Tree Pests and Diseases - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:21 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Vaux of Harrowden Lord Vaux of Harrowden Crossbench 2:21 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, it is privilege to follow so many experts on this subject. I cannot claim to have the sort of level of expertise that we have heard. It is also difficult, at this stage of the debate, to say anything new, but there are points that bear reinforcement. I hope your Lordships will bear with me.

I start by declaring my interest as a farmer in south-west Scotland, very close to the block of forestry that my noble friend Lord Thurlow referred to. The farm includes woodland, ranging from native trees to commercial conifers. I am currently experiencing the heartbreaking sight of most of the many ash trees on the farm slowly dying. The smaller ones have almost all gone already and the larger ones mostly show signs of sickness. We have already lost the few larches that we had and, rather depressingly, we saw our first grey squirrel two years ago.

My children have never seen an elm; they are only a very distant memory for me. But we are now in danger of losing many of the other iconic species of native trees: the oak, the ash, the Scots pine, the juniper and the slightly less native horse and sweet chestnuts all face threats, as we have heard. That we failed to learn the lessons from Dutch elm disease and allowed ourselves to get into the situation we now find ourselves in is an entirely foreseeable and avoidable tragedy. We live on an island, with all the natural biosecurity advantages that gives. Yet despite this, virtually every threat our trees face has come from abroad, generally through the import of contaminated plants, saplings or wood products, including packaging. Even ash dieback, which, as we have heard, is partly windblown, might well have come in through imported trees. We had huge imports of ash up to 2012.

Other horrors, such as the Asian long-horned beetle and the rather beautiful sounding emerald ash borer beetle, are imminent threats. The Asian long-horned beetle was caught just in time in Kent a few years back after being imported from China on wood packaging for roof slates. Xylella has jumped across from the Americas and has so far been detected in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. It has been caught in Germany for the time being, but it is still there. It threatens a whole range of trees, as we have heard.

The sad truth is that, like the elm, it is probably too late for the ash. Even if small numbers prove immune, it will take generations to replant and replace the trees we have lost. Surely it really is now time to learn the lessons and tighten up biosecurity before we lose any more trees. As my noble and learned friend Lord Hope pointed out so eloquently, we should follow the example of Australia and New Zealand.

I am sure the Minister will point out that we already have processes around the import of plant products, but it is clear that they have not worked. This is especially important given the Government’s desire to plant billions of trees to counteract climate change. Where will they come from? Can we ensure that they are grown here and not contaminated with yet further diseases or pests? It would be a terrible irony if the laudable aim of planting more trees resulted in the loss of yet more species.

We have had references to Scotland. Forestry is a devolved matter. Here I am making a new point, which is quite good for 18 speakers in. There is a risk that divergent practices between the nations of the UK might increase biosecurity risks, so it is critical that the various devolved authorities and the UK Government work closely together and that a framework around phytosanitary and biosecurity arrangements is agreed and followed.

I add my voice to those of noble Lords who have asked how the Government propose to help woodland owners afflicted by these diseases and pests. The loss of the trees, with all the attendant financial costs, not just loss of commercial woodland but the incredible cost of dealing with dead trees—we have heard about the issues with ash trees—is not the fault of the owners. The fault lies clearly at the door of those who allowed these diseases and pests into the country through lax biosecurity: Governments of all colours over many decades. Will the Government help to compensate owners for these losses? There is help for replanting, but that is a minor part of it.

With all these new diseases and pests taking hold, it is extraordinary that Forest Research charges fees for its diagnostic and identification services. Will the Minister consider removing these charges? Charging fees must act as a disincentive for people to provide samples for investigation.

We have lost the elm and we are losing the ash. I would hate for the next generation never to see an oak or a Scots pine. It really is high time that we took real action to prevent the loss of future species.