NEW PLANS TO TACKLE GROWING THREATS TO OUR TREES
“The UK has around three billion trees that together are worth £175 billion”
This is not a good time to be a tree. For many thousands across the UK this could be their last autumn, as they succumb to killer diseases and pests imported either by big business or the wind. Never before have woodlands and forests, leafy lanes and hedgerows been under such serious threat.
The latest victim is our native ash, stricken by the dieback disease Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, which has swept across Europe. “Now it’s here and predicted to wipe out most of our ash trees because they have no defence,” says Nick Atkinson, senior conservation adviser to the Woodland Trust. “Research is being carried out in the hope of finding resistant trees but, to make matters worse, waiting round the corner is a nasty little beetle called the emerald ash borer.
“It’s currently on the move across Russia, and if it reaches the UK it could finish off the ash. That would be disastrous for our woodlands and for a whole ecosystem of insects and birds that depends on ash trees.”
The UK has around three billion trees that together are worth £175 billion. In recent decades, the roll call of species under attack from exotic diseases has lengthened: horse chestnut canker, massaria in plane trees, blight in conifers and sweet chestnuts, a fungus-like pathogen in larch, Dutch elm disease (which, 50 years after it first wreaked havoc, is still a menace and has now reached northern Scotland) and acute oak decline.
In the face of this woodland crisis the Government says it is now taking firmer action. Its recently launched Tree Health Resilience Strategy encourages landowners, charities, the public and Whitehall to work together to tackle pests and diseases, and enforce new quarantine measures. The strategy is part of DEFRA’s 25-year Environment Plan, which also includes a separate campaign, backed by Prince Charles, to protect the nation’s 121 million oak trees from further damage.
Biosecurity is the key weapon in the battle: stopping the threats getting here and taking immediate action if they do. This summer, holidaymakers were advised not to bring plants back from abroad and firms importing plants and wood are being urged to buy from safe sources. The Woodland Trust is setting an example: it plants three million trees a year, all from seeds produced in the UK.
CLEAN YOUR BOOTS
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, says: “In 10 years’ time I want to be able to say our oaks are thriving, that pests are being kept at bay and that our woodlands and forests are flourishing. We must seize every opportunity offered by Brexit to strengthen our biosecurity.” Sir Harry Studholme, chair of the Forestry Commission, called the strategy “a critical milestone”.
And is there anything we can do to help safeguard the trees we so admire? The advice from the Forestry Commission is to make sure our boots are clean when we enter woodland, and brush off mud and plant debris from boots, clothes, bikes, buggies and pets before we leave. Then give everything a good clean when we get home. Small measures like these can make a big difference if generations to come are also to enjoy those walks.
Ash trees, already struggling to fight Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, could soon be facing the threat of emerald ash borer beetle