Tree Pests and Diseases - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:39 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:39 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for tabling this debate; for setting out so eloquently the challenges facing our prized and loved native woodlands; and for sharing his salutary lesson about the travelling pine cone, which we all took to heart. Noble Lords have contributed a wealth of knowledge to the debate and the Minister has done more than most to raise awareness of the dangers of invasive pests and diseases. The challenge is whether we should be doing more.

I declare an interest as the chair of Rothamsted Enterprises—a part of the world-renowned agriculture research institute—which is working on these issues, including the medicinal benefit of trees, to which the right reverend Prelate referred.

During the course of the debate, all noble Lords have given vivid descriptions of the problems we face. More tree pests and diseases have arrived in Britain in the past 40 years than at any time before then. Noble Lords have spoken passionately about the impact of ash dieback and chestnut blight on their localities and landscape, and species of oak, Scots pine, beech and birch are all at risk from invasive bugs, fungi and bacteria, some of which are already here while others are expected at any time soon.

Noble Lords have also highlighted the particular impact of grey squirrels and have described some novel proposals for their eradication. However, one thing is clear—we need a scientific and humane initiative if we are to control their spread.

There is a concern that our native forests could suffer a similar fate to woodlands in the US, where vast swathes of woodland have been wiped out by invasive species. It comes months after the damaging fires which raged in the Amazon rainforest and in parts of Australia, reminding us all too starkly of the vital role trees play in offsetting global warming and supporting biodiversity. We cannot afford to continue losing vast sections of the Amazon rainforest and the crucial role it plays as a carbon sink; and we cannot afford to lose the UK woodlands and their own contribution to achieving our carbon budgets, a point made by a number of noble Lords.

This is why we support the Government’s ambition to plant 11 million trees, even if it fell—pun intended—short of the commitment in my own party’s recent manifesto, to which noble Lords referred. For every tree that dies as a result of invasive pests and diseases, the challenge to meet that planting target—which is already behind schedule—becomes even harder. The cost of dealing with the clear-up of diseased and dying trees adds further economic burdens, with estimates of the impact of ash dieback alone as high as £15 billion.

We are all familiar with the causes of the problem which your Lordships have highlighted today. Global warming is having a huge impact because insects which previously have been killed in harsh winter months are now breeding more than once a year, and our warmer climate is becoming a magnet for new pests which had previously been unable to thrive in the UK. At the same time, the rise in globalised trade of live plants, combined with the impact of travellers often unwittingly hosting pests which hitch a free ride on to our shores, remains a huge challenge.

As noble Lords have made clear, humans bear a major responsibility in this. International travel fuels a taste for exotic plants, and the commercial pressures to feed that demand often outweigh the wider concerns about the impact on our native species. Sometimes the causes can be more mundane but deadly: for example, the use of wooden crates—a perfect vehicle for hungry pests looking for a new home—to transport goods all round the world.

So, what is being done about this challenge? I said at the outset that Defra seems to have a sensible strategy and I am sure the Minister will tell us more about it. The tree health resilience strategy sets out a helpful action plan for combining international collaboration, awareness raising and training with tighter surveillance and controls. However, arguably it lacks the urgency, targets and funding that many noble Lords are demanding today.

I was interested to read an interview with Nicola Spence, the UK’s Chief Plant Health Officer, last year. She described the sterling work by inspectors at the ports and airports—often assisted by sniffer dogs—who are trying to ensure that any wood being imported has been treated and is free from invasive pests and diseases. She emphasised the points that noble Lords have made about the need for better communication and vigilance to ensure that citizens take these issues seriously when travelling abroad. She also outlined the campaign taking place to educate travellers about the threats. However, she also rightly stressed the need for more research into prevention and cure. This could enable us—as we are seeing with the planting project in Hampshire—to develop genetically modified pest-resistant trees, as well as the natural microbes which could be enlisted to fight the diseases. Science is key. Can the Minister give an update on how much extra funding is being provided for this critical research and what are the timeframes for the outcomes to be implemented?

At the same time, it was clear that planting more diverse native woodlands with mixed stands of trees rather than relying on a commercial monoculture of tree planting is crucial, again a point made by a number of noble Lords. Can the Minister clarify what steps are being taken to ensure that commercial growers abandon single-species forests and focus on developing more native and resilient habitats instead?

I agree with many noble Lords that we need to focus on planting home-grown saplings and—a noble Baroness made this point—that we need to get on with placing those orders now because, if we are to meet the target of the number of trees we are planning to grow, it will take time to ensure that those orders come online.

I agree that we need better labelling of the country of origin, backed up by proper and respected assurance schemes. I am taken by the suggestion that we could do more to hold nurseries to account. A number of noble Lords referred to ordering from respected and respectable nurseries but then finding that the stock that arrived was not fit for purpose.

I have reached this point without raising the most urgent issue—the impact on our biosecurity of leaving the EU. This issue was dealt with in the debate last May on the excellent EU Committee paper on plant and animal biosecurity. We have now ceased to be a member state and the Prime Minister has taken every opportunity to restate his determination for the implementation period to end in December even if agreements have not been struck. However, the tree health resilience strategy has at its heart the need for international collaboration and the sharing of research data. We cannot afford to fight this threat alone.

When we have debated these issues before, the Minister has responded that continued involvement in the key EU agencies remains a goal. It is now crunch time: we are out and the clock is ticking. We need to know what will be in place on 1 January 2021. Can the Minister confirm whether the UK wants to continue fully participating in the EU pest and disease notifications systems beyond the implementation period? For example, will David Frost and his team be requesting access to the European alien species notification list beyond December? What contingency plans will be in place if this is not resolved?

Can the Minister confirm that the UK replacement of the EU TRACES system and that IPAFFS will be fully functioning next January? Can he clarify for how long UK laboratories and research institutes will continue to have their EU-derived funding guaranteed? What is the longer-term planning in relation to UK participation in Horizon Europe and other funding sources? Can he give a guarantee that biosecurity inspectors at the ports and airports will continue to carry out their crucial functions unhindered by the need for a new raft of other inspections of goods being imported?

These are huge challenges but we have these issues within our grasp. I look forward to the Minister’s response and what he has to say.