Tree Pests and Diseases - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:43 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of The Earl of Lytton The Earl of Lytton Crossbench 1:43 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, on securing this debate. I give due credit to the Library briefing that has been produced. I have learned a great deal already from the contributions that have already been made during the course of this debate, as we have some real experts in this field, unlike me.

Like many of your Lordships, I am a woodland owner, with some acres of mainly broadleaf woodland in Sussex and a little in west Somerset, much of it, I am afraid, bypassed by any sort of modern, post-war management. That causes me a small amount of regret but also in some respects relief at not having had to deal with the changing policies that have occasioned what we have had to deal with.

My early education in trees was, needless to say, at the hands of my father, who was a lifelong military man. He said that there were two sorts of trees in the military vocabulary: one was called a fir and the other a bushy top. As a cheeky youngster, I pointed to a mature Scots pine and said, “What’s that?” and was told to shut up.

I will devote my comments to ash dieback—Chalara fraxinea. It is a substantial component of my own woodlands, and that, along with grey squirrels and the predation of at least three species of deer, are the chief problems we face. Trying to spot the early signs of infection is a real art, and I have consulted a number of experts on this. Every tree tells its own tale of the habitat it occupies, the availability of nutrients, the consistency of water supply, competition through overcrowding, the beneficial fungi and detrimental ones, not to mention the birds and bugs. So, spotting an ash tree where crown growth is starting to die back and become what my tree surgeon refers to as “clumpy”, and distinguishing that from a natural style of growth because of the circumstances in which the tree is growing is a difficult task. I therefore welcome the developments in identifying resistant specimens, wish that a speedy rollout, and hope that that can be readily used in a cost-effective manner in the field.

I note that various estimates have been made of the number of ash trees at risk. When I asked the forestry consultant for the Exmoor National Park, he said, “Our working assumption is 95% of the ash population lost”, and I have heard that elsewhere. However, the immediate existential danger posed by this disease is the biggest worry: as the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, pointed out, the increased brittleness of the tree structure as the disease progresses, the dangers of sudden limb fall and the propensity to spontaneous fracture during felling lead to a form of Venn-diagram approach in which intersecting circles of risk link the trees not only to public rights of way and highways but to railways, power lines, buildings, homes, watercourses, fences and livestock. On steep and fragile slopes such as those I used to encounter on Exmoor, tree work may involve other risks, one recent instance tragically taking the life of a young man close to where I used to farm. I do not see massive harvesting machines as the answer either, let alone on steep slopes. I have seen the results of their use in damage to soils and the sheer wreckage that accompanies what is left behind. I could not bear to see my bluebell woods suffer that fate. Therefore, time-consuming and expensive selective felling remains the only option.

Such considerations also affect charities, public and local authorities as well as private owners. In areas where public access is tolerated, even if it is not exercised as of right, these risks are highly relevant. My involvement with the Rights of Way Review Committee tells me that the public expect their rural leisure walks to be risk free. However, increasingly, that cannot always be guaranteed, and seemingly to erect warning notices is knowingly to admit to an identifiable danger. To let trees fall down on their own, even where it is ostensibly safe to do so, presents its own hazards, as those who had to deal with the outcomes of the 1987 storm and the higgledy-piggledy, dangerous heaps of tangled trees would well understand. So it is not surprising that removing risks wherever possible may involve felling trees that might survive the disease. I hope that the Government have that in focus.

Although the loss of so many fine trees is a sadness, I also see it as an opportunity, in my case for creating a more species-diverse woodland. I echo the points made by other noble Lords about the need for a degree of flexibility and inventiveness on this. I am no climate scientist, but I understand that planting more trees is one way of fixing CO2. I hope that, for non-durable timber such as ash, we can do slightly better than leaving the butts to lie and rot or be burnt in biomass generators, and find long-term uses, such as in construction. However, I acknowledge the benefit of ash logs as a fuel in my domestic wood-burner.

My final point has been made by other noble Lords and it is this. Woodland management and regeneration as a result of disease and pests are very costly and long-term exercises. As others have said, I too am at an age where I am, more than ever, aware that what I do to woodland is for future generations and not for my purposes. But there needs to be a stable, long-term public and fiscal policy towards woodland ownership and management, so that investment works and future owners do not face the conundrum that caused my forebears to fell some of the best and largest trees to defray estate duty or to raise working capital depleted by taxation. Here I am with the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, in thinking that there needs to be a better look at how taxation works. We need smarter ways of working.

I have one comment on grey squirrels to pass to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull: they seem to like sycamores. They love the sugars in their bark. I wonder whether one could plant them as a sort of natural bait to try to round up the little pesky blighters. I look forward to what the Minister says with great interest.