It’s been a while since my last blog on this subject but the question of ash dieback, and tree pests and diseases in general, has never been far from my mind. The level of public concern and media interest in these issues has been enormous and ongoing.
The Government’s promised Emergency Summit on ash disease has been and gone, and their Task Force of experts continues to consider the issues, but nothing has yet emerged. We still have little real idea of what next steps the Government will support until their full Action Plan is published in the next week or so.
No less than two Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBRa) meetings have been held, and we have some hope for optimism that the views of conservation organisations have helped shape the response so far. We are reassured by Defra’s statement that: “Mature trees will not currently be removed, as they are valuable to wildlife, take longer to die and can help us learn more about genetic strains that might be resistant to the disease”, and we will be pressing them to stick with this position.
The Government response must be soundly based on actions that reflect evidence and experience, and must be credible in terms of really helping the situation. It would be unfortunate if the Government seeks to show its concern by choosing high profile but potentially harmful and expensive activity which delivers little in terms of reducing the spread or impact of the disease.
At the Trust, we are actively reviewing a wide range of our own activities to identify how best we can respond, based on what we know right now. We quickly developed our own 3-Point Plan to address some of the more pressing questions:
- We are working with others to bring the public and leading scientists together to improve how we identify and monitor tree pests and disease in the UK.
- We are starting a programme of investing in UK tree nurseries to guarantee that all the planting stock we use in the future will be 100% from UK collected seed, raised and grown on in the UK and free from the risk of importing tree disease.
- We will bring together leading experts from the UK, Europe and the wider world to share knowledge and learning about the impacts of ash disease and the growing list of wider tree health threats.
We have also embarked on a more considered response to developing a better understanding of the major impacts of ash dieback on conservation and biodiversity in the medium and longer term – this will take some time. We recognise that we will need to engage in wider conversations to pool ideas, knowledge and learning with a range of other bodies and expert individuals. You can read more about our initial Conservation Response here. The impacts on ash will be much more complex than the media headlines suggest, this goes well beyond the simple percentages of what will be lost or estimates of how many million trees are at risk. Some landscapes and habitats will be much harder hit than others, and we need to start thinking about how we respond to that now.
We have stopped planting ash and will continue with this approach until the situation is clearer. Not least because we need to understand the scope for disease resistance in our existing UK ashwoods. However, we are not stopping tree planting altogether – rather, we are substituting other UK native species for the ash and have confirmed that all of the other planting stock we are using this season are UK sourced and UK grown. We have revised our position on the use of local tree provenance to reflect a changing situation and updated our stance on the wider threats from pests and disease.
It is important to keep planting native trees. We need areas of new woodland planting and woodland expansion that can buffer, extend and link our surviving ancient woods and which will contribute to the bigger and better habitat networks that will help make our countryside more resilient in the face of the growing threats from climate change, and pests and diseases.
The full extent of the disease outbreak is still not known, as survey work and tracing infected saplings continues. The Forestry Commission website remains the key source of regularly updated information and provides the definitive source of advice and guidance. Our own response to ash disease and the wider issues around other threats to our native woods continues to develop. You can find more on our website at http://www.treedisease.co.uk/
Austin Brady, Head of Conservation