Tree Pests and Diseases - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:58 pm on 13th February 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 12:58 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for introducing this debate. Woodlands, forest areas, parks, gardens and private dwellings bring benefits to those who visit and enjoy them but, as the noble and learned Lord said, they are under constant threat from pests and diseases. I have three points to make: on individual responsibility, on woodland management and on government responsibilities.

I should declare an interest as patron of the Leicestershire end of the National Forest, which was created from redundant coal mines, wasteland areas and other farmland. For the past 25 years, the National Forest Company has worked with partners and landowners to create a new forest across 200 square miles in the heart of the Midlands. Some 80% of these sites have public access, around 10,000 volunteers help in the management of woodlands each year and over 50% of primary schools undertake regular outdoor learning in woodland settings. This is a great achievement in a comparatively short space of time but, like other woodlands, it faces the constant threat of pests and diseases to its native trees.

Currently for the National Forest, grey squirrels and ash dieback are having the greatest impact. Recent figures released by the European Squirrel Initiative—which other noble Lords have spoken about—show that grey squirrels cost English forestry in excess of £40 million per annum. In trying to reduce the spread of diseases, the National Forest Company trains and upskills local volunteers in woodland management and educates the public on a range of preventive measures, from controlling the plant stock that enters the country through to warning dog walkers about keeping their boots clean—simple steps that we can all take.

The Woodland Trust states that there are some 20 non-native pests and diseases affecting native UK trees, six of which have reached epidemic levels. In its briefing, the trust reminds us that it is the landowner who bears the cost when unsafe trees are felled. Clearly prevention is the best and most cost-effective way to manage pests and disease, but what additional biosecurity measures are being considered? I mentioned earlier the damage done by grey squirrels, but deer and muntjac also cause extreme damage to young trees. Do the Government have a wildlife management plan in place and, if so, will they review it?

The European Union Committee, in its report published on 24 October 2018, Brexit: Plant and Animal Biosecurity, noted that the UK currently follows EU legislation on biosecurity, with decisions on implementation made predominately at EU level. On leaving the EU, the UK has opportunity to strengthen and improve our biosecurity, including the checks at ports and airports that have already been mentioned. If the plant passport scheme has failed, what measures will be put in place?

In May 2018, the Government published their Tree Health Resilience Strategy, to which other noble Lords have referred. I hope the Minister will update us on its progress, though I know it has not been a very long period of time. Can he also update us on the new imports notification system which was being developed and was due to be ready for end-to-end testing in January 2019?

The City of London Corporation manages 11,000 acres, including Epping Forest, which protects more ancient trees than any other site in the UK. Monitoring and managing the threats of pest and diseases come at a significant cost. Ramorum disease, commonly known as sudden oak death, also threatens beech trees, and some 80% of the UK’s ancient beech pollards are within Epping Forest. In controlling the disease, the corporation has removed hundreds of rhododendrons, which were referred to by my noble friend Lord Colgrain earlier, and felled over 600 larch trees on the edge of the forest to prevent further spreading. Drastic actions have been taken to preserve the trees. The corporation recognises that prevention is better than cure and has called for the regulations relating to plant and tree nurseries and the movement of vegetation to be reviewed.

I turn to what the Government should be doing—I know my noble friend the Minister is very keen to do all that he can. The Conservative Party manifesto commits the Government to planting many thousands of trees over the coming years. Clearly these trees planted should be disease free but, with trade becoming increasingly global, I believe there is an urgent need for stricter controls to be put in place on imported plants and trees. We should know where these trees are coming from. If disease is imported, then surely the rule that the polluter pays—to which we pay great credit—should be considered back through the supplier to the nursery that produced the trees in the first place.

Trees bring enormous benefits, as we have heard from other speakers. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for reminding us that we are stewards for future generations. As a hazel nut, I have a great interest in and love of trees. I cannot think why my parents called me Hazel—though I am not a nut. This debate is crucial not only for us now but the many generations that will follow us.