I will leave the public to decide whether flogging fromage to the Chinese is more important than explaining to the British people what action the Secretary of State is taking on a major environmental and ecological disaster that is unfolding on his watch. [Interruption.] I believe that “flogging fromage and fizz” are the words he used the last time he went off to France, so I am using his own words back at him. Clearly, it would be much more comfortable to be going off to China than to be in the hot seat, where the Minister of State finds himself.
The scale of the ash dieback emergency is now clear. It has been found in 129 sites in England and Scotland, including 15 nurseries and 50 recently planted sites. The most worrying discovery is that the disease is present in 64 woodland sites. That number will rise sharply as more trees are surveyed. Professor Michael Shaw from Reading university has described it as “catastrophic”.
Scientists believe that most of our 80 million ash trees will face a long, slow decline over the next 10 years. The tree that accounts for one third of our native broad-leaved woodland will all but disappear. A few resistant trees will survive and their seeds will be carefully stored to restock the forests when our children are already grown. Lichens, moths, beetles and bugs that rely on the ash’s alkaline bark will suffer. The 27 species of insects that depend on the ash as their sole food plant might become extinct. Plant nurseries and woodland owners will lose thousands of pounds as they destroy ash saplings, and the wood industry will suffer as wood prices rise. Timber that was planned for will not reach maturity. Chalara fraxinea, or ash dieback, will change our landscape for ever. It is an environmental, ecological and economic disaster.