, so there is hope that resistance will come.

The same fate has now befallen our ash trees—again an integral part of our countryside and our lives. They are not just beautiful to look at but very much part of our daily lives, from Morris Minor Traveller woodwork to hockey sticks. There is no cure available: just prune, fell if dangerous and hope for resistant strains to emerge. It is spread by the wind, they say, but it was undoubtedly ably assisted by us importing infected trees and distributing them around the country—unforgivable. Emerald ash borer has already been mentioned—another nasty. It has not yet arrived but is waiting in the wings, if there are any ash trees left to infect.

Oak processionary moth was first imported some years ago, but until recently it was confined to the Home Counties. Then in, I think, 2019, and perhaps again recently, we contrived not only to import it but to distribute it all over the country, saving the insects the task of spreading. Again, that is unforgivable.

Most dangerous of all is Xylella fastidiosa, now on its way through Europe towards us. If this gets in it will be truly disastrous, not least because of just how many different species of plant it can kill. Few will be resistant. We have learned not to plant too many trees of the same species in one location, creating a monoculture, which is very susceptible to a total wipeout if struck by a disease specific to that type of tree, but even a careful mixture of species would stand no chance against Xylella.

For all sorts of reasons, demand for trees and shrubs has increased rapidly, and sadly, for all sorts of reasons, has completely outstripped our own producers’ ability to meet it. Importation is on a massive scale and with it all the attendant risks. There are temptations to bend the rules and perhaps not inspect as carefully as necessary.

Two things are vital if we are to win this battle. First, we must have in place the most stringent rules—banning species if need be—that are always on the side of ultra-caution, and look again at the question of quarantine. Secondly, we need an immediate and huge increase in our campaign on awareness, particularly at airports, ferries and other terminals, but in the media generally. As has been mentioned, despite all the dangers, most holidaymakers would not think twice about bringing a plant back from a holiday in Europe. If we can summon up the resolve and the finance to do these two things as a matter of the greatest urgency, we stand a chance. If not, I fear the worst.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a woodland owner, sadly with far too many dead and dying ash trees in the woods. Shortly after the then Prime Minister David Cameron asked us all to hug a hoodie, I was told that hugging an ash tree was an indication as to whether the tree was mature enough to withstand Chalara. The thinking was that if you embraced an ash tree and your fingers could meet around its back, it was deemed small and immature, and thus susceptible to the disease. If your fingers could not touch, it might be robust enough to resist. I have to report, with much sadness, that this unscientific approach has not proved accurate and that many of the trees I tried to embrace and thought might survive have not.

I mention this because it is no less plausible an approach to identifying those vulnerable to the disease than many others that have been put forward. I am told that approximately 10% of the ash on the continent are surviving the disease, not 20% as the Woodland Trust states. Consequently, there should be a similar percentage of trees surviving here in England but, notwithstanding what the Minister will no doubt say, there seems to be a woeful lack of science currently at work.

Dutch elm disease occurred decades ago and it is only now that inward trials are taking place with resistant whips from UK stock—one site, I am delighted to say, is located in my own county of Kent. At the end of this month, a symposium is taking place at Kew on elm trees and their associated diseases. Given how long it has taken for such a symposium to come about, what does this mean for ash trees? Can the Minister tell us how long we will have to wait before we have similar developments at work on ash?

The Tree Council says that the ash population may recover over 50 years. I fear that this is fanciful; it has not proved to be the case with elms, and there is no prospect of an indigenation of elms regrowing yet. Is there really any meaningful difference between ash and elm? Forest Research says that its ash seed orchard should begin producing resistant trees from the mid-2030s, which really does seem a lifetime away.

For a whole variety of unrelated reasons, we seem to be being visited by one tree disease or pest after another, the spruce Ips beetle being one of the most recent. As my noble friend the Minister knows—I thank him and his department for all their helpful responses to date on this—the compensation payment claims that relate to this one disease are currently clogging up Forestry Commission resources, with the consequence that some felling programmes are being delayed. Disease firewall benefits are thus not coming into being.

Can the Minister give assurances that the necessary staffing resources are being deployed to overcome this impediment? Can he indicate what work is being done to encourage the introduction and planting of new tree species that will be resistant to the climate changes already being experienced, as well as those anticipated? Can he also direct more effort towards the granting of funding for the management of existing woodland, particularly coppicing, rather than directing funds towards new plantings, which are often taking place in inappropriate locations with inappropriate species, as my noble friend Lord Caithness alluded to earlier?

My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for securing this really important and interesting debate. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, I am going to concentrate on what she labelled as amenity trees—what I might call street trees or urban trees in general. That is because I want to put some positive spin in here. We need to think about some positive news; we have heard lots of negative news and there is certainly a lot of that around on tree health.

I can attribute campaigners in Sheffield as playing a really important role in raising understanding of the importance of street trees, in particular to public health and well-being, as well as to biodiversity and in cooling our climate emergency-heated cities as well. I note that 19 cities in the UK have now taken the Tree Cities of the World award. A number of these were awarded last month. Sheffield was among them and it is notable that Leeds, Hull and Bradford were too, perhaps influenced by all the public interest in the news that came out of Sheffield, so we are really seeing the valuing of street trees.

But just as we need trees for healthy cities, trees need a healthy environment to flourish in cities. I pick up the point of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who talked of the need to a healthy phytobiome of a diversity of trees. Of course, what we also need is clean air; it is good for us and for the trees. I have to point here to my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb’s Ella’s law clean air Bill, which is now in your Lordships’ House.

Hard surfaces make trees chronically stressed if they are not given sufficient space, so we desperately need to think about the planning and design of our cities for people and trees. Taking note of the point the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, made, I am not going to say “the right tree in the right place”, but I am going to say that we need the right tree in the nursery. Lots of people have been saying how much we need to grow so many more of our own trees, but we need to think about what kind of trees we are propagating in our nurseries to be street trees. What kind of signals are we giving to the industry? At the moment lots of the street tree plantings are very small rowans and birches, but we want to see the addition of some of those magnificent trees the Victorians planted—the big specimens that truly shade and enrich our cities in ways that little saplings meant to be lollipop trees are never going to.

We have to think about how we make sure we plant trees in cities so that they survive. In Britain, the current figures suggest that around 13% of street trees die in their first couple of years. In a study in Canada, 50% were dead within one year, so we really need to look after our trees.

Finally, I want to focus on a question for the Minister. There is a desperate shortage of trained arborists. The Institute of Chartered Foresters estimates that we need 70% more trained people to meet the Government’s tree-planting goals. Thinking about the pressures on the health of our trees, we desperately need the people who can look after them. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what the Government plan to do to tackle that issue.

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble and right reverend Lord on securing this debate. Will my noble friend the Minister join me in paying tribute to and recognising the work of Fera at Sand Hutton, York, on tree health? I will refer to it in a moment.

In March 2014, in response to the immediate threat of ash tree dieback, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, which I had the honour to chair, published a report, Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity. Its recommendations and conclusions have stood the test of time. I refer in particular to recommendation 18,

“that ring-fenced funding is provided for long-term research and development work that focuses on preparation for future plant health threats”;

recommendation 20, that Defra set up

“immediate initiatives … to address the lack of relevant expertise in the field of plant health”;

and recommendation 22, to develop resistant strains of ash trees without diverting funds from other, more immediate control measures. These recommendations have stood the test of time and I hope that Defra will continue to honour them.

It is a matter of note, as set out by my noble friend Lady Fookes, that there is a very wide range of potential tree and pest combinations that may be of concern heading towards this country. I welcome that Defra, FERA and others, such as Forest Research, contribute to Defra’s risk register, which helps to prioritise action against pests and diseases posing potential threats to UK species.

I take this opportunity to raise a number of questions with my noble friend the Minister. The practice of exporting ash tree seeds from the UK to, for example, Denmark and Poland—areas where trees subsequently reached high levels of infection in the early 2010s—and then reimporting them as saplings contributed at the time to infection of ash tree disease in this country. Will my noble friend consider whether it would be worth banning this practice outright rather than allowing it to continue, potentially contributing to the spread of the disease? Do we need to tighten up tree inspections at borders to ensure the health of trees and that they are safe to import? I refer to the fact that there is no longer a requirement to pre-notify consignments of high-risk trees, yet all plants for planting are effectively pre-notified via the phytosanitary certificate system. I am told that saplings coming into the UK will have been classified as healthy at the country of origin and will likely face an inspection—but how likely? Should we therefore tighten up inspections at the port of entry?

Developing ash trees that prove resistant to future strains has not been that successful so far. Up to 90% of UK ash trees are still at risk of infection. I understand from the Tree Council’s toolkit that only a third of local authorities have signed up to tree strategies. I believe that this should be increased.

Finally, as my noble friend Lord Caithness asked, what is the current funding for the tree strategy and the prevention and control of tree diseases? Will the Minister ensure that FERA has all the tools that it needs at its disposal to ensure that it can keep controls and innovation up to speed to protect us from future infections and diseases from other parts of the world?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for tabling this Question and provoking such an interesting debate. I should declare an interest through my involvement at the Rothamsted agricultural institute.

As noble Lords have vividly illustrated, a record number of pests and diseases are arriving on our shores and threatening our native tree population. Species of oak, elm, Scots pine, beech and birch are all at increasing risk from invasive bugs, fungi and bacteria. Quite rightly, there is real concern that our native woodlands could suffer wholesale devastation, with catastrophic impacts for not only the local landscape but our wider environmental and economic objectives.

We all recognise the vital role that trees play in carbon capture and sequestration. This is why we on these Benches have supported the Government’s tree-planting targets, challenging though they have proved to be. For every tree that dies as a result of invasive pests and diseases, meeting the planting target becomes even more of a challenge. So what can we do to prevent the inevitable drift towards woodland devastation?

First, as noble Lords have said, our warmer climate is becoming a magnet for new pests, while others that would have been killed off in harsh winter months continue to thrive and breed in the warmer climates. It is absolutely vital, not only for the obvious reasons but for those reasons as well, that we hit our net-zero targets. Perhaps the Minister can update us on whether he feels that we are playing our part in planting new trees to do that.

Secondly, international travel has fuelled a taste for exotic plants and the globalised trade in live plants has been allowed to outweigh our more pressing concerns about the host plants infecting our native species. As noble Lords have said, we need stronger vigilance and enforcement. We also need an urgent programme to invest in our domestic nursery sector, reducing our reliance on imported saplings.

Thirdly, perhaps most importantly, we need to invest in research into both the prevention and the cure. We need to understand what makes a tree pest-resistant and how we can replicate its genes. We need to understand what natural allies can be harnessed, such as natural microbes that could be enlisted to fight the diseases. We need to understand more about the natural habitats that make trees strong and healthy, including the benefits of planting and protecting diverse native woodlands, smaller woods and natural woodland corridors—a number of noble Lords made this point. We also need to ensure that we have the trained staff for the long-term care and nurturing of woodlands, to maintain them for the longer term. Can the Minister update us on the training programme for a rollout of skilled arborists and foresters to meet those new challenges and provide that support?

Finally, the Government’s tree health resistance strategy has at its heart the need for international collaboration and the sharing of research data, so can the Minister clarify whether we are continuing to participate in the EU pest and disease notification systems? Can he update us on the replacement for TRACES? Are we fully able to map the spread of pests and diseases using this system? Can he also update us on the future of the biological research programmes being funded through Horizon Europe? Will those schemes continue or will the researchers now get equivalent EU funding? As many noble Lords have said, the key and solution to all this is detailed long-term funding, so I would be grateful if the noble Lord could quantify how much actual cash is going into that research. How much is available now and how much in the future? I look forward to his response.

My Lords, I start by referring to my entry in the register. As other noble Lords have, I congratulate the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, on securing this debate and other noble Lords on their powerful contributions. This is an emotive subject for me. I was looking at a woodland at home the other day, two-thirds or possibly three-quarters of the canopy of which is or was ash. As has been said, this is the first tree disease where the wider public are seeing something really tragic happening to our green and pleasant land.

Trees are of central importance in our efforts to fight back against climate change and biodiversity loss—a point powerfully made by the mover of this debate. That is why the Government have committed to increasing tree planting rates across the country to 30,000 hectares per year by the end of this Parliament. But planting trees is not enough. It is critical that we also protect them from the threats of pests and diseases. Our current treescape has an asset value of £175 billion, but the threat from plant pests and pathogens is significant and growing, driven by increasing globalisation and by climate change.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, asked what assessment Her Majesty’s Government have made of the health of trees. I assure noble Lords that we have a robust and comprehensive plant health system, operating pre-border, at the border and inland, to reduce the risks of pests and diseases entering the country and to manage the impact of established pests. We cannot overlook the professionalism in our nursery sector. I will name Nicholsons in Oxfordshire, which I visited the other day. It has superb phytosanitary policies in place and huge amounts of expertise in its staff, which complements the work done by government employees.

The Government’s UK plant health risk register—this answers a point raised by a number of noble Lords—tracks and prioritises plant health risks. Over 1,200 pests and diseases are listed on the register, 30% of which are capable of attacking trees. Risks are reviewed monthly for action, such as further regulation or increased inspections.

The process also enables us to consider factors that may be pertinent to climate change adaptation, such as identifying pests and diseases that might be expected to increase in range or prevalence due to climate change. Our plant health research and development programme is investigating these potential issues further, aiming to identify and prioritise exotic plant pests and pathogens with the greatest likelihood to establish or spread in the UK as a result of a change in climate.

I chair a monthly biosecurity meeting attended by officials and the Chief Plant Health Officer and I am brought up to date on a more regular basis on the progress across Europe of tree pest and diseases, which are always alarming. My noble friend was right to raise the nightmare potential of Xylella. You only have to go to southern parts of Italy and other parts of southern Europe to see whole landscapes devastated by that disease. It is an absolute priority that we keep it out of these islands.

Since leaving the EU, we have strengthened our import regime by introducing a prohibition on imports of the highest-risk trees, including many native species, and a requirement for phytosanitary certification of all plant imports. We require the pre-notification of all imports of regulated plants and timber to allow for official inspection. Our border inspectors now carry out over 70,000 physical checks each year. We also have a significant inland surveillance programme and have invested additional resources to drive increased inspection rates at the highest-risk sites.

The Forestry Commission is responsible for carrying out ground surveys of over 40,000 trees for priority pests and diseases, such as bark beetles, sweet chestnut blight and canker stain of plane. The Animal and Plant Health Agency carries out over 5,500 inspections at nurseries each year. The Forestry Commission also carries out risk-based aerial surveillance of over 1 million hectares of woodland each year. Aerial surveillance is a powerful and cost-effective tool, with new technology supporting it that enables the Forestry Commission to survey a significantly larger area than would be feasible using ground-based surveys alone.

Citizen science and sightings from the public further enhance surveillance. The Observatree network of trained volunteer health surveyors is a network of over 200 trained volunteers in England, Wales and Scotland, and is supported by a dedicated team of professionals. Lastly, the TreeAlert service is run by Forest Research and receives reports from the general public. These surveillance programmes produce rich datasets, which feed into the Tree Health Diagnostic and Advisory Service, which diagnoses potential pests and pathogens and produces quarterly reports. New statistics released last month show that last year, up to March 2022, the service dealt with a record 3,790 inquiries or samples of suspected tree diseases and pests—a nearly 25% increase on the previous year. This is the public getting involved in science and the risk that we face. The most commonly identified pests and disease were oak processionary moth and ash dieback.

We also aim to limit and manage the outbreaks that occur and are currently taking robust, official and urgent action—the word “urgency” was rightly used by a great many noble Lords—to contain or eradicate a number of regulated pests, such as Ips typographus, Phytophthora pluvialis, Phytophthora ramorum and oak processionary moth, using tree removal or treatment of infested trees. We are deeply indebted to landowners such as my noble friend who, in the south-east of England, have faced the arrival of Ips typographus and are helping us create a cordon sanitaire, so that other insects that blow over from the channel will have nowhere to go because there will be none of that type of spruce there. Dealing with outbreaks is costly so, where feasible, we aim for eradication. One example is the eradication of a small outbreak of Asian longhorn beetle in Kent between 2012 and 2019, which cost around £2 million. In comparison, the cost of managing the insect in the United States, where eradication has not been possible, has been at least $373 million.

An outright ban on plants and trees may seem to some like a simple solution. However, UK production does not currently meet demand and trade in plants and plant material is essential for many reasons, including food security and resilience to climate change. Additionally, many invasive pests, such as ash dieback and Ips typographus, can arrive independently across the channel, having been blown here on warm winds. It is therefore impossible to reduce the risk of new pests and diseases arriving to zero, which is why we have in place this comprehensive system of surveillance and reporting for tree health threats.

We have recently invested £5.8 million to build a new world-leading quarantine laboratory at Forest Research’s Alice Holt site in Hampshire. The new facility means we now have the capability to undertake research and diagnostic work on quarantined pests and pathogens in a secure and contained environment. On top of this, we are investing in measures to increase the resilience of our treescape to future threats. We provided up to £10.5 million in the last financial year to support the sector to increase UK production of diverse, high-quality tree-planting stock and to enhance biosecurity.

At the risk of falling out with my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I challenge the view among some that we should restrict our plantings in this country just to native species. We face such threats of diseases and climate change that if we put our eggs in too few baskets, the chance of this green and pleasant land remaining so is put further at risk. I want the whole sector, whether NGOs such as the Woodland Trust, which I respect and admire, Confor and the forestry industry, the amenity planters or local authorities, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, to work together with a single sense of purpose.

I am running out of time. I will try to address some of the other points raised. On ash dieback, we have planted thousands of the most resistant plants in the south of England and we are monitoring them. As has been said, a lot of work is being done on the genome. There is a relentless attempt to try to home in on the most resistant ash trees, to take stock from them and to build, and not to have to wait for five decades, as we have with elm.

We recognise that the tree-planting targets, which have been referred to, are ambitious. We recognise the importance of hedgerow trees as well. That is a very important point. The loss of ash from that landscape is as devastating as the loss of the elms that I remember.

Noble Lords made many other points; I will sit down and write to them with replies.

Our plant health regime aims to detect and stop new issues at early stages. Where this is not possible, our surveillance systems give us the best chance of discovering and managing, or eradicating, those pests and diseases which do arrive. Government-funded research and development provides hope even against established diseases.

As noble Lords will no doubt appreciate, tree health is an active area in which the Government have invested in recent years. Later this year we will publish an updated plant biosecurity strategy, which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, asked about. On 23 May, we signed a new plant health accord with industry, trade bodies, the Woodland Trust and others. In the accord, we have agreed to work together to promote biosecurity best practice for all—an effort in which I know we are all united.

I am sorry that we have run out of time. A great many questions were asked. I will endeavour to answer them by another means.

Sitting suspended.