Horticulture Week Custodian Award - Best community/volunteer initiative

Winner - Observatree, Woodland Trust

The Observatree project was launched to create a tree health early-warning system for pests and diseases using citizen science. Its volunteer network is made up of more than 200 tree health surveyors tasked with surveying trees and woods for signs of pests and diseases and assisting in the verification of tree health reports submitted by members of the public.

The volunteers are highly skilled, having undergone training on tree identification, pest and disease recognition, surveying, sampling, observational skills, GPS and mapping.

Since the project started in 2014, the volunteers have submitted more than 2,000 tree health surveys and dedicated in excess of 9,000 hours of their time to the project. They have reported cases of pests and diseases such Chalara dieback of ash, acute oak decline, Sirococcus tsugae, great spruce bark beetle, Dothistroma needle blight, Phytophthora lateralis and oriental chestnut gall wasp (OCGW).

Volunteers also help in bespoke pest and disease surveys. In June 2015, the first case of OCGW was recorded in the UK and the Forestry Commission tasked the Observatree volunteer network with assisting in the survey of sweet chestnut trees to identify other outbreak sites.

The volunteers were given online training and supporting resources to enable them to identify the symptoms of the OCGW and they submitted more than 200 reports on sweet chestnut within a few weeks.
Amanda Yorweth, a tree health surveyor from St Albans, found the second outbreak site of OCGW. Her finding was reported to the Forestry Commission tree health team and action was taken to prevent the spread of the pest. This action successfully contained the pest and protected thousands of trees.

Commenting on the St Albans finding, the commission’s head of sustainable forest management Andrew Smith said: "Fantastic work by Observatree to spot St Albans gall site. OT definitely earned its stars yesterday. I got the news just as I was walking through the door in the Lords to brief the minister on the latest situation. Defra is really pleased despite the fact it changes the context on this pest. Well done, and thanks."

The success of the Observatree project was recently celebrated at a parliamentary reception at the House of Commons, hosted by Chris Davies MP, with speeches from chief plant health officer Nicola Spence and Forestry Commission chair Sir Harry Studholme.

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