There has been too much knee-jerk reactionary panic to the arrival of ash dieback Chalara fraxinea to Britain’s shores, and a tedious jostling for position and profile between NGOs and others that supposedly put our trees first. Just days before it became a reality I wrote about the inevitable spread on ash dieback beyond the initial sightings in tree nurseries (read more), and subsequently about its likely impact (read more). The news about the disease has since become a very major story in Britain’s media and a widespread topic in daily conversation.
Planning for a positive future for Britain’s trees and forests
Here is my proposed ten-point plan, in which some actions may surprise some.
- Do not fell mature ash trees in diseased areas.
- Lift the indiscriminate import ban on ash trees.
- Increase urgently funding for genetic research into resistance to ash dieback.
- Support research into understanding the pathogenic fungus Chalara fraxinea.
- Provide silvicultural practice guidelines in dealing with ash dieback.
- Initiate public education about tree health and biosecurity.
- Support citizen science initiatives that enable monitoring of tree health (e.g. TreeWatch)
- Provide funding sufficient to implement the Forestry Commission Tree Health Strategy (see below).
- Bolster Forest Research science funding into tree health.
- Stop blaming the Government for ash dieback.
1. Do not fell mature ash trees in diseased areas
Killing trees in areas around diseased trees could wipe out any of nature’s in-built resistance to Chalara fraxinea. It is clear from continental Europe that up to one-third of ash trees exhibit some resistance to ash dieback. Ash is a very genetically diverse tree species, unlike elm (which is why that species was devastated by Dutch elm disease), so we must give nature a change to display this resistance. Mature and resistance ash trees should be allowed to stand, allowed or encouraged (via tree breeding scientists if necessary) to interbreed and to produce our next generation of healthy ash trees.
Those trees that do succumb will provide fantastic deadwood habitat if allowed to remain standing (when safe to do so), or can be felled when convenient to provide highly-valuable timber when the market demands it, rather than the market being flooded due to mass-felling and the inevitable price crash.
2. Lift the indiscriminate import ban on ash trees
The phrase “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted” comes to mind. The presence of ash dieback in our nurseries was known about since February. We may have been able to have prevent this had the ban been in place before 2012. Now, it is too late, and pointless given that the disease is loose in the ‘wild’. The disease will spread without much influence from an ash import ban, or even a moratorium on planting ash, which will only, at best, slow its distribution.
It is quite likely that the occurrences in the East of England arose by other means rather than on young plants. It can be spread by water droplets, bird’s feet, forestry and tree machinery, footwear, dog’s feet, car tyres and by wind. Its arrival in Britain was inevitable. Instead of a blanket ban I would like to see a selective control on young trees imported; allowing in only those that have shown some resistance to the disease.
3. Increase urgently funding for genetic research into resistance to ash dieback
We should increase collaboration with international scientists. Some involvement with the Fraxback programme (see below) exists and should be built upon. Work by the Future Trees Trust on selective breeding on ash should be supported further; specifically to enable disease resistance trials to take place, ideally jointly with other European partners.
4. Support research into understanding the pathogenic fungus Chalara fraxinea
As in 3., increase collaboration with international scientists, and recognise that increased funding may be necessary.
5. Provide silvicultural practice guidelines in dealing with ash dieback
We must build on the excellent work done in continental Europe where there exists over a decade of experience in dealing with the pathogen to provide straightforward silvicultural guidelines to forestry practioners (e.g. Thomsen and Skovsgaard 2012). We need some clear guidelines both for foresters and arboriculturists in how best to deal with the disease and with diseased trees.
6. Initiate public education about tree health and biosecurity
There exists widespread ignorance about tree health and biosecurity among the public, and a lack of knowledge by decision makers concerning the capacity of the public to respond positively to increasing biosecurity measures in the countryside. Research is required to tackle the latter, and a more co-ordinated response required by the sector to tackle the former; leaving any chest-beating and self-promotion behind.
7. Support citizen science initiatives that enable monitoring of tree health
The age of the citizen scientist is upon us. There are a number of schemes and initiatives running currently that provide the wherewithal for members of the public to take an active part in monitoring tree health across the country. While recognising the irreplacability of the trained scientist, we must also recognise the increasing strains placed upon our beleagured tree scientists from ever-decreasing funding (and therefore manpower) coupled with ever-increasing tree health issues. Some examples of citizen science initiatives include Ashtag which has been set up to monitor ash dieback, and the broader tree health initiative TreeWatch – Adopt an Ash.
8. Provide funding sufficient to implement the Forestry Commission Tree Health Strategy
The Forestry Commission has developed an excellent Tree Health Strategy. This now needs to acted upon urgently and funding provided sufficient to ensure that Britain’s trees and forests are protected and enhanced into the future. See link below.
9. Bolster Forest Research science funding into tree health
During 2012 alone tree scientists at Forest Research have had to face an Asian longhorn beetle outbreak, sweet chestnut blight, and ash dieback. This is in addition to oak processionary moth, Phytophthora ramorum in Larch, and acute oak decline that were already big-enough problems to tackle. It is important to recognise that it is not just the science work itself that is stretched, when delivered by an already small team, but that every new disease or pest demands time. Time in dealing with the media, with politicians needing briefing, from concerned and well-meaning members of the public and organisations. Every meeting attended and briefing note produced is less time spent on finding out more about the problem and how it can be tackled. Every budget cut stretches further their capacity to deliver and demands more time spent away from the science trying to raise external funding.
The team of scientists at Forest Research are an amazing resource but anyone who is lucky enough to deal with them will know that they face an impossible task, even before “the biggest story since Dutch elm disease” entered their work stream. They need more funding so that their team can be expanded and better resourced. A key objective from the Tree Health Strategy (see 8.) is “secure sufficient resources to ensure that biosecurity is not compromised.“
10. Stop blaming the Government for ash dieback
Nothing will stop the spread of ash dieback across Britain, and given its relentless spread from Eastern Europe over the past 20 years, its arrival on our shores was inevitable. The current actions led by Defra will, at best, only slow its spread. Pretending that ash dieback in Britain is the fault of Government is simply shallow chest-beating, and everyone knows it. Let’s get on with the actions above by working together for the good of our trees and forests.