Too little, too late

Jim Knight

Jim Knight on the mounting gloom surrounding Ash dieback disease

The Lords debate tonight on the future of the British ash tree couldn't come at a more worrying time for an icon of our landscape. 

The autumn is a time when many of us love going out walking with the family.  How many of us don't remember the fun of wading through piles of fallen leaves as children, or loving walking among the reds, yellows and browns in the trees at this time of year.

This year however, we are being encouraged to wash our boots, our dogs and even our children after walking in the woods. This year in at least 14 separate locations in the wild, falling ash leaves have had a fungus – Chalara Fraxina – that starts on the outer edge of trees and attacks back into it until the tree is dies off. The disease killed 99% of ash trees in Lithuania and the fungal spores are carried in the wind as well as on our wellies. 

Experts are not optimistic that we can control the disease here and it is right that the Government should now be co-ordinating action to tackle the spread of the disease.

The public will play its part in monitoring, using things like the app Ashtag to photograph and locate potentially infected trees. But if my twitter feed is anything to go by they are also asking plenty of questions, and I will try to reflect them in the Lords this evening.

Yesterday morning I asked my Twitter followers what questions I should ask the minister about this crisis. I have been overwhelmed by the response which helped me enormously and is an interesting example of crowd sourced opposition and direct democracy – even in the House of Lords!

The biggest concern was why we didn't ban imports of ash saplings sooner.  The first case of the disease was in February this year.  DEFRA will have known the devastation caused across Europe to ash trees and, as its chief plant health officer Martin Ward said today, "aerial spread doesn't happen until the summer".  Waiting until the autumn to impose a ban smells of too little too late.

Many others are worried about the capacity of plant scientists to deal with this outbreak.  As one blogger, Gabriel Hemery, says:

‘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.’

The Forestry Commission has had its funding cut by 25%, and its staff trade unions claim that this has resulted in a cut of 40% in the research budget.  It is crucial that there is both enough capacity for scientists to monitor and respond to this disease, but also to do so without it neglecting threats to their species.

There are many more questions and at least there is now action. Whether it was in time or enough we will have to see.

Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is Labour’s Shadow DEFRA Minister in the Lords

Published 5th November 2012

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