(1 year, 4 months ago)Lords Chamber
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it is a real privilege for me to have been asked to open this debate. Before I go any further, I should explain that I am doing so on behalf of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, who I am glad to see in his place. It was his idea, and he secured the debate just before his appointment as chairman of the EU Committee made it impossible for him to open it himself. That is why I am speaking now. I can only hope that I can do justice to this crucially important subject in the time available. Of course, I look forward very much indeed to hear what he will have to say when his turn comes to speak, and I know that it is largely due to his initiative that so many noble Lords have put their names down to speak—and many noble Lords have told me that they were unable to do so because of time constraints. So it is a very important subject, which has been well recognised.
The issue to which the Motion draws attention is sadly all too familiar to those of us who care about the countryside and the creatures, including the plants and trees, that are to be found there. The threats posed by non-native animals which become pests is not a new issue. As long ago as 1935, Evelyn Baxter and Leonora Rintoul, in their book A Vertebrate Fauna of Forth, noted that the spread of the grey squirrel in their part of Scotland was likely to be troublesome, and that a good many complaints had already been made about the damage done to trees by that animal. It is now recognised that the grey squirrel is at the top of the list of the introduced species which are regarded as pests that are damaging, especially to trees.
The damage done to ground-nesting birds by another species imported from North America, the mink, has caused great concern. It is only now being brought under control by eliminating that animal from places where it has caused the most damage, particularly the Outer Hebrides. The devastating effect on native species in our rivers by the introduction of signal crayfish from North America to combat European crayfish disease is another example. Then there is the threat to trees caused by tree pests and tree diseases.
There is of course an aesthetic aspect to this problem. No one likes to see dead or dying trees. I think the elms were the first to go; their sad and empty corpses still stand along the edges of fields, as there is no profit to be made from cutting them down. About 35 years ago, acute oak decline made its appearance, and more recently the oak processionary moth, which causes rashes and breathing difficulties for some people and animals, arrived here in 2005. We have also seen the devastating effects of the fungus that causes ash dieback, especially among young trees, which have been planted to improve the contribution that deciduous woodlands make to our environment.
These pests and diseases have wider effects, too. Trees, after all, are part of a much larger ecosystem that includes the birds, animals and insects that inhabit them. When the trees die, the adverse effects extend well beyond the trees themselves. We are fortunate at Craighead, at 1,100 feet in the hills of north-east Perthshire. About 150 years ago, five trees were planted beside the shepherd’s moorland cottage that we now own. They consist of two sycamores, two ash trees and one elm. I hope that I am not tempting fate when I say that they all remain in good health. Indeed, the elm recently seeded a baby elm, which too is doing well. We have planted numerous other trees ourselves—alder, rowan and birch. They provide shelter for a variety of warblers and finches, which we did not have around us before they were planted, but it is the old trees that are the most important for our ecology.
Many birds and numerous insects inhabit them. Most entertaining are the crossbills, which bring their recently fledged young in early spring—just about now in February—to nibble the buds of our ash trees. The young ones do not have cross bills, so nibbling ash trees is much easier than trying to grapple with a pine cone. A pair of starlings nests each year in a hole in one of the ash trees, and swallows circle around all five trees in the summer, picking up the many insects that they attract. The trees are a place of refuge for a variety of ground-feeding birds, which are at risk of being picked off, when out in the open, by a passing merlin or sparrowhawk. So much of that activity would be lost to us if our old trees were to die. This is just a tiny glimpse of a very much larger problem spread throughout the United Kingdom.
It is possible to attribute the arrival of such pests and diseases into the UK to two causes. One is the force of nature itself. By that I mean that they are carried to these shores by birds and insects blown across the sea from continental Europe. There is not much we can do about that, other than to keep our eyes open and seek to eliminate the risk of their spreading by careful management and research into how to tackle them, as much as we can. Birds move around, after all, and the migration of insect species, such as the painted lady butterfly, shows that insects move around too.
The origin of the spread of alien diseases to our native trees, such as the non-native fungus that causes ash dieback and acute oak decline, is not easy to determine. It seems likely that the force of nature had something to do with it, but we must accept part of the blame too, as too little attention was given, in the past, to keeping our eyes open and preventing them gaining a foothold here.
The other cause we must face is misguided or careless human activity. Importing sapling trees from abroad risks bringing alien diseases with them, as well as pests. We have something to learn from the way that controls are imposed by the authorities in New Zealand on the importation into that country of any plant, seed or other vegetable material. The biosecurity controls at their airports far exceed those in operation in the United Kingdom, as I once discovered when I arrived in that country having in my bag a rather attractive and innocent-looking pine cone. I had picked it up on holiday in southern California. I was warned by a form, which I had to complete, to declare any such items on arrival. I duly did so, only to find that I was being treated almost as if I were a criminal. I was escorted on arrival to an office, where the pine cone was impounded. It was sealed inside a plastic bag by an officer wearing rubber gloves, who was distinctly unfriendly, and placed in quarantine. Moreover, I was ordered to sign a form giving my flight details and undertaking to collect it on my way out. Doing that took a lot of time and I nearly missed my flight home. They assumed of course that I would declare my pine cone to the authorities on my return to the United Kingdom, but, on my arrival, I could not see anyone to whom I could declare it—so, I am ashamed to say, I never did.
Now we are about to embark on a major expansion of our woodlands in this country, as part of our contribution to combating climate change. Some idea of the scale of this project can be gathered from a recommendation of the Woodland Trust, which is such a force for good in this context, that 30 new trees should be planted to replace every single tree that has to be taken down for the development of HS2. I believe that this massive drive to plant new trees, however laudable on climate change grounds, carries with it real dangers. Let us hope that we can boost our native nursery production to keep pace with demand, and that the young stock that is used for this expansion is carefully chosen to see that it is free from alien diseases.
Leaving trees aside, we are all too familiar with the way the introduction of non-native species can affect the survival of those that are native to these islands. The grey squirrel is one example that I have given; American mink and signal crayfish are two more. Some of the worst examples of misguided human activity can be found in New Zealand and Australia, where serious damage has been caused by the uncontrolled spread of rabbits. The sad fact is that the introduction of a non-native species to control another can make matters worse—we have the example of the signal crayfish. In New Zealand, stoats were introduced to control the rabbits, but they soon devastated that country’s unique ground-nesting wildlife, which had evolved in the absence of any predatory land mammals.
Man’s introduction of non-native birds can be just as damaging. The common myna was introduced to control insect pests in Australia, but it has caused widespread damage to native birds in the competition for nesting sites. I do not think that the European blackbirds, song thrushes and yellowhammers, which seem to flourish in New Zealand, do any harm there, but the European starling is a real pest, as it is in some parts of North America. The cactus wren, which nests in holes in the tall saguaro cactus trees in Arizona, finds it hard to maintain its numbers in the face of competition for these holes from starlings. There are lessons for us in these examples: there are dangers in trying to control non-native pests by the introduction of non-native predators. This applies not just to animals and birds; the introduction of non-native insects to do the same thing can be just as damaging, unless care is taken to assess the effects before it is too late.
I worry about the recent introduction of the white-tailed sea eagle to Mull and other parts of the west Highlands. The return of the osprey, which is not man-assisted, is very welcome and I am not aware of any adverse consequences. One could say the same thing about the collared dove, which extended its range from eastern Europe with remarkable speed and reached us in the 1960s; but the sea eagle, whose return was man-assisted, preys extensively on lambs and is at risk of driving some sheep farmers out of business. Rewilding of this kind by the introduction of species that used to breed here is a romantic idea that seems unlikely to cause undue damage to our native wildlife, but it does have its dangers too.
Against that sad background, I very much welcome Defra’s tree health resilience strategy, which was published in May 2018. It was set up to reduce the risk of pest and disease threats to trees and increase their resilience to such threats. Among other things, the strategy is designed to establish common UK-wide approaches, along with the devolved Administrations, to plant health policy. Given that, I will seek four assurances from the Minister.
First, can we be assured that the action plan really is being put into practice and that the funding it needs to implement common rules and ways of working will be maintained well into the future, notwithstanding the effects of Brexit? Secondly, can we be assured that the budget for combating the importation of invasive species, which at present is a minute part of the total spend on biosecurity, will be increased to keep pace with the increasing challenges that we face, including the importation, if it continues, of new trees?
Thirdly, can we be assured that, now that we have left the EU, we will keep closely in touch with EU environmental law and that common approaches to retained EU law will be maintained with the devolved Administrations so that there will be no loopholes through which pests and diseases might creep? Fourthly, can the greatest care be taken to see that, when new woodlands are being planted here by private individuals, local bodies and other organisations, the trees that are chosen are taken from stock that has been grown in the British Isles, not imported from overseas, and that it is truly disease free? I beg to move.
My Lords, it is sobering to consider that not many of us alive today remember what the English countryside looked like before the ravages of Dutch elm disease. It is for those of us who do remember to draw a parallel between that cataclysm and the one we are told is about to descend on us with ash dieback, which I think will alter the countryside to a far greater degree than most can appreciate. It is timely that we are having this debate, and I congratulate my noble and learned friend Lord Hope and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, on securing it.
I served recently on your Lordships’ ad hoc Rural Economy Committee. In our report we laid emphasis on the importance of a place-based approach. This is particularly true of any discussion about woodland tree pests and diseases, where my personal experience and observations relate specifically to Kent. We have two tree types most at risk from disease: the native oak, and the sweet chestnut, historically an import but which has now become part of our woodland vernacular.
With the Chatham dockyard nearby and the oaks of England providing the crucial first line of defence in the construction of ships of the line for the Royal Navy from Elizabethan to Napoleonic times, oaks and Kent come naturally in the same sentence. Oak dieback and acute oak decline have been evident for a number of years. We have an ongoing monitoring programme, and in many instances it seems difficult to distinguish dieback from the other diseases from which the oak suffers, such as defoliation by the oak processionary moth. Certain gradual and sudden deaths are problematic to diagnose, with some people maintaining that perhaps certain individual trees have been weakened by the effects of global warming—on which I have my doubts. Oak and ash trees dying across our landscape would make it nigh on unrecognisable, and any science that can be funded to help arrest such a tragedy should be hugely encouraged.
Kent has many tens of thousands of acres of sweet chestnut, a versatile wood used historically for pit props in east Kent coalfields, hop poles when we had a vibrant beer industry, charcoal when London depended on that fuel source, and fencing materials. It is still valued for the last and is an excellent biomass fuel source, given the intensity of its burn. The arrival of sweet chestnut blight has given us cause for huge concern. While it seems to be contained currently, it has brought home the need for the proper monitoring of imports and for endless in-field or in-wood vigilance.
Those who lived through the great storm of 1987 remember its immediate effects, but those who were in the eye of it continue to live with its consequences. For us in west Kent, the obliteration of the deer fences at the National Trust’s Knole Park resulted in the introduction to the locality of a fallow deer herd population that has been impossible to control. The effect on natural regeneration of native woodland has been devastating and catastrophic, as has the effect on ground-nesting birds when all natural cover has been grazed away. There are said to be more deer in England now than at any time in our history, which will have a severely detrimental effect on self-sown and self-selecting species. Advocates of rewilding who want to include the introduction of deer in that process should realise the disadvantages this can produce.
However, the foreign invader that has taken most advantage of the devastation wrought by the storm is the rhododendron ponticum, another persistent and vigorous invader that leaves a barren undercanopy that is hostile to all our native fauna and flora. Along with other plants introduced originally for Victorian gardens, such as Japanese knotweed, it is expensive and time-consuming to deal with and should be in the bull’s-eye for any new forestry grant programme that emanates from the Agriculture Bill.
Last but by no means least is the destroyer of much new tree growth, the grey squirrel—evidenced by brown strips of barked saplings and dead new growth in plantation and coppice—another pest introduced for aesthetic reasons with no appreciation of the damage it could do if left unchecked, not least to our native red squirrel, birds’ eggs and unfledged chicks. It seems we are unable to control it—a view that probably has much in common with the prevailing wisdom of our grandparents’ generation about the rabbit, which in its millions was devastating field and woodland crops. That was controlled in the end by the advent of myxomatosis. Let us hope that scientists can come up with a more humane solution for the grey squirrel, but a solution there must be if we are to encourage a vibrant commercial woodland industry.
We can expect to have to deal with natural and weather-related disasters, and we are at the mercy of windborne spores and pests, such as ash cholera and the box moth, but what we can prevent we must guard against, such as the import of disease on young plants and the release into the wild of animals that will upset our wonderful, historic, native ecosystem. We should also guard against our own ill-thought-out measures such as plastic tree guards, which blight our woodland for decades and leave permanent pollution.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for obtaining the debate and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cope of Craighead, for his excellent introduction. For these Benches, and indeed for many Members of your Lordships’ House, trees have a special significance. They feature in the first chapter of the holy scriptures in Genesis and they reappear in the final chapter of the Bible in the Book of Revelation chapter 22, where we find that enigmatic phrase
“the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
The ancients certainly knew some of the medicinal properties of leaves. Perhaps what they did not quite realise in the way we do today, due to scientific research, is the extraordinarily vital role trees play in modern life by absorbing carbon dioxide and other chemicals, and trapping airborne dust. Strategically planted trees, along with appropriate hedging, can make a material difference by reducing pollution alongside busy roads. In urban areas they regulate temperature, helping to reduce heat in the summer and, if planted in the right places, acting as windbreaks and even providing energy savings in the winter.
We have yet again been facing more flooding and revisiting its causes, part of which is to do with the removal of important areas of trees, which have the ability to slow down the run-off when there are heavy rains and which themselves absorb massive amounts of water. As well as providing habitats for wildlife, they have many wider benefits. Indeed, some research suggests that when people recuperate in hospitals they do so at a faster rate if they have windows looking out over the countryside, particularly where there are trees.
Three miles north of St Albans where I live is the newish Heartwood Forest, on the edge of the village of Sandridge. It is a wonderful project that has been developed by the Woodland Trust. It has 850 acres— 340 hectares—of woodland, with more than half a million native trees. Half a million is a lot of trees to get planted, yet the Committee on Climate Change recommends that we will need to plant about 30,000 hectares —74,000 acres—of woodland annually if we are to address issues of climate change. So far we are planting fewer than that. Indeed, some voices claim that we ought to be planting more like a billion trees, which may seem beyond our reach and an impossible target.
However, we can learn a lot from Heartwood Forest. It has been the most extraordinary initiative, bringing together local people to work voluntarily on the project. It is increasing wildlife and involving many groups and schools from every part of society. Above all it has produced a wonderful local amenity that is drawing people from a wide area to enjoy the walks. It is good for the physical and mental health of the local community.
Tree planting is crucial for much wider issues, as is trying to work out how we can prevent the death of those trees that are dying. It is notable that, as Defra put it, since 2010, some 15 million trees have been planted, and there is a 25-year environmental plan to grow woodland cover further.
In the dioceses of the Church of England we are playing our part. The Diocese of Lincoln is planning to use small areas of underproductive glebe for tree planting. The Bishop of Norwich has taken to presenting all confirmation candidates with a hazel sapling, so that they can plant a tree and one day hold a hazelnut. Those who know the spiritual works of Julian of Norwich will understand the hazelnut’s significance. The plans for the Lambeth Conference taking place in Canterbury this summer include planting the “Lambeth Grove” on four acres of diocesan land near the village of Shepherdswell.
I am glad to have planted more than 40 trees in my garden in the last few years. However, turning to the focus of today’s debate—the increase in diseases and pests affecting our native trees—the close connection with climate change makes this important not only for those of us who love and plant trees. How do we get this virtuous cycle going? There is evidence that some diseases are surviving in this country because our temperature is edging up. The danger is that as diseases take hold because the new climate is more attractive for them, it will be even harder to get the extra trees in, not least our native trees. Native trees are less likely to need lots of fertilisers, and are more likely to grow healthily, because this is where they have developed.
How do we address this downward spiral, when, with increasing temperatures, more diseases are coming? There is the danger that we are fighting a losing battle. Therefore, I ask the Minister, first, about the general commitment of the Government to tree planting for rural landowners. Is that going to continue? Can it be increased? To what extent is it dependent on planting native trees?
Secondly, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to reduce dramatically the numbers of trees being imported? Can we follow the good example of the Woodland Trust, which now only plants trees propagated in this country? What representations are the Government making to the largest landowners in the country to encourage them to get on board with the prevention of native tree diseases and pests? Finally, what assessment is being made of Defra’s tree health resilience strategy? How do we know what impact it is making and how can we build on it in the years to come?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for introducing this very important subject at such a crucial time.
I will concentrate almost entirely on ash dieback. We were slow in waking up to this terrible threat to our ash, and I am not sure that, even now, we are fully aware of the scale of the devastation upon us. Writing in 2012, George Monbiot pointed out that there had been clear signs of the disease for the previous three years and nothing had been done about it. Since then, the Government have taken a number of valuable initiatives, as outlined in the Answer to my Oral Question on 25 June last year. However, the rapidity of the spread has taken everyone by surprise. There is now hardly any part of the country unaffected. I spent last summer in west Wales, on the edge of Cardigan Bay. Normally, I look out over a field lined with the most glorious green ash on either side.
In the Bible there is a little-known form of poetic literature called a lament. The sight of those devastated ash trees provoked in me nothing less than such a lament:
“Thin branches stripped bare, stark against the sky,
Dry sticks prodding the air
Through leaves once fair,
Now drooping. O why?
Dying back. Dying back.
Fresh leaves once so green and fresh
Sagging in defeat,
Once you rose so high above the fern.
Great green Wales in slow retreat.
Dying back. dying back”.
What is happening to our trees is indeed an occasion for lament. I have mentioned ash, others have mentioned chestnut and oak, and I am sure we shall hear more about that.
We are waking up to this, but I am not sure that we have even now ascertained the scale of it. At the moment the ash is a major feature of our landscape. There are 123,000 hectares of ash in stocked woodlands, second only to oak in extent. Outside woodlands, the UK has an estimated 60 million ash trees, which represent 12% of our broadleaf. However, the ash is important not only for itself but for the species associated with it. There are 955 species associated with ash and 45 of these are thought to have only ever been found on ash trees.
This disease will be devastating not only for the look of the countryside but for all the ecological and environmental benefit trees bring. As we know, trees are fundamental to the ecosystem and play a major role in counteracting the effects of global warming and climate change by absorbing and storing carbon.
There is also the effect on human health. Trees are not only good to look at but are good for our health. Recent studies in medical journals show a correlation between the spread of ash dieback and the increase of respiratory diseases in a given area. In all, Defra has estimated that ash has a social and environmental value of £230 million per year.
One lesson to be learned from what has happened to ash dieback is the need for stricter controls on all imports of seeds and saplings. Ash dieback entered the UK from East Anglia only a few years ago and, as I mentioned earlier, spread with extraordinary rapidity. One question for the Government is whether import controls are stricter now than they were then. I am sure other noble Lords are better qualified than I am to judge whether the steps the Government have so far taken are adequate in this area.
My major concern is, first, with research. It is vital that we identify, develop and plant strains of ash which are resistant to the disease. The Government say that they have put £6 million into this but I wonder whether this is adequate for the scale of the crisis. What success has there so far been in identifying types of ash that are tolerant of the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, which blocks water getting to the leaves and causes the ash gradually to die back from the branches. When a strain of ash that is tolerant to the disease is found, a replanting programme must begin. This should be on a massive scale.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, some noble Lords will remember—as I do—when our fields and hedgerows were resplendent with the English elm. As a result of Dutch elm disease, 60 million trees were lost in the UK in two epidemics. Only 100 were left after the last one. Now, a variety that is resistant to the disease has been identified. What is the Government’s policy on replanting elm, and what success have they had in replacing those millions of destroyed trees? It was good to hear from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, about the success he has been having in Scotland not only with ash but with elm.
I hope the Government might be spurred by the example of Ethiopia, where there is a programme to plant 4 billion trees in a single year; last year, 330 million were planted in one day alone.
At the moment it is the policy in some areas—for instance, the Ministry of Defence—to fell these trees when they are diseased. Is this really the best policy? It could be argued that if they are left standing—or, at least, if they are left on the ground—all the insects we need in this country could be saved. We are now hearing about an insect apocalypse: 80% of them are about to be lost. We need to retain insect life, on which the whole of the ecosystem depends, in this country in any way we can.
Ash dieback is devastating our countryside, causing significant damage to our ecosystem, to our health—spiritual, mental and physical—and to the economy. There needs to be a sense of urgency, both in research and replanting, which we can but hope will spring from this.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and his compelling contribution. Ash is a key part of our garden, and the dieback disease is one glen away from us in Scotland. I also thank and congratulate my noble and learned friend Lord Hope. He volunteered to lead the debate, and did so in a far better and more adept way than I could ever have done. Every time we go to New Zealand, we will all remember his story about the pine cone. I fear that I have been a bit guilty of that as well—also from southern California.
We are the stewards of our islands’ environment, and that environment is fragile. The very essence of that environment, and the diversity of flora and fauna it supports, is our native trees. There are today about two oaks for every member of the population. Without the oak, Nelson would have had no ships and this palace would have no panelling and very little furniture. Ash provided the shafts for the arrows at Agincourt, beech gave us the stocks for the muskets at Waterloo, and birch plywood made the wings of the “Wooden Wonder”, the Mosquito.
We enjoy fantastic forestry conditions in these islands. Mild winters, plentiful rainfall, fertile soil and hill-sheltered topography all interact for the good, and growth rates exceed those of mainland Europe. At the end of the First World War less than 5% of Britain’s land surface was wooded. Although this has now risen to 13%, we have far to go. Across the EU, woodland coverage averages 38% of the landscape. I note that France, Germany, Spain and Italy have more than 30% of their landscape covered. All of us in the Chamber are aware of the positive contribution to climate change problems that forestry could make.
Some 44,000 people are employed in UK forestry and primary wood processing, with a GVA of £2.1 billion. How those figures could rise if we were able purposefully to increase our acreage of well-managed woodland—but our native trees have never faced a more formidable spectre of threat than they do today from disease and pests. There are many diseases, and I regret that I do not have time to go into any of them, but, like other noble Lords, I note the absolute necessity for excellent biosecurity and good research.
So I turn to pests. The disease battle is interconnected with pests, as they can be vectors for disease, as both direct carriers and as weakeners of trees, either by opening up wounds that allow secondary attack or simply by stressing the plant. The worst and most destructive of all pests is the grey squirrel. Here, I declare my interests as set out in the register as chairman of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust and of the UK Squirrel Accord. Grey squirrels were first introduced into this country in 1876 in Cheshire. Between 1876 and 1930, around 500 animals are recorded as having been released into the wild. By 1930 or so, awareness had risen sharply of the damage that grey squirrels do to broadleaf trees and to red squirrel numbers, and that was the genesis of anti-grey squirrel feeling. The 500 grey squirrels introduced up to 1930 have grown into a grey squirrel population that 90 years later is estimated at 2.7 million.
The problem where broadleaf trees are concerned is that the grey squirrel ring-barks younger trees to get at the sap. This ring-barking causes terrible wounds to the tree, killing up to 70% of them and making the timber quality of the remainder poor. It is no wonder that grey squirrels and the threat that they pose are, alone, responsible for the dearth of new broadleaf commercial planting in the south-east of England, with all the biodiversity, wildlife and climate advantages that it would bring.
The challenge posed by grey squirrels as the leading threat to trees has given rise to the UK Squirrel Accord with its 37 signatories, comprising the four Governments, their nature agencies, the principal voluntary sector interested parties and the principal private sector representative entities. The Squirrel Accord has commissioned a fertility control project at the Animal and Plant Health Agency which, it is hoped, will perfect a suitable active substance and hopper delivery method to allow simple fertility control to shrink grey squirrel numbers significantly, in turn allowing forestry a chance. We are entering the third of five years of research involving scientists in the UK, the USA and France. Significant progress has been made; I pay a warm tribute to the Minister for his support and encouragement, for APHA reports to him. I look forward to hearing what he will say on this element of the battle against the multiple threats.
The grey squirrel and, indeed, the deer problem—to which the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, referred—are today well managed by some landowners but not at all by others. In the future, the co-operation of all land managers will be vital. This necessity for land-manager engagement applies across all the major environmental and climate challenges that we face.
Before I close, I will make one further point. The oak processionary moth—to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, referred—was accidentally introduced into Britain in 2005. The oak processionary moth strips trees bare, leaving them weakened and vulnerable to other threats. By the start of 2019, all 33 London boroughs had had outbreaks. While £37 million has been spent by government on control, I regret that the problem seems to have spread to Bracknell and Virginia Water. While this large expenditure is necessary, I note that the research expenditure requests for pests and squirrels are for far lesser sums. I do hope that this balance—between expenditure on control and expenditure on research to try to combat the problem—is carefully considered by the Government.
I close by asking the Minister whether he believes that he has sufficient powers and resources for the battle against the many threats that we are discussing today.
I first declare my interest as co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Gardening and Horticulture Group which, interestingly, produced a report about 18 months ago. We had a kind of mini Select Committee, but without all the resources. We saw and had written submissions from a number of key people in the horticultural and arboricultural worlds; this was very helpful to us.
What is germane to today’s discussion is that we looked at the problem of pests and diseases, which is of enormous concern in relation not only to trees but to all other plants. We concluded that one key way forward would be to try to home-grow plants as import substitution. We realised that this would not be undertaken overnight, although I must say that Kew botanical gardens gave us a wonderful example by reducing to the absolute minimum any imported trees. Those they do have to import are placed in quarantine for at least 12 months. Maybe others cannot quite match that example, but it is something to which we should aspire as a country, particularly those of us involved in planting trees.
We discovered to our horror that oaks were imported —I imagine they still are. We had details from 2013 to 2015, whereby oaks were imported to the tune of 1.6 million trees. Oaks, the signature tree of the British Isles, are being imported on that scale. There is much to be done regarding oaks and other imports that carry these risks. In that connection, we suggested that there should be a far more robust health assurance scheme for all plants. I hope the Minister will be able to give us more details of what the Government may have in mind because that is key in establishing a healthy population of trees and other plants.
We also looked at how we might help with the issue of imports, which are extremely worrying. One thought that occurred to us was that there should be some tax incentives—something along the lines of the film industry, which has a tax relief on the making of films, subject to various conditions. That would surely help both commercial nurseries trying to grow trees and organisations such as the Woodland Trust and all the other bodies that have an interest in native trees and, above all, in not importing trees. I hope the Minister will look at that very closely.
In addition, we would be anxious to see very different arrangements made for procurements for major government projects. For example, and this is a good example, the Olympic Park got orders well in advance of the needs. As a result, no fewer than 4,000 trees were procured for the park, together with innumerable other plants. All the people in the industry say, “If we are going to grow trees we need a fairly long time lead, so if we are going to do it for commercial purposes we need to be sure that we have that before the capital cost of all this is embarked upon.” I imagine, for example —though this is much contested—that the new high-speed railway will need innumerable trees. Surely we should be getting on with orders for those early, to give our native growers a chance to contribute.
I turn to another matter touched on by others in this debate: research. It is extremely important that research should be dedicated to dealing with pests and diseases in all their various forms; others have given indications of that. Earlier this week I met a gentleman closely concerned with Woodland Heritage. He told me—I think he knew that the Minister was interested in this—that among its other objectives, it has contributed to research funds for acute oak decline. I understand that other bodies, including the City of London, have also contributed and I was told that £2 million has already been raised. However, money does not go too far in these expensive projects, and I hope the Minister can give a clear indication of how much research funding will be available for these purposes in the next few years.
Others have touched on being much more severe about import controls. I should like to add a small, though not particularly technical, point: people import in other countries, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, found when he came across very severe measures. I think we could do with severe measures such as those he had to endure to deal with that pine cone. Notices at all airports and ports of entry should not merely say “Imports of these things are forbidden”; they should explain, in a short manner, why that is important. To the average person, bringing the odd bulb or two in does not seem important. What is involved needs to be spelled out in very clear language. I hope we take that on board. It is not particularly scientific; it simply needs to be drawn to the attention of people who otherwise, quite innocently, would not know what they were doing.
Mention has been made of the importance of growing trees and adding to our list of trees, so the last thing in the world we want is to lose the ones we already have. I look forward to the tree planting that will go on. Like somebody else here, I have done my own small bit by planting some in my garden; I will certainly continue to do so. It would be well advised, in addition to the major schemes, to encourage others individually to do the same.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for bringing this important debate forward. I declare my interests as a farmer and landowner with woodland under active management.
Last summer, the importance of this debate came home to me when I received a call from the Animal and Plant Health Agency, acting on behalf of the Forestry Commission. It wished to inspect two oak trees for the oak processionary moth. I had bought those two trees earlier that year from a well-known nursery. Happily, neither was infected, but it was a wake-up call. Sadly, it had never occurred to me to ask whether these trees were imported; there was certainly no label to indicate that they were imports. The Forestry Commission was able to track the trees to the nursery, and hence to me, but why is there no requirement for nurseries to inform the purchaser of the country of origin? The Woodland Trust has developed an accreditation scheme for domestically produced trees. Surely this should be widened to include foreign-sourced trees. Also, when purchases are made, it is an ideal opportunity to hand over a leaflet on potential threats to trees. Even as the owner of woodland, I have received no such information. Surely this information should be circulated to all registered woodland owners, together with amenity and countryside groups, schools and universities.
The Forestry Commission’s Public Opinion of Forestry 2019 survey confirmed the public’s high regard for trees and woods and their awareness of pests and diseases, which 65% were willing to report if they had the necessary information. The Government’s 2018 tree health resilience strategy says all the right things and calls for 11 actions in its action plan but, again, how will this be delivered and with what resources? The Woodland Trust’s Observatree volunteer scheme is brilliant but needs to be massively expanded to be truly effective.
Moving on to the trees themselves, although native trees are the subject of this debate, the distinction between native and non-native is no longer helpful in the light of a number of factors, including climate change, Chalara in the native ash and the horse chestnut being placed on the red list. Woodland managers are governed by the Forestry Commission’s practice guide, Managing Ancient and Native Woodland in England, which was published in 2010 and covers the species that may be planted in our ancient woodland. Outcome A from page 27, concerning the species composition of native woodland, states:
“The presumption is that the proportion of the canopy occupied by native species is being maintained or increased. In most native woodland at least 80% of the canopy is comprised of native species.”
I believe this proportion to be restrictive and counterproductive. It also fails to take into account the fact that many existing native woodlands were established using a conifer nurse crop. A more enlightened view of species choice is required and forest service area teams need to be allowed more flexibility in the use of non-native and honorary native species such as black walnut, alder and sycamore, particularly when we cannot replant ash, which accounts for more than 10% of our so-called native species. Climate change needs to be taken into account, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said. It affects what species we plant and how well they do.
Many years ago, a former chairman of the Forestry Commission told me that it was the best job in the world, as your mistakes never became apparent till you were long dead. I hope we can move on from this depressing statement.
Then there are the pests, in particular the squirrel. This is what the boss of one of the major woodland management companies said to me last week:
“I myself will no longer fell and restock beech in the Chilterns until we have a more certain future for the trees we are planting. Currently we are often simply planting squirrel food.”
Much has been said and will be said about the grey squirrel. We have heard from the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, about the work of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, UK Squirrel Accord and the European Squirrel Initiative, so I can usefully add little, but I would be interested to hear from the Minister about the funding and likely timing of any sterilisation or oral contraceptive plans. Similarly, there is a directly inherited genetic bias initiative for concentrating on squirrel control through encouraging male offspring rather than female offspring, which helps reduce the population. Once again, I believe that funding is a problem and government support would be appreciated. We cannot and should not eliminate the grey squirrel, but the balance needs to be addressed and every option, including the reintroduction of the pine marten, looked at.
The other major pest, of course, is deer. Progress was being made in this area by the work of the Deer Initiative Ltd, which was set up to deliver the outcomes of the Deer Initiative Partnership. It has had a huge impact on creating best practice in deer control and educating people and institutions in the industry. It has also been involved in the Government’s new scheme for environmental land management, which is a crucial part of the Agriculture Bill. Now it is to be wound up at the end of March due to lack of funding. Please could the Minister look at reviving and resourcing the Deer Initiative, which is crucial in the work of protecting trees, flora and fauna.
These points are but some of the challenges we face. Dealing with them is easier in commercial woodland that is professionally managed than in amenity woodlands in the south of England. For such amenity woods, I urge the Government to look at directing Section 106 money resulting from development into their care and maintenance, and to investigate conditions of increased public access, which would potentially result in more local voluntary help in the preservation of our woodlands.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for introducing this debate. Woodlands, forest areas, parks, gardens and private dwellings bring benefits to those who visit and enjoy them but, as the noble and learned Lord said, they are under constant threat from pests and diseases. I have three points to make: on individual responsibility, on woodland management and on government responsibilities.
I should declare an interest as patron of the Leicestershire end of the National Forest, which was created from redundant coal mines, wasteland areas and other farmland. For the past 25 years, the National Forest Company has worked with partners and landowners to create a new forest across 200 square miles in the heart of the Midlands. Some 80% of these sites have public access, around 10,000 volunteers help in the management of woodlands each year and over 50% of primary schools undertake regular outdoor learning in woodland settings. This is a great achievement in a comparatively short space of time but, like other woodlands, it faces the constant threat of pests and diseases to its native trees.
Currently for the National Forest, grey squirrels and ash dieback are having the greatest impact. Recent figures released by the European Squirrel Initiative—which other noble Lords have spoken about—show that grey squirrels cost English forestry in excess of £40 million per annum. In trying to reduce the spread of diseases, the National Forest Company trains and upskills local volunteers in woodland management and educates the public on a range of preventive measures, from controlling the plant stock that enters the country through to warning dog walkers about keeping their boots clean—simple steps that we can all take.
The Woodland Trust states that there are some 20 non-native pests and diseases affecting native UK trees, six of which have reached epidemic levels. In its briefing, the trust reminds us that it is the landowner who bears the cost when unsafe trees are felled. Clearly prevention is the best and most cost-effective way to manage pests and disease, but what additional biosecurity measures are being considered? I mentioned earlier the damage done by grey squirrels, but deer and muntjac also cause extreme damage to young trees. Do the Government have a wildlife management plan in place and, if so, will they review it?
The European Union Committee, in its report published on 24 October 2018, Brexit: Plant and Animal Biosecurity, noted that the UK currently follows EU legislation on biosecurity, with decisions on implementation made predominately at EU level. On leaving the EU, the UK has opportunity to strengthen and improve our biosecurity, including the checks at ports and airports that have already been mentioned. If the plant passport scheme has failed, what measures will be put in place?
In May 2018, the Government published their Tree Health Resilience Strategy, to which other noble Lords have referred. I hope the Minister will update us on its progress, though I know it has not been a very long period of time. Can he also update us on the new imports notification system which was being developed and was due to be ready for end-to-end testing in January 2019?
The City of London Corporation manages 11,000 acres, including Epping Forest, which protects more ancient trees than any other site in the UK. Monitoring and managing the threats of pest and diseases come at a significant cost. Ramorum disease, commonly known as sudden oak death, also threatens beech trees, and some 80% of the UK’s ancient beech pollards are within Epping Forest. In controlling the disease, the corporation has removed hundreds of rhododendrons, which were referred to by my noble friend Lord Colgrain earlier, and felled over 600 larch trees on the edge of the forest to prevent further spreading. Drastic actions have been taken to preserve the trees. The corporation recognises that prevention is better than cure and has called for the regulations relating to plant and tree nurseries and the movement of vegetation to be reviewed.
I turn to what the Government should be doing—I know my noble friend the Minister is very keen to do all that he can. The Conservative Party manifesto commits the Government to planting many thousands of trees over the coming years. Clearly these trees planted should be disease free but, with trade becoming increasingly global, I believe there is an urgent need for stricter controls to be put in place on imported plants and trees. We should know where these trees are coming from. If disease is imported, then surely the rule that the polluter pays—to which we pay great credit—should be considered back through the supplier to the nursery that produced the trees in the first place.
Trees bring enormous benefits, as we have heard from other speakers. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for reminding us that we are stewards for future generations. As a hazel nut, I have a great interest in and love of trees. I cannot think why my parents called me Hazel—though I am not a nut. This debate is crucial not only for us now but the many generations that will follow us.
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.
My Lords, in the last two decades alone, there have been 14 new diseases and five new major pest outbreaks that threaten our woodlands. All these pests and diseases have been aided and abetted by the single most dangerous pest to woodlands in the UK: we humans. Not only have we imported many of the pests and dispersed them around the country, but despite having an excellent climate for growing trees in this country we are, in general, bad at forestry and silviculture. The statistics make dismal reading. Despite the fact that the amount of land under woodland has tripled in the last century, the UK is the world’s second largest net importer of timber. Some 77% of our broadleaf woodlands are still represented by only five species, and disease is currently wiping one of them, ash, out.
Some 15% of our broadleaf woodland, including our best beech trees, are damaged by grey squirrels. It almost impossible to grow commercial broadleaf timber in the UK. Importantly, and I stress this, 58% of our woodlands and 80% of our broadleaf woodlands are unmanaged or badly managed. We are woefully ill equipped for the further challenges of rapid man-made climate change. Unmanaged woodlands are a result of years of Governments virtually ignoring the needs of private sector forestry and receiving poor advice. The Forestry Commission is no longer fit for purpose. Its structure is flawed and it remains, in good communist fashion, the regulator, prosecutor, judge and jury of forestry in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, reminded us that as a large landowner it has got away unchallenged with its own mistakes while costing the taxpayer a great deal of money.
Poor or no management occurs primarily because it is uneconomic to manage woodland as a timber crop. It is a well-established fact that trees get stressed and when they do, they, just like us humans, are much more susceptible to diseases and pests. The condition of individual trees and the structure of stands are important determinants of the extent of such damage, but the degree to which this is true, and the mechanisms, vary. Where most trees have vigorous, healthy crowns and a suitably large growing space for their position in the structure, they are much more resilient than where excessive lateral competition produces stands with poor crowns. Unfortunately, our planting system of even-aged, single species grown in straight rows, as preferred by the Forestry Commission, leads to dense stands with quiet, humid conditions. Trees in this situation are under severe stress and species such as ash and oak, which are particularly intolerant of lateral competition, become highly susceptible. Conditions in dense stands of ash lead to increased spore production and greater damage from ash dieback, while in oak stands, the beetle causing acute oak decline is attracted to the stressed individuals. Unmanaged woodland—more than half our woodlands is in this condition—becomes a haven for pests and diseases.
Owners are also implementing non-intervention management because of a misguided intention to help wildlife. However, there is strong evidence from studies of plants, insects and birds that some of our best-loved woodland wildlife is in crisis. The richness of woodland plant species has declined by 19%, woodland butterfly populations by 74% and birds by 32%. Poor or no management is putting at risk not only our biosecurity but our biodiversity. To mitigate these threats, it is long overdue that we move to a more sustainable tree management system that avoids large concentrations of young, dense, pole-staged stands with low air movement and potential for high build-up of fungal spores and pests.
We should aim for woodlands of mixed and uneven aged species. These more open stands have better airflow and can develop under-storeys which are beneficial in deflecting spore movement. I have advocated this for more than 50 years and I am delighted that there is growing support for it from companies such as SelectFor Ltd. Sadly, there are still far too many flat-earthers in positions of control and influence in the forestry world who are protecting their established ways. Ideally, such a system as I recommend should include self-sown trees, but that is unlikely now, given our inability to control the deer population explosion. Lovely as they are, excessive numbers mean they become a pest and are a threat not only to young trees but to biodiversity, the environment and humans.
My noble friend Lady Byford was right to say that good management is expensive. I shall give one example. Richmond and Bushy Parks have an annual budget of £200,000 to manage the problem of oak processionary moth, and last year 9,000 nests were removed. How many landowners and farmers, whom the Government are encouraging to plant trees, does the Minister know who have budgets to control the moth in the same way as the Royal Parks?
The new enthusiasm to plant trees is welcome, but that is the easy bit. On its own, the Forestry Commission’s mantra of “the right tree in the right place for the right reason” is just fatuous claptrap. As the Royal Forestry Society accurately states in its latest report, Forestry and Climate Change, planting more trees is fine but managing them and our existing woods is a long-term commitment requiring considerable skill and perseverance. There are exceptions but generally, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, has just told us, we are woefully lacking in those skills in the UK and there is no structure or funding to redress that. If forestry is not profitable, the taxpayer needs to help those who plant and manage trees, just as we do with those who plant crops. If we do not do this, our grandchildren will end up with empty plastic tubes and distorted, valueless timber.
I will finish with a quote from Tony Kirkham, the head of the arboretum at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Although it is contrary to our current forestry practice, I commend it to the Government and all who plant trees. When referring to the great storm of 1987, he said:
“The golden rule that I got from the storm was that you’ve got to copy nature and run with her and you’ll succeed.”
My Lords, I echo the thanks to my noble and learned friend Lord Hope and my noble friend Lord Kinnoull for procuring this valuable debate. I declare an interest as a trustee of the International Dendrology Society. It is an honour to follow so many knowledgeable noble Lords, but it must be said that at this point in the debate, 10 speakers in, we are all likely to be crossing similar paths in various areas, so please forgive me when I cross ground that has already been touched on.
Trees are such an integral part of our landscape, both urban and rural. They support biodiversity by housing a wide range of animals and providing them with food. They help make towns and cities attractive places to live and boost mental health. Imagine cities without the plane, platanus hispanica, or the common sycamore, acer pseudoplatanus—note the relationship—or even the flowering cherries and magnolias, silver birches and horse chestnuts which line our streets, fill our parks and keep us cool in summer, while also marking the passing of the seasons.
Imagine, too, the countryside of Britain without those crowning glories among our common trees: ash, oak, beech, chestnuts—both horse and sweet—birch and alder. The list goes on, but one is missing: the English elm. Much reference has already been made to this wonderful tree, and the fact that many of us in this House are old enough to remember the majestic columns of ulmus procera dominating the countryside. There are now only a few thousand healthy specimens of this variety left in the UK, mainly in urban environments and, surprisingly, most in Brighton, after the ravages of Dutch elm disease killed an estimated 25 million trees. This pest, a beetle, was first identified in 1918 in Holland by some very well resourced and clever microbiologists; that epidemic died out and a second and more virulent attack hit the whole of northern Europe in the 1960s. This appears to have originated in Canada on imported logs, so it is not fair to blame the poor Dutch. However, this pest showed us in sobering fashion what could happen if insufficient measures were taken to control it. We do not seem to have learned that lesson.
This brings me to the disaster facing one of our best loved and most numerous native trees: Fraxinus excelsior, the European ash. In this case, the problem is a fungus rather than a beetle, although the Americans are facing a similar disaster caused by a beetle, the emerald ash borer, which has not yet made an appearance in this country. Our ash dieback is caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea, which originated in Asia. Recent estimates suggest that this disease will kill around 70% of our native ash, which will amount to something in the order of 70 million trees. Some surveys put the total number of mature trees in the country as high as 130 million. When you consider the size and visual impact of this species, that will leave an even bigger hole in our landscapes than the elm.
The fungus arrived here by various means, including wind spread, but one of those routes was undoubtedly the major trade in young plants imported from Holland. The Dutch nursery trade is hugely successful, and I have no problem with that, but it flies in the face of common sense to import ash whips and saplings from a known disease-ridden environment to plant in our gardens and parks. Ash both seeds and grows prolifically in this country, as anyone who has had to pull up ash seedlings around ash trees knows only too well. Why then do we need to allow the import of such plant material? However, unreported so far by other commentators, I am told that Queen Mary University has managed to isolate the genome of disease-resistant ash trees they have found. This gives us hope that maybe we can go forward with a method of planting ash that will remain resistant.
On a related point, a great many of these ash trees we will lose are in hedgerows and parks around the country. When they die, as they assuredly will, it is a known fact that they become brittle and if left standing are likely to drop limbs or even fall over altogether. The idea of leaving them, as elms were left, simply does not stand up—sorry for the bad pun. This makes them dangerous and those responsible for them, be they in public or private ownership, will be liable. This will entail felling and removal of any tree within 60 to 70 feet of a road or footpath.
This process will be very costly; the cost to the economy has already been estimated at £15 billion. Will the Government be prepared to assist local authorities and landowners in the removal of this vast stock of dead wood? Some form of grant linked to the number of trees to be dealt with and a specific timescale would be a good starting point. The silver lining is that ash is an excellent firewood and can be turned into woodchips for biomass fuel plants. Perhaps the Government could go further and incentivise the building or conversion of such plants to ensure that this unfortunate source of energy is not wasted.
In my own small patch of west Sussex, surrounded by unmanaged woodland, I have in the region of 50 ash trees in a patch of less than three acres. All are affected to a greater or lesser extent. Extraction will involve heavy machinery and, with the Wealden clay underfoot, it would be impossible for about nine months of the year. With no road close by, it will be extremely difficult, not to mention messy and unsightly. Scale that up to the size of the ash woods prevalent in the south of England and you can see the problem.
In the current wave of enthusiasm for planting trees to offset our carbon emissions, some words of caution should be voiced. Politicians like big numbers; Jeremy Corbyn promised to plant 2 billion trees over the next 20 years. This would be the equivalent of 100 million a year. That is the equivalent of 270,000 for every day of the year, or nearly 200 per minute. This is, however, only about twice the estimated requirement for carbon neutrality by 2050 to be achieved. This would require UK woodland cover to increase from about 13% of total land area to about 20%, but much of that increase would have to be on land currently used for farming purposes. The conflicts of interest are obvious. These trees should be UK native species and not so-called non-natives. A native species arrived here before or during the last ice age; non-natives, by definition, arrived over the last 8,000 years. This should not include exotics, such as the fast-growing conifer types which have been imported, largely from North America, to provide the so-called battery hens of the arbori- cultural world.
With Brexit, we have an ideal opportunity to strengthen our phytosanitary regulations. We have talked about invasive plant and animal species; these regimes must be strengthened and enforced, and we should certainly stop the import of plant varieties which have a history of disease and can be grown from seed or cutting successfully within our own industry. Further appropriate funding for the Animal and Plant Health Agency would be a start.
Sadly, it is too late for the ash, but it may still be possible to save and protect other species such as oak and chestnut. The Government’s tree health resilience strategy of 2018 was a good start, but can the Minister outline the measures being taken to improve our protective shield in the wake of Brexit and inform us of progress made in achieving the aims of that strategy in the two years since publication?
My Lords, I, too, am grateful both to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for first pursuing, and then persevering with, this crucial debate. I am pleased that it has survived both the pest of Prorogation and the Disease of dissolution to make its way to the Floor of your Lordships’ House.
The delay does not make the debate any less urgent: it is more important now than ever. The past six months have seen an escalation in the epidemic of disease impacting our woods. We have also endured a brutal winter of floods, followed by violent storms that destroyed many mature trees weakened by illness. Meanwhile, we have been glibly promised by every major party manifesto an unprecedented level of tree planting in support of net-zero ambitions, but without commitments to undertake the complex research and investment necessary to deliver on such promises.
We hear much about sustainability, but hear no practical plan of what trees to plant, where to plant them, or how to protect them from an early, disease-ridden death. It is sad that more than 300 years after Hans Carl von Carlowitz first coined the term “sustainability” in preserving Germany’s forests, we hear the term bandied about by politicians to greenwash campaigns, but without appreciation of what sustainability costs.
I declare my interests as steward of a family-owned SME that has depended on and nurtured trees since the Middle Ages. I am also, regrettably, subject to statutory plant health notices due to chestnut blight in our ancient woods. Chestnut blight is a pernicious fungal disease that is fatal to sweet chestnuts—a naturalised, not native species. Since its introduction by the Romans, or possibly earlier, the tree has been prized for its nuts, its versatile timber, and its beautiful twisted bark. One of Powderham’s oldest inhabitants is a squat, stag-headed sweet chestnut, planted shortly after the Civil War. It may not live much longer.
Chestnut blight originated in Asia and, after accidental introduction to North America, killed 3.5 billion trees last century, decimating the species on that continent; it has been present in Europe for at least the last half-century. It was first discovered in England in 2011 and was first found within a mature woodland setting at Powderham in 2017. Since then, I have learned more than I would ever wish to know about crypho- nectria parasitica.
It was introduced under a well-intentioned, government-supported planting campaign back in the 1990s. My father was a keen forester and, after felling a block of mature oaks, he replanted chestnut purchased from a reputable nursery. That nursery had sourced its stock from Belgium, which is how the disease entered the country. One of the more impressive aspects of this sad story is the speed with which the Forestry Commission was able to track other chestnuts from the same stock; within weeks, the disease was confirmed across southern England. Served with an SPHN, we worked with the commission to determine a course of action. Our first plan was eradication, and all the 1990s chestnuts were removed and burned. It soon became apparent that the disease was in the wider woodland and therefore, in spring 2019, we felled over 100 mature chestnuts, each over 100 years old: that is more than 10,000 years of tree growth.
The heartwood was cut into sleepers; the rest of each tree was burned on site. A little revenue was thus generated which, together with a restocking grant, meant that the process was marginally cost-negative. To lose money like this felling centuries-old timber was heart-breaking and nonsensical, both for my pocket and for national tree health. While Powderham is able to absorb the loss, other landholders would be severely financially distressed in such circumstances, through no fault of their own. Without better emergency funding, land managers will be discouraged from reporting suspected disease for fear of the punitive costs of eradication.
Recently, blight has been identified in yet more trees. In fact, the experts are on site today to determine the extent; we must assume it is everywhere. Recommendations have changed: given the extent of the disease, we are no longer seeking eradication, preferring to pray for genetic resilience or a viral counterinsurgency. The remaining chestnuts might thus be given a reprieve to live out their days diseased but at least upright.
I am grateful for the hard work of the Forestry Commission and its tireless team of foresters and scientists, but they are hopelessly overstretched and underresourced for the war they are waging. I described it previously as “a losing game of whack-a-mole”, as every time I have seen people from the commission—and it has been all too rare over the last two years—they have been rushed off their feet dealing with yet another disease outbreak. If the Government are really serious about planting more than 30 million trees each year, they simply have to invest more in border biosecurity, in the commission itself, and in the development of healthy nursery stock. They might also have to restrict public access to woodland to prevent the further spread of disease. Will they do so?
To plant that many trees, we will have to import seedlings and saplings in vast numbers, as we simply cannot generate such stock on this island. That will only increase the likelihood of disease if we do not proactively manage it. We must also decide what to plant. My daughter is here today, and one thing I am determined to avoid is leaving her with either diseased and dying broadleafs of no commercial value, or a barren coniferous monoculture of no ecological value. I am searching for a suitable broadleaf species to replace the chestnut, but simply cannot find anything suitable that can grow in a warming climate that is not at risk from disease or pestilence, particularly squirrels.
In finishing, I would like to offer some warning words from the past on squirrels, as I know it is a favoured subject. Much demonisation is rightly directed to the grey squirrel, but, in their partial defence, I would like to quote a letter we recently unearthed. Written in 1825 by John Wilkinson, it is an agent’s report to the gay, and thus exiled, 3rd Viscount Courtenay:
“The noble range of new plantation at Mellands must be pronounced by everyone who sees it ... as a most striking improvement ... with the exception of the upper part which ... partly from the depredations of our old friends the rabbits is not in so thriving a state ... I was much grieved however to remark the very serious injury done to the Scotch firs by another description of marauders than the rabbits viz the squirrels. There are scores and I may also say hundreds of those firs completely destroyed by these animals which I saw running about in every direction. I did not hesitate to giving the strictest injunctions I could to Wilcox and his brother gamekeeper to destroy them or at least to diminish their numbers.”
Given that this was written 50 years before the introduction of the grey squirrel, these marauders are clearly our native red squirrel. The letter thus reveals that whatever species of squirrel is present requires proactive and determined management to avoid serious pestilence to our native trees. Are the Government prepared for this?
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for introducing this debate. It is very timely indeed. I declare an interest in that I am a director of a farming company and a founder member of the National Forest Company, which was set up by that wonderful man Derek Barber.
It was only when I started to look at the various types of diseases that I realised how much Defra was involved in. Is it, perhaps, too widely spread? Should there be a bit more concentration? Or perhaps an easier way would be just to have more money.
I will concentrate on the prevention rather than the cure of these diseases. Several speakers here are much more experienced than I am in looking at these diseases. Yes, we can blame deer for quite a lot of damage in my part of the world; it is only the red deer, and if you get the right red deer and kill that, the trees will not be damaged. People exaggerate the amount of damage that deer do, and by more than one of them.
It is also popular to blame squirrels for a lot of damage that they do to oaks. I saw it myself when the oak trees became about 15 years old and the squirrels ring-barked them very effectively, which eventually killed them. It is, however, possible—but expensive—to eradicate almost all grey squirrels. In fact, it was done in my part of the world, in the south of Scotland, where we got rid of almost all the grey squirrels through a Scottish Government scheme of giving traps and monetary incentives to a group of landowners in the south-east of the country. That did not work, for three reasons. First, there were no reds within easy reach to get to and populate the place, so there was a vacuum. Secondly, it was not possible to import reds from elsewhere, because there was no surplus of reds anywhere. Thirdly, the scheme did not last long enough, so the greys came back in, as the Scottish Government had run out of money. But it can be done. After it finished, it took four years for the middle of the scheme to be reinfected by grey squirrels. So, at some expense, it can work.
The British public on the whole do not realise quite how destructive grey squirrels can be, and it would be helpful if the Government could in some way sponsor programmes and information to educate the person in the street on the harm that they do. Making it illegal to feed squirrels in the same way as was done for pigeons in Trafalgar Square might be considered, although I am not sure that it is practical. It might also be helpful if people knew that grey squirrels are extremely good to eat. I have eaten them but, to my mind, the best place for a grey squirrel is in one cage in London Zoo and nowhere else.
We are never going to stop completely the impact of disease-bearing organisms, so it is essential that we develop trees that are resistant to whatever problem is affecting them. The programme to breed hybrid elms has on the whole been quite successful; there is an avenue of such trees near Windsor racecourse that are so far very healthy. They are only about 10 years old, so we wait with some trepidation to see what happens as they get a bit older. Many splendid organisations are involved as well. Action Oak is supported by both Defra and the Scottish, Northern Ireland and Welsh Governments, while the Future Trees Trust is doing sterling work on ash dieback, as has already been mentioned, and on whether, through grafting or other methods, some ash trees may be saved, as they have very different DNA themselves.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, mentioned chestnuts. Briefly, on chestnut tree canker, from which I have suffered, there is currently no chemical cure. Work is being done in America, but unfortunately it is not receiving either state or federal support. We ought to consider how we can do that research ourselves here. At home, we have looked at some ways of alleviating the problem of horse chestnut disease. You can do it by cutting out the clumps and leaving only individual trees, and so far it does not seem to have spread more than about 300 yards to any individual trees. That may be worth thinking about.
However, all these are temporary measures and, as other noble Lords have said, I hope that the Government will continue to give great support to those people working on all tree diseases.
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.
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.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for his lyrical introduction to this debate and for the initiative shown by him and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, in securing it.
I will begin with a sentence from the Royal Horti- cultural Society website:
“Importing plants poses potential risks of introducing new pests and diseases.”
Much of the debate has focused on the actions of individuals. The noble and learned Lord began by referring to his pine cone. Perhaps he missed the Government’s Don’t Risk It! campaign, which involved posters at ports and airports. But as the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, has just outlined, the real risk is actually from commercial imports. Individual actions form a tiny part of the problem and there is a risk that if we focus on those actions we will engage in displacement activity rather than focusing on the real problem.
Forestry Commission figures show that the plant trade has doubled over the last 10 years. In the past decade, the number of diseases brought in is the same as the number brought in over the previous 50 years, so it is rising five times as quickly. The UK Plant Health Risk Register lists five to 10 new pests and diseases every month. Any scientist will tell you that correlation is not causation, but the links are clear and well evidenced. This is globalisation in action: a change in our systems embarked upon with scant consideration for the impacts. A few people have made very large profits while the rest of us have paid.
We are inevitably going to see an increase in plant and tree pests and diseases because we are in a climate emergency. The changing weather conditions will enable pests and diseases to flourish which could not get a hold before. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said, birds will fly around and that is the sort of thing we cannot do anything about except to be vigilant, but we can act by changing the system of how we secure our plant supplies. I say plants rather than simply trees because many noble Lords have talked about Xylella, which poses a risk across a wide variety of plants. We are also seeing huge imports of indoor plants and even cut flowers which present a risk to our native ecosystems. In 2017, those imports were worth £975 million a year. I have a direct question for the Minister: we will soon see the Government’s food strategy, so surely it is time for a horticulture strategy. We have been talking about tree nurseries, but the issue goes more broadly in terms of fruit and vegetable production. Should that not be tied in with the food strategy as well?
The fact is that a lot of the imports of trees and other plants are from the Netherlands. It set up a co-ordinated government strategy to develop its horticulture industry. I too have met some horticultural food producers in the UK who also focused on the fact that they are finding it very difficult to get finance from our banks, while banks on the continent are prepared to fund horticultural industries, which is something else to look at in the policy area.
If I were to offer the Minister some thoughts about what a horticultural strategy might look like, I would point him to the Government’s own words about their agriculture strategy and agroecology. That means working with nature and not relying on giant industrial monocultures. If we are thinking about a British tree nursery industry, what we will need is diverse small-scale holdings made up of independent businesses and co-operatives that are scattered around the country, which will help produce a more diverse stock. When I tweeted about this debate before it began, the Bristol Tree Forum came back to me asking me to stress the importance for their health of the genetic diversity of the stocks that we plant, and I am very pleased to do that. It is what we need to ensure healthy woodlands and trees.
How do we create those small, independent businesses? There is perhaps a model in the One Wales: One Planet development strategy, which allows small businesses access to land. I suggest to noble Lords that we also need to look at land reform in England to enable people to access land in order to set up small, independent tree nurseries. Another way in which the Government might act was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes: government procurement. We have seen progress on this already, but not far from where I am standing now, the Florida fig trees in Portcullis House are an example of how government procurement traditionally has not done what it should have done to support local industry.
A number of noble Lords have referred to the need to protect woodlands from pests which are already here. Again, we should think about the agroecological approach. Reference has been made to grey squirrels. We know that supporting the spread of pine martens will help red squirrels compete against grey squirrels. Also—dare I say?—if we are thinking about deer, perhaps we should also be thinking about reintroducing the lynx as a natural control mechanism. I am talking, of course, about the rewilding of the UK. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, “Copy nature and you will succeed”, and that is essentially the agroecological approach.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, referred to the heavily overstretched Forestry Commission staff and the amount of work they have to do. At the end of last year, Friends of the Earth produced a report showing that overall, the UK Government were spending less than £1 per person per year on trees, including the work of the Forestry Commission. We hear much talk of the end of austerity, so I ask the Minister whether we can expect to see a significant boost to the budget of the Forestry Commission to deal with all the threats that have been so clearly outlined today.
The Library briefing, which other noble Lords have cited, refers to the need for common frameworks for working with the devolved Administrations. We also need to see close co-operation with our European neighbours on tackling many of these pests and diseases: a co-operative approach to ensure that they are held back. I hope very much that we will see the kind of diplomatic environment which allows that to continue.
My Lords, I would like to add my compliments to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for securing the debate and for its excellent introduction. I declare myself the owner of a forestry among farming operations, as set out in the register. After almost 20 speeches, there is probably not much left to be said, so my speech is considerably shorter than it was, particularly as I am not an expert on tree diseases. However, I feel strongly that the system of controls and intervention where disease is known is not working in the area I know, which is Scotland. I appreciate that it falls within the area of the devolved Administration, but there is a lesson here.
We are being encouraged to plant more trees both in our towns and in the countryside for amenity and for commerce. Self-sufficiency in commercial timber is good and sound. Help from the Woodland Trust and through tax reliefs is welcome and probably essential if the private sector, many voluntary organisations are others are to continue their good work. However, costs are rising. Planting the trees, fencing, road building for commercial forestry, attempts at immunisation of new tree whips—which is hugely controversial—and fighting tree diseases and pests by treating every single tree are terribly expensive. Harvesting costs are rising; there are weight restrictions on roads for haulage from remote locations. Of course, a commercial forestry sells the timber and prices rise too, but—as we have already heard today—a glut can happen quickly and unexpectedly, and market fluctuations affect the price of the timber. Many of the costs do not go down.
My point—the one I want us in England to learn from —is really one of fairness. One of the main diseases in Scotland is phytophthora ramorum, which affects the European larch population. From the helpful Library briefing I discovered that it is not native but has become naturalised; that is my claim to refer to it. There was little briefing or explanation before the dramatic enforcement controls were introduced to take on and try to prevent the spread of phytophthora. The enforcing authority was Forestry Commission Scotland. It had legal powers to enforce felling, together with unaffected trees, with limited compensation. Yet some two years ago—in Galloway, I believe—a large Forestry Commission Scotland block of affected larch was exempted. I never received a satisfactory explanation for this. I tried; I spoke to the Forestry Commission.
That exclusion block is the entry point of the prevailing south-westerly winds into Scotland. This seems inexplicable to me, as phytophthora is recognised as probably an airborne disease. The Forestry Commission has the ability to instigate criminal proceedings, yet exempts itself. Is this fair? Is this how a government agency should behave? The Forestry Commission must spend hundreds of thousands of pounds flying helicopters to identify single trees to thereafter issue enforcement notices, yet it bypasses its own large block of infected trees. Those I know and the countless others similarly affected deserve an explanation and more help. Surely in this case it would be more productive if the policing authority worked with the private sector in a dialogue, together addressing the challenges, towards a solution.
I am not taking part in this debate to moan but asking for fairness. I hope the mistakes there can be avoided here in England. There should be more financial help to off-set the cost of compliance, with measures to control the spread of the terrible diseases we have heard about. As the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, said, financial support for nurseries is an excellent idea, to continue to grow and develop our own home-sourced stock and reduce the dependence on imported young trees.
Finally, I ask the Minister for an assurance that co-operation between all stakeholders in this area will occur as the nation addresses solutions to the growing list of tree diseases—not a repeat of the heavy-handed approach in the north that I have described.
My Lords, I still have my PG Tips book of British trees—50 cards painstakingly plucked from individual tea packets and glued into my album. Sadly, I no longer have my I-Spy books to use with my grandchildren but, if I did, I warrant that it would take longer to spot the individual varieties of British trees than it took me, begging family and neighbours, to put together my PG Tips book of trees in the first place.
Part of our post-war history is how bad we have been on trees. I cite as reference the comments of Alfred Wainwright in relation to Ennerdale on the western fells of the Lake District, where one can sit on the bench outside Black Sail youth hostel—the most spectacular view in all of England, but for many decades blighted by monolithic planting of just one type of tree, with no thought to the rest of the consequential environment.
On former coalfield sites, the same error has been made in more recent times: cheap and cheerful, monolithic planting attempting purely to cover the spoil rather than to fertilise the environment. I have heard and learned great wisdom today in this Chamber. As the Government go forward with their objective of huge and wide-scale tree planting, I hope they use variety and move away from the monolithic, combining the varieties available—perhaps using that PG Tips book as a good barometer—and enhancing the landscape.
I declare something of an interest, for I have lived for many years on the fringes of what is, in reality, still Sherwood Forest. There is no finer place. There is a model there, one I have promoted before, of recreating Sherwood Forest, not as a bureaucracy with big, new buildings and lots of state employees managing some kind of body, but as a planning entity. It is creating a boundary—a border defining Sherwood Forest. It would create a model of how we can designate certain areas as favoured areas for investment, with the expectation of high-quality tree planting. I recommend that to government, but it needs something even more revolutionary, which government already has.
Neighbourhood planning, first envisaged in 2003, has taken off greatly in the last decade. I hear that the district of Bassetlaw has a higher percentage of its land acreage under neighbourhood plans than anywhere else in the country. From listening to neighbours and others—and once, in a former life, constituents—I can say that what that means is that local people have control over the planning process. The local authority is required to work to the locally micro-defined needs. The weakness in the strategy is not how it is generally applied by government, for it is a brilliant strategy. However, the guidance and expertise provided in a village such as mine have gone into the nth degree about what kind of bricks should be used, what combination of looks there should be, what kind of tiles should be on the roofs and how road and path layouts should be—very important issues, to my mind. The more advanced might include cycleways. But lacking within it is the question not of green space but of what kind of green.
The Government could write and issue effective guidance to be used by local authorities and taken at the neighbourhood planning level to give ownership at the local level, where people want to see that variety. It could allow, for example, a planning authority to say, “If you want to build an extension, build an extension, but you should plant a number of trees as well alongside it. Here’s the spec of trees that should be planted.” If someone is going to build a warehouse, which seem to get larger, taller and wider by the minute, there should be not some nasty, cheap, cheerful, minuscule set of trees alongside it that mask it and contribute to nothing but an excuse factor for the developer and the owner of the site, but trees that have been properly thought out. It should not stop development, but complement it. That is a power not only to designate areas such as Sherwood Forest, in co-operation with local authorities and without costing the state and the taxpayer money or employing bureaucracy, but to shift that power, as is already happening in a widespread and successful way with neighbourhood planning, and building it into the green environment.
What I predict will happen from there is that communities would say that they would rather have the traditional varieties—the colour, shape, feel, and the noise of birds and decent wildlife that we wish to see. That could be done for free for the taxpayer in most cases, simply by using the planning system coherently. Plenty of new Ministers seem to be being appointed around the place today—I hope no problems have or will come to the Front Bench—and if the Government want a slogan, the people will go with “British trees for British woodlands”, “British trees for British villages” or “British trees for British towns and cities”. The powers are there. I hope that will be taken forward with other government departments.
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.
I want to take this opportunity to make two points. First, I do not think any noble Lord has mentioned Fera Science Ltd, the national agri-food innovation campus at Sand Hutton, which played a very special role in the scenario when ash dieback broke out. It is trying to find, first and foremost, a formula to prevent the spread of ash dieback, but also some way to immunise trees, as has been the case in Denmark. I am particularly concerned that we are exporting ash seeds to reimport them from countries such as Denmark, Poland and others that already had ash dieback in the trees. I hope that we can learn from that.
The only other thing that I would like to say is that many have spoken on the range of pests and diseases, and on rodents such as squirrels, muntjacs and others. Rather than protecting these species for ever, is there not a case for bringing in a review every five, 10 or 15 years?
My Lords, we have had a very wide-ranging debate, in preparation for which extensive briefings were circulated on the threats posed to our native woodlands. By the time I had read my way through to the briefing from the Woodland Trust, I was completely depressed at the scale of the problem, and at the lack of action to alleviate and tackle it.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, eloquently gave us a scenario of the effects of the disease on large estates. The number of species of true native trees is quite small; only nine, with another 10 being non-native but brought to the UK by humans over an 8,000-year period. We are all used to these species. They are not rare or exotic, but form part of the everyday landscape we see in cities, ornamental gardens and parks throughout the country: the ash, blackthorn, beech, oak, scots pine and yew, alongside the field elm, horse chestnut, larch and sycamore. We take their presence for granted, and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, reminded us of the historic use of wood from these trees.
All our trees are under attack from a variety of sources. Some will show signs of attack early on, others will take four to six years before it is obvious that something is seriously wrong and the tree is in decline and dying. As the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, said, the Government’s own risk register contains some 127 different pests and diseases which could wreak havoc in our woodlands. Easily identified pests are the grey squirrel and the muntjac deer. Both creatures have devastating effects, stripping bark, especially from immature trees. Their numbers have reached proportions where they appear to be totally out of control, but this should not deter the Government and forestry managers from taking action to control and reduce their numbers. Given the recent demise of the deer initiative, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, what new strategy do the Government propose to lead the wildlife management sector in England and Wales?
Other pests come in the form of insects and beetles, which lay their eggs in trees. Their larvae then feed on the wood of living trees and can eventually kill the host tree. My noble friend Lady Kramer, who is unable to be here today, has pressed me to mention the oak processionary moth. I feel that I do not need to, given the number of noble Lords who have raised it, but I promised her I would. This moth was the subject of debate in the Kew Gardens Bill and in statutory instruments last year. The moths make large nests for their caterpillars which then defoliate the tree. The caterpillar’s hairs cause breathing difficulties and skin irritations to anyone touching them. Removing nests by hand is challenging and expensive for landowners with large oak trees in open parklands and a high number of visitors. As with many introduced pests, the management cost is borne by the landowner rather than the nursery or importer who introduced the infested trees.
My noble friend Lady Kramer tells me that Richmond Park spends more than £100,000 a year eliminating moth pests to keep the public safe. This is a considerable cost which landowners of parkland must bear, to protect and preserve their ancient trees, which are held in such high regard by the public.
The third category of pest and disease is spore-based fungi, pathogens and viruses. Into this category come powdery mildew, red-band needle blight, sweet-chestnut blight and the massaria disease of plane trees. Many but not all these pests and diseases are notifiable. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect is devastating. As we have heard, the figures are stark. We have lost 60 million trees to Dutch elm disease. Up to 95% of ash trees may be lost to ash dieback, as so eloquently mentioned by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harris of Pentregarth, and 13% of the UK’s total land area comprises woodland. The total monetised value of UK trees is estimated at over £4.9 billion a year and the total asset value of UK trees at over £175 billion.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans reminded us of the important benefits of planting new forests. Many noble Lords have mentioned the Government’s Tree Health Resilience Strategy 2018, which sets out an assessment of the importance of the UK’s trees, woods and forests. It includes benefits to health and well-being that are important to us all, opportunities for recreation and the ability to sequester carbon. This last point is crucial as we struggle with air pollution in our cities.
Despite this resilience strategy, government figures for the year to March 2019 show that tree planting in England fell 71% short of targets, which questions how committed the Government are to fulfilling their own targets. Alongside this, the Government have committed to planting 30 million trees a year to help redress the loss of mature trees. Can the Minister update us on how the Government and the sector are progressing with their objectives from May 2018?
There are a number of serious pathogens present in Europe which could make their way to the UK. We heard about the bacteria xylella fastidiosa, which could affect many native broadleaf trees and ornamental plant species. One simple precaution to lower the risk of disease introduction would be to ban the importation of the high-risk hosts, including olive, lavender and prunus species. Are the Government considering such a ban?
All contributions across the House appear to be in agreement. Clearly, the most cost-effective way to manage pests, diseases and invasive species is to prevent their introduction in the first instance by dramatically improving biosecurity at our borders. For this reason, the Woodland Trust operates a UK-sourced and grown assurance scheme which ensures that none of the trees it plants or sells are imported, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, mentioned. Will the Government commit to increasing the proportion of UK and Ireland-sourced and grown trees that they plant? I was very interested in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, on how this might be tied in with neighbourhood planning.
I turn now to some of the solutions that are available to alleviate the loss of our trees. It is not right, morally or financially, for landowners alone to pay the cost. If stock brought from nurseries proves to be infected, the nursery or supplier should pay the cost of dealing with eradicating the pests that they have passed on. During our debates last year, the Minister was adamant that all poinsettias sold in this country would come from pest-free environments and have a plant health passport attached. This was indeed the case; I checked. While a poinsettia is not an oak sapling, there are ways to transfer such a plant health passport to our precious native trees; the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, referred to that.
Globalisation has negatively impacted many of our native trees. If sufficient resources are not invested in plant health and monitoring of imported timbers, catastrophic pest and disease events may follow. This would affect the carbon sequestration of UK forests, with serious consequences. I urge the Government to tackle this issue.
The grey squirrel damage affects many tree species, reducing the economic functionality of forests to zero and reducing CO2 sequestration. Many noble Lords have referred to the grey squirrel. Focusing on grey squirrel population control will allow a greater variety and resilience of forests and woodlands, and having better intelligence on what is being imported means that we can take steps to prevent disease arriving here.
There are technological solutions to diseases of trees, most notably the oak. Are the Government considering investing in such solutions? We know from our debates on Kew Gardens that long-term scientific research is invaluable. Investing in science and research will reap future benefits, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes.
Lastly, there needs to be much stronger support for tree breeding for resilience. This will enable our native species to withstand attack from the myriad pests and diseases invading our shores. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
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.
My Lords, I declare my membership of the International Dendrology Society and my farming interests. I have planted a few trees and have seen them, particularly the jubilee copse I planted in 2012, suffer from grey squirrel damage.
I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for securing, at last, this important debate, and to all noble Lords who have contributed. I can say with assurance after reviewing the speakers’ list that the expertise your Lordships bring to this debate can surely not be surpassed in any other legislative Chamber in the world.
While it is a privilege to be Biosecurity Minister, I am constantly concerned about the matter. I cannot stress enough the importance I place on keeping our country safe from all invasive species, pests and diseases which present a threat to our trees and plants.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, asked whether we should be doing more. My answer is a resounding yes, which I shall expand on during this debate. Whatever our view on leaving the European Union, I see it as an opportunity for us to heighten our biosecurity. It is an issue that we discussed when I gave evidence. One of the opportunities is that we are going to be able to act faster than we have during our membership.
There are so many ways in which our plants and trees are vital natural capital. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, spoke about our ecosystem, and other noble Lords spoke about the history of our country. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans spoke about healing powers and green prescriptions, and my noble friend Lady Byford spoke of inspirational work in the national forest.
Tree planting is fundamental to reducing net emissions and responding to climate change. We are committed to increasing planting across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025. Supported by our nature for climate fund, we will overhaul our approach to tree planting and in the spring we will launch our consultation on the English tree strategy. Our proposals for environmental land management will be one of the most important environmental reforms for 40 years. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mann, on his speech, in particular his reference to the net gain in having development that communities choose, in working with developers and in those developments enhancing the environment rather than detracting from it.
Biosecurity needs to be at the heart of all our plans for environmental improvement, so we can do all we can to protect our trees. I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Mann, and my noble friend Lord Caithness that there have been mistakes in the past. We must address them. We also need to improve variety and the quality of woodland management. Indeed, it is important that we think of our responsibility for the management of the countryside.
My noble friend Lady Byford and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, spoke of deer management. It is right that the responsibility for deer on private land lies with individual landowners, who are encouraged to participate in local deer management groups where deer are causing damage. There is also support for deer management under the countryside stewardship scheme, which provides funding for deer management plans and capital items, such as high seats. Forestry England has a programme for deer management across the entire public forest estate. I think we all recognise that more needs to be done.
This year is an incredibly commanding year for plant health as it is designated the United Nations International Year of Plant Health. This is a major opportunity to raise awareness and strengthen biosecurity further. Defra’s Chief Plant Health Officer and I will be playing a full role in the UK’s contribution.
On the sourcing of trees, we support the Grown in Britain agenda. Indeed, 90% of trees planted in a forestry setting by Forestry England are UK grown, and that has been the position for the past three years. Initiatives which increase domestic production to grow ever more trees and plants in this country are warmly to be welcomed. Tree planting and UK production will be supported by the nature for climate fund and our forthcoming tree strategy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned trade. Easier global travel and trade mean there is now greater diversity of plants and plant products entering the UK than ever before. We trade 22 million tonnes of plant products every year, worth around £14 billion. I hear the calls to prohibit this trade, but we have to recognise—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, raised this—that that would not always be the silver bullet. The biogeography of the British Isles means that some invasive pests and diseases cross the channel unassisted in the air, as happened with ash dieback, particularly in the eastern counties, although I do not deny that we have made some grave errors which we are now having to cope with.
I agree with a number of noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Framlingham and Lady Fookes, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, that we need to work on increasing capacity and capability in our nurseries to meet demand. Increasing domestic production and growing ever more trees and plants in this country is essential. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that we need to think about this in the whole system of plants as well as trees. They go together.
Wherever trees are sourced, be it at home or abroad, we must place the strongest emphasis on biosecurity, a point made by my noble friend Lady Byford. At border entry points and nurseries, our officials are on the front line and are targeting their inspections on the highest risk plants and plant products. The Government invest more than £30 million per year in our plant health service. Our inspectors conduct more than 46,600 physical checks per year of high-risk consignments imported from across the world, and they are highly effective. Indeed, I have been to Heathrow and seen that for myself. The UK currently has 24 protected zones for non-native plant pests and diseases. They ban the import of any host plants, unless they meet prescribed requirements to ensure freedom from the relevant pest or disease and are accompanied by a plant passport certifying that. In the UK, we have augmented these measures with national notification schemes for imports of oak, pine, sweet chestnut, plane, prunus and elm and for consignments of solid-fuel wood. These schemes provide intelligence and enable targeted checks. On the point my noble friend Lady Fookes made, later this year we will launch a consultation on quarantine arrangements for those plants deemed to be the highest risk. I should not say this, but I am rather keen on that.
We have introduced new registration requirements for all those who produce, store, move or sell plants and plant products. We have increased the number of goods which require a phytosanitary certificate, so that all plants and living parts of plants, except for five tropical fruits, now require certification upon import to the UK from outside Europe; and 38 high-risk plants, including native trees, are now provisionally prohibited from being imported into the UK from outside of Europe until a full assessment has been carried out.
A number of noble Lords asked what has been done with the tree health resilience strategy. Considerable progress has been made with the establishment of the UK plant biosecurity alliance, the launch of the HTA plant healthy management standard and self-assessment, the recruitment of more plant health inspectors at the border, the launch of Action Oak, the publication of our oak and ash research strategy and the planting of 3,000 tolerant trees in the UK’s first tolerant ash archive. Later this year, we will launch a formal consultation measure on quarantine.
On dealing with outbreaks, unfortunately we cannot eliminate all risks, but when outbreaks occur, the government plant health service, led by our Chief Plant Health Officer, has stringent, tested contingency plans. Last year, following six years’ surveillance, we announced the eradication of the Asian longhorn beetle from Kent. I am very pleased that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, mentioned the isolated outbreak of Ips typographus in Kent. It too is now under eradication. Last summer, we responded swiftly with emergency legislation to stop the trade in oaks from Europe taller than 1.2 metres—that is the height from which they are susceptible to oak processionary moth. Furthermore, all oaks from outside Europe are now prohibited.
I say emphatically to my noble friend Lord Framlingham that I was furious about this issue, but I can assure him that all the oak trees in the counties that he outlined in his question were located and destroyed. In London and Surrey, where we are seeking to contain oak processionary moth—an issue raised by my noble friend Lord Caithness—the Forestry Commission, local authorities and land managers are working on a programme of treatment and surveillance. I attended a day at the Royal Parks, where trees with 60 nests were being removed. The highly toxic nature of these pests means that we need to work on this.
Xylella was raised by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. We are playing a leading role in monitoring the risks from Xylella, ensuring that we have the most robust protections in place. We already have stringent import restrictions on the highest-risk hosts, such as olive trees, and we are reviewing what additional requirements are needed. I assure your Lordships that we will not hold back from introducing further measures; the Chief Plant Health Officer knows of my appetite on that.
Ash dieback was raised by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, and the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery. I remember from my childhood the loss of elm in the Vale of Aylesbury, and in the farm at Kimble where we lost great friends in those trees. I want to offer some hope amid this gloom. We have published our research strategy, and indeed invested money, with renowned institutions such as Kew, Cambridge, York, the James Hutton Institute and the John Innes Centre, to assemble the genome of the pathogen, estimate the ecological impacts of the disease and conduct the world’s largest genetic screening trials for disease tolerance. I mentioned the archive of 3,000 tolerant ash trees; this tolerance is hereditable. We are looking to use those trees in—I emphasise the words—an escalated and accelerated breeding programme to repopulate our landscapes. This is not only for the trees themselves but because of the ecosystem consequences.
I say to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that we recommend felling only if it becomes a safety issue. I say also, to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, that we are supporting landowners to manage diseased ash, establishing an ash dieback health and safety task force, and providing guidance and grants to replace trees. We are also working with local authorities because, clearly, that is extremely important. As far as private landowners are concerned, government grants are provided to support the felling of infected ash under the Countryside Stewardship scheme and grants for restocking are also available.
My noble friend Lord Home spoke about resistant elm cultivars. The most recent report of the trials—one of which has been initiated in Hampshire—was produced in 2019. Our research shows that the prospect for ash is far more favourable than for elm over the long term. Part of what we know is that the genome of the ash is much wider than the elm.
I turn to the grey squirrel. How could I not acknowledge the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and all that he and the UK Squirrel Accord are undertaking? With support from Defra, the accord’s research to develop an oral contraceptive as an effective method for controlling grey squirrel populations is delivering promising initial results. Fertility control has the potential to reduce grey squirrel populations and the spread of the squirrel pox virus. I am very much aware of our responsibilities—a point raised by my noble friends Lady McIntosh and Lord Colgrain. Our commitments under the Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 are hugely important. We recognise that we need greater resources for prevention and response to invasive species, and this will be under consideration.
On scientific expertise, the UK has been at the forefront of plant science for many years. Kew is a global and unparalleled resource for plant and fungal knowledge and collections. The Forest Research agency is the largest employer of forest scientists in the UK. I say to my noble friend Lord Framlingham that our UK Plant Health Risk Register contains details of more than 1,000 plant pests and pathogens. We are investing in research and evidence to understand pests and diseases and find new ways to tackle them; we invested more than £37 million between 2012 and 2019.
Last year, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Defra announced a new £13 million research fund to address threats to plant health from bacterial pathogens. I acknowledge the work of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and all at Powderham for their co-operation in the ongoing work on sweet chestnut blight. Research is under way to inform long-term management and investigate whether an effective biocontrol can be developed in the United Kingdom. I say to my noble friend Lord Colgrain that Action Oak is a pioneering, collaborative partnership, raising funds for ambitious research. Under this umbrella, we are funding seven new PhDs on oak, and the University of Birmingham is investigating the natural resistance of native oaks in the arms race with pathogens.
I say also, to the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that we are advising diversifying species and provenance to help woodlands become more resilient to pests, diseases and climate change. I have a list before me—aspen, beech, birch, cherry, field maple, hornbeam, oak, lime, rowan, sycamore, willow—and then the words “et cetera”. The importance in biosecurity is to make sure we have variety and range.
The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, raised phytophthora. This is clearly an issue of great concern. The Government have had a comprehensive programme of disease control in England since 2012; over £30 million has been provided to fund surveillance, detection, disease management, and so forth. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, about the choice of tree species. The point again is that diversity in our woodland species, and genetics within species, in adapting to climate change is hugely important.
Any future changes to plant health and official controls legislation will continue to be based on principles of providing high levels of biosecurity. I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that my ambitions are to raise biosecurity. On tax incentives, this is way above my pay grade and something for the Chancellor, but we are preparing to consult on an English tree strategy, which will explore what policies are needed to support our domestic nursery sector.
Nurseries, foresters, landowners, landscapers, charities, trade bodies, gardeners and scientists all have a major role to play. Defra has worked with industry to establish a senior UK plant biosecurity committee of representatives from across these professions—indeed, we will be meeting in Kew next week—with the aim of constantly raising biosecurity standards in the UK. The Plant Healthy assurance scheme is an initiative of this new alliance and will be launched by the Horticultural Trades Association, in collaboration with Grown in Britain, this year. Across the country, consumers will be able to recognise the Plant Healthy brand—I am so relieved that the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, was able to provide assurances about poinsettias—and buy with greater biosecurity confidence, which is so important. Raising awareness of good biosecurity is essential. The Government promote the Keep It Clean and Don’t Risk It! campaigns.
We are all united in our determination to protect our trees. We must invest and use the scientific expertise we have in this country, while also—I emphasise—working closely with other countries across the world as well as with the devolved Administrations. We all have an interest in enhancing our abilities to counter threats and diseases. In this battle—it is a battle—I am in no doubt that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and all your Lordships, will be in the vanguard of these vital endeavours.
My Lords, on both my behalf and that of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this fascinating and very important debate. I thank the Minister for a very detailed and helpful reply, which I am sure we will all want to study with some care when it appears in Hansard.
The debate has drawn attention in the most powerful way possible to the scale of the problem that we face. We have covered many parts of the country, from Devon, east Kent and Wiltshire to South Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland. We have heard detailed descriptions from people who really know what they are talking about of the problems that they face. Of course it is right to say that landowners bear a responsibility for looking after the trees that they have on their land, but the Government have a major part to play too because of the resources and powers that are available and the initiatives that they can take. I hope that what has come through the debate is the message that we look to the Government for initiatives, particularly in the realm of biodiversity, which will seek to address the problem.
There is a curious paradox here. Someone said, although I cannot remember who it was, that a person working in woodlands had said it was the safest job he had ever had because you do not see the results. It is a long-term process; trees take many years to develop. But the problems we face are the complete reverse; they are not long-term problems at all but urgent. It is very dangerous to think of planting wide areas of woodland when we face issues that could destroy them before they even have a chance to get going. So this is a major problem and an urgent one, but we can feel encouraged that the Minister will do his very best to respond to it.
I was very taken with the tribute paid by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, when she said that the Minister had done more than most to raise awareness of the impact of these diseases. I believe that is true. He is very well placed, because of his knowledge and experience, to carry forward the message that has come from this debate. We very much look forward to the results of that, which, as I say, are short-term, so many of us are young enough to see the results of that although we may not see the trees grow to their full potential. I beg to move.