Tree Pests and Diseases - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:51 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative 1:51 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, after the wonderful introduction by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and all the excellent contributions since then, covering the range of problems we are facing, there is not a great deal more for me to say, but I will do my best. Trees are at last getting the recognition they deserve, and money to plant many more is being promised. It is vital that this money is spent wisely and that urgent consideration is given to how we plant, how we look after our existing tree stock and—the subject of today’s debate—how we keep out of our country those pests and diseases that threaten to devastate our present tree population.

When planting, it is important to plant the right species, at the right height, in the right place, bearing in mind such things as soil type, location, et cetera. It is crucial to allow money for proper aftercare and to make sure it is carried out. All too often, money, time and effort are wasted by well-meaning planters thinking planted trees will look after themselves, leading to widespread failure and expensive replanting. It is important too that we appreciate the huge value of the mature trees we already have. They contribute enormously to our lives and well-being, are hard, take many years to replace, and in some cases are irreplaceable. Sadly, HS2 will do great damage, not least to our 108 truly irreplaceable ancient woodlands.

It is important to recognise and make full use of the expertise in tree care provided by organisations such as the Arboricultural Association. It trains and sets standards for tree surgeons, is involved in every aspect of tree planting and maintenance, and has its finger on the pulse of tree health in this country like no other organisation. But nothing is more important or calls for more urgent action than the topic of today’s debate.

For a long time, I have been urging the Government to be much tougher on the importation of trees and to do more to raise public awareness of the dangers of bringing in plant material from abroad—including, I am afraid, fir-cones. We have not done enough. The average holidaymaker would still not think twice about bringing home a plant from a continental holiday. We must seriously crank up the awareness campaign, not just at ports of entry but nationally. Most important of all, we must urgently crack down on the importation of trees. I am grateful to the Woodland Trust, not just for its excellent briefing for today’s debate but for all the work it is putting in to protect our trees and for being the first organisation to commit to planting only homegrown stock.

The situation is dire. The list of tree diseases we have queuing up to invade is frightening. The Government themselves identify 127 high-risk pests and diseases that could have a major impact on our woodlands. I cannot and will not attempt to list all the pests and diseases that are trying to get into this country, but will name one or two. The bacterium Xylella fastidiosa is marching towards us from Italy and can infect a whole range of our trees. The fungal disease plane wilt is devastating plane trees in France. Can we imagine London and other cities without their plane trees? Emerald ash borer is doing much damage in the United States, and is a real and frightening threat to us.

Then we have the sad saga of the oak processionary moth. Have we learned nothing from Dutch elm disease and ash dieback, both imported from abroad? I had understood that oak processionary moth was present in London boroughs and perhaps nearby counties, but was not yet a major problem and was probably controllable. I will read out two Questions I tabled last July and the Answers I received. The first Question was

“what instances of the importation of oak processionary moth on oak trees have occurred in the last 12 months”?

The Answer was this:

“The unprecedented expansion of oak processionary moth (OPM) on the continent has led to intercepts of OPM on oak trees imported from ten nurseries in the Netherlands and one nursery in Germany”.

The other Question I asked was

“in how many locations, and on what dates, oak processionary moths have been identified in the UK”.

This was the Answer:

“The Plant Health Service has intercepted oak processionary moth on oak trees at 58 sites within the UK Protected Zone … The infested oak trees have all been recently imported from the continent. The intercept sites are in the counties and regions of Bedfordshire, Birmingham, Cambridgeshire, County Durham, Devon, Dorset, Essex, Fife, Flintshire, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Hampshire, Invernesshire, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Merseyside, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Staffordshire, Suffolk, Warwickshire, West Midlands, Wiltshire and Yorkshire.”

This is unforgivable. We have done the moth’s job for it. It does not have to spread its wings and fly to infect our trees; we do it for it.

Our system is not working. At best, it could be described as alert and reactive. I call it a sitting duck. Our watchwords should be: aggressively protective. We are an island and we should take advantage of it. Leaving the EU is a golden opportunity to make our own rules and better protect our trees. We must place a total ban on all oak imports regardless of their size. We should look urgently at the possibility of banning other dangerous species, such as olive, lavender and prunus. We should consider introducing a quarantine system for all imported trees. An urgent meeting should be held with everyone involved in growing trees in the UK to see how, and how quickly, we can become more self-sufficient. Everyone in the tree business knows the problems and is keen to help. The Royal Horticultural Society is holding a major garden exhibit at this year’s Chelsea show to mark the International Year of Plant Health.

Finally, the measures I have suggested may sound draconian, but I really believe that nothing less will do. We cannot afford to delay and we cannot afford not to be tough enough. The ash trees dying by our road- sides are a constant reminder of the price of failure.