Tree Pests and Diseases - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:50 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Carrington Lord Carrington Crossbench 12:50 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for bringing this important debate forward. I declare my interests as a farmer and landowner with woodland under active management.

Last summer, the importance of this debate came home to me when I received a call from the Animal and Plant Health Agency, acting on behalf of the Forestry Commission. It wished to inspect two oak trees for the oak processionary moth. I had bought those two trees earlier that year from a well-known nursery. Happily, neither was infected, but it was a wake-up call. Sadly, it had never occurred to me to ask whether these trees were imported; there was certainly no label to indicate that they were imports. The Forestry Commission was able to track the trees to the nursery, and hence to me, but why is there no requirement for nurseries to inform the purchaser of the country of origin? The Woodland Trust has developed an accreditation scheme for domestically produced trees. Surely this should be widened to include foreign-sourced trees. Also, when purchases are made, it is an ideal opportunity to hand over a leaflet on potential threats to trees. Even as the owner of woodland, I have received no such information. Surely this information should be circulated to all registered woodland owners, together with amenity and countryside groups, schools and universities.

The Forestry Commission’s Public Opinion of Forestry 2019 survey confirmed the public’s high regard for trees and woods and their awareness of pests and diseases, which 65% were willing to report if they had the necessary information. The Government’s 2018 tree health resilience strategy says all the right things and calls for 11 actions in its action plan but, again, how will this be delivered and with what resources? The Woodland Trust’s Observatree volunteer scheme is brilliant but needs to be massively expanded to be truly effective.

Moving on to the trees themselves, although native trees are the subject of this debate, the distinction between native and non-native is no longer helpful in the light of a number of factors, including climate change, Chalara in the native ash and the horse chestnut being placed on the red list. Woodland managers are governed by the Forestry Commission’s practice guide, Managing Ancient and Native Woodland in England, which was published in 2010 and covers the species that may be planted in our ancient woodland. Outcome A from page 27, concerning the species composition of native woodland, states:

“The presumption is that the proportion of the canopy occupied by native species is being maintained or increased. In most native woodland at least 80% of the canopy is comprised of native species.”

I believe this proportion to be restrictive and counterproductive. It also fails to take into account the fact that many existing native woodlands were established using a conifer nurse crop. A more enlightened view of species choice is required and forest service area teams need to be allowed more flexibility in the use of non-native and honorary native species such as black walnut, alder and sycamore, particularly when we cannot replant ash, which accounts for more than 10% of our so-called native species. Climate change needs to be taken into account, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said. It affects what species we plant and how well they do.

Many years ago, a former chairman of the Forestry Commission told me that it was the best job in the world, as your mistakes never became apparent till you were long dead. I hope we can move on from this depressing statement.

Then there are the pests, in particular the squirrel. This is what the boss of one of the major woodland management companies said to me last week:

“I myself will no longer fell and restock beech in the Chilterns until we have a more certain future for the trees we are planting. Currently we are often simply planting squirrel food.”

Much has been said and will be said about the grey squirrel. We have heard from the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, about the work of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, UK Squirrel Accord and the European Squirrel Initiative, so I can usefully add little, but I would be interested to hear from the Minister about the funding and likely timing of any sterilisation or oral contraceptive plans. Similarly, there is a directly inherited genetic bias initiative for concentrating on squirrel control through encouraging male offspring rather than female offspring, which helps reduce the population. Once again, I believe that funding is a problem and government support would be appreciated. We cannot and should not eliminate the grey squirrel, but the balance needs to be addressed and every option, including the reintroduction of the pine marten, looked at.

The other major pest, of course, is deer. Progress was being made in this area by the work of the Deer Initiative Ltd, which was set up to deliver the outcomes of the Deer Initiative Partnership. It has had a huge impact on creating best practice in deer control and educating people and institutions in the industry. It has also been involved in the Government’s new scheme for environmental land management, which is a crucial part of the Agriculture Bill. Now it is to be wound up at the end of March due to lack of funding. Please could the Minister look at reviving and resourcing the Deer Initiative, which is crucial in the work of protecting trees, flora and fauna.

These points are but some of the challenges we face. Dealing with them is easier in commercial woodland that is professionally managed than in amenity woodlands in the south of England. For such amenity woods, I urge the Government to look at directing Section 106 money resulting from development into their care and maintenance, and to investigate conditions of increased public access, which would potentially result in more local voluntary help in the preservation of our woodlands.