Tree Pests and Diseases - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:05 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Chartres Lord Chartres Crossbench 1:05 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, many noble Lords have already spoken with great practical experience—I think of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington—and my education has been vastly improved by membership of your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. It was on that committee, with a regulation relating to two woods in Kent, that I very first heard of the eight-toothed spruce bark beetle, which is a truly fearsome beast. It is of course only one of the wave after wave of pests and diseases—noble Lords have already made this point very eloquently—but they are all comparatively recent introductions. We are not talking about great historic scourges, but things that have cropped up in the very recent past.

The excellent Tree Health Resilience Strategy, which has been instanced on a number of occasions, describes the

“social, cultural and environmental value” of trees. It states that it is a value not easily captured by traditional accounting methods but is nevertheless very real. The symbolic value of trees was brought home to me in a very dramatic way. I was trying to establish a centre for preventing and transforming conflict, especially that with a religious dimension. It was an interfaith centre and a Muslim friend offered to build me a Bedouin tent for encounters, meetings and mediation. It was made of goat’s hair and Gore-Tex, so when it rained it exuded the most marvellous fragrance which rolled down Bishopsgate. It was a very unusual tent in that we decided it needed to have stained glass windows with symbols for all the great wisdom traditions of the world. As we consulted and deliberated, we discovered that the tree is a profound symbol in every single one of the great wisdom traditions. Our stained glass windows feature trees appropriate to each of the major world religions.

Of course, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has remarked, right at the beginning of the Hebrew scriptures we have the myth of the two trees in the paradise garden: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. The tree of knowledge is fatal because it is exploitative knowledge; it is knowledge torn from its connections with human health and flourishing, and knowledge that treats trees simply as an economic factor, a commodity. Our problems come, very often, from choosing the wrong tree. That myth in the paradise garden of the two trees is one that still has resonance. I will not repeat what the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said very eloquently about Epping Forest, which I know, and the extraordinary importance of the work being done by the City of London Corporation to protect a very large number of some of the most ancient trees in the entire UK.

Clearly, Brexit gives an opportunity for the overhaul of biosecurity regulations at our borders. I know that the Government already placed additional restrictions, last July, on the importation of oak trees to help reduce the spread of OPM, but I echo other noble Lords in asking the Minister whether there are plans to incentivise the creation of nurseries for native tree stocks to reduce the need for imports. As they look at the very welcome pledges on tree planting, all my friends where I now live, in south Wiltshire, are asking where all these trees are going to come from.

In the many ancient woods that surround us in south Wiltshire, ash dieback, which was described in a very moving way by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, is a particular problem. Landowners face issues of public safety and financial considerations, given the current oversupply of timber in the market. There are major financial implications for landowners in trying to fight this disease. The Conservative manifesto included a welcome commitment to plant 11 million trees, but some of those responsible for managing woodlands are asking where this new stock is going to come from. The Woodland Trust’s UK assurance initiative and the Grown in Britain scheme are very welcome developments, but we are still, as other noble Lords have said, too dependent on imports. Landowners are also saying that the policy of public money for public goods will have to recognise that putting agricultural land to forestry can reduce capital value and future potential for other uses. There are also substantial areas of existing woodland currently not managed at all, and landowners need incentives to manage what is already there, in addition to new planting initiatives.

That brings us to the problem, which I do not think has been mentioned yet, and which is especially acute in England, of skills shortages among staff in the various aspects of arboriculture. This has obvious implications for policy on apprenticeships and the like. I believe that the Government can rightly point to investment and commitment in this area. A sense of urgency is clearly right. The heart-breaking photographs of rows of uprooted olive trees in some of the poorest regions of Italy are testimony to the devastating effects of Xylella fastidiosa. We have so far avoided that invader and that scourge, but it could very well cause havoc in the trees of this country.

Just as the scriptures begin with the myth of the two trees, at the end, as the right reverend Prelate has said, there is a vision of healthy trees planted by the riverside. Let us hope that that will be the picture of the UK in years to come.