Missed lesson on ash disease

As the blame game between politicians and their advisers in recent weeks has threatened to engulf debate on how best to respond to the latest crisis facing our native trees, one message has come across loud and clear.

That message is that the horticulture industry, via the offices of the HTA, and following a visit by UK nursery representatives to Denmark, alerted the relevant Defra officials to the potentially devastating threat from ash dieback as long ago as 2009. They also made recommendations for import controls, which, had they been acted upon, may have dramatically shifted the odds in favour of survival for one of our most prevalent and cherished native trees.

Indeed, as a 2010 study carried out by the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London (and part funded by Defra alongside ESRC, BBSRC and NERC) into the lessons that could be learned from the management of Dutch elm disease made clear, prevention would have been better than any attempted cure, however early, however aggressive.

The study, which was commissioned as sudden oak death was continuing to spread and other new diseases were proving hard to control, concluded that there was one "cardinal lesson" to be drawn from both Dutch elm disease and sudden oak death - that it is far better to prevent the entry of a disease than to attempt to contain it once it is established.

That doesn't mean ruling out imports per se. What it does mean is refocusing a plant health regime that is currently unable to address new threats from invasive diseases to the UK's trees - and ensuring that the eyes and ears of that regime on the ground are properly funded. In the case of Dutch elm disease, the report concludes, port inspections might have prevented its establishment.


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