What lies ahead for tree health in the UK?

The health of UK trees is in serious threat as pests and diseases continue to become a prominent part of the UK environment. Cases such as ash dieback, chestnut blight and oak processionary moth are becoming increasingly common occurrences throughout our forests and woodlands. Such outbreaks have led to serious concerns over the future of UK forests and as a result the government created a Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce. Their final report was released last month.

The independent taskforce is composed of academics that advise on the threats to tree health and plant biosecurity, in addition to providing recommendations on how to best manage the problems that such threats could present. Building upon their interim report in November of last year and consultations with a wider stakeholder community, their final report, based specifically on trees, highlighted a range of current and future threats of pests and diseases. They noted that current strategies in place are insufficient to tackle such problems and offered a range of recommendations at both a national and international level.

A prominent recommendation laid out was to develop a national Plant Health Risk Register. Currently there are risk assessments for individual pests and diseases, but due to a lack of a single risk register this often causes confusion and problems in how to prioritise threats. By creating a risk register that identifies and prioritises the risks that pests and diseases can pose to trees, it is hoped that it will aid in generating more effective policy decisions and better allocation of limited resources. The register would also identify the probability of entry of exotic or reoccurrence of indigenous species, which is essential for understanding the future threats that trees face.

To guide the development of mitigation plans and prioritise risks, the taskforce encouraged the appointment of a Chief Plant Health Officer. It was highlighted that despite commendable efforts surrounding the reactions to ash dieback last year, reactions and preparedness to pest and disease outbreaks can be slow and hindered by a lack of management plans. Part of the officer’s job will therefore be to increase the preparedness and contingency planning of organisations and the government to such threats in order to more effectively monitor and control the spread of pests and diseases. The report also highlighted that addressing knowledge gaps through increased research into surveillance, diagnostic tests and modelling of pests and diseases was essential for future planning against such outbreaks. This should also include using research from the EU and other regions to understand the risk and spread of pests and diseases; using such ‘epidemiological intelligence’ would prove invaluable for risk assessment and future management planning.

However, increasing research and developing more effective control measures for outbreaks at a national scale were only part of a wider set of recommendations laid out. Current governance and legislation causes confusion between organisations as to who reacts to what as well as problems with how to manage and prioritise risks. Therefore a review of legislation should take place; in particular the Plant Health Act of 1967 should be updated to include all plants and be consistent with other plant and tree legislations. Improving legislation would help to strengthen understanding of how to manage outbreaks and develop the right approach to take.

UK trees are not alone in their vulnerability to pests and disease; worldwide there are increasing cases of re-emerging diseases in addition to new and exotic threats. Taking account of this, the taskforce highlighted the importance of understanding the problems that this could pose for the health of UK trees. In particular, developing rigorous biosecurity measures for effective control of the spread of current threats in the UK, in addition to risks of new pests and diseases, is needed. Suggested biosecurity improvements at a national scale included stricter border controls and increased public awareness. At a wider scale, strengthening EU and wider international regulations needs to take place in order to monitor and reduce the risk of new strains or species entering the UK. Notably, tighter controls surrounding the trade of plants and trees for commercial and personal use is needed, although this can be extremely difficult to monitor and control. Solutions the taskforce recommended were strengthening the Plant Passport scheme, introducing quarantine controls for high risk imports and increased surveillance of threats.

Pests and diseases will continue to pose a serious threat to the UK’s trees and surrounding environment now and into the future. The creation of this taskforce is a welcome step and their first report has highlighted key issues that need to be addressed if the risk and spread of such threats are to be controlled. The recommendations laid out are in some cases extremely challenging and will rely on a coordinated effort at national, EU and international scales which may prove difficult to implement. However, if the recommendations are followed, significant steps could be taken in reducing the research knowledge gaps and improving the clarity of organisation and planning against such outbreaks. If action is taken now, there is hope for controlling the impact such threats pose to our trees.