Nursery trade struggling to keep up with plant health issues, says Curtis-Machin

Plant health experts have warned that xylella might be worse than ash dieback for the UK.

At an event, organised by the HTA, delegates heard that full plant passporting for UK nurseries was likely to come in by 2018 and that growing more of our own plants in the UK could help fix plant health issues.

The trade will have to deal with a new xylella plant health order requiring notification of certain imported plants from 24 February.

HTA horticulture head Raoul Curtis-Machin said the nursery trade was "struggling to keep up" with plant health issues, and that "xylella is going to make chalara look like a walk in the park".

He said "ignorance" was to blame for plant health crises and the "potential nightmare" of xylella, which could come into the UK because of "the guy in a van no-one can really keep track of - he's trading plants like cheap fags and booze". He plans a portal with APHA to keep all the information in one place.

Curtis-Machin said a change with landscapers' and designers' attitudes to importing was needed, adding: "We can grow in Britain." He wants HTA committees to find the obstacles, such as wages and the Euro.

Boningale Nurseries chairman Tim Edwards said not much was expected of nurserymen before but the system now relies on them maintaining plant trails. He said many were breaking rules but plant health inspectors were giving leeway as new rules on xylella come in. 

Edwards said a "boycott" on Italian plants was possible and "hard action" would benefit the Italians, who have been hit hardest in the EU by the plant disease. H said similar action would also benefit the UK, if the UK suffered a similar problem.

He said most nurserymen don't understand the regulations and need courses for named plant health nursery people. Edwards added: "If you ask [Defra] a question you get sent 4-5 pages and no practical answers."

He said the UK had an island advantage and "we should be more self sufficient" because, among other reasons, it costs Defra to inspect.

APHA principal plant health and seeds inspector Ed Birchall said xylella fastidiosa multiplex was a potential threat to UK horticulture and advised to "look at where you are buying from" with the heel of Italy, south east France and Corsica hit. Plants such as laurel, lavender, oleander, acer rosa floribunda, hebe and cistus are affected.

He said to use Defra's plant health risk register to look for at risk plants and that the industry can help by using plant passports correctly and sourcing from known disease-free suppliers. 

J&A Growers' Jamie Dewhurst said the policy to inspect only known hosts was a "stable door" one and Birchall replied that with over 200 hosts "the view was it was too big to properly manage" because of lack of "resources, manpower and diagnostic capability".

Edwards said in 2018 regulations are likely to say all plants should be plant passported, which he said would be no problem to nurseries with IT systems used to track back, though the system doesn't guarantee plants are healthy, just where they come from and have gone.

Wyevale Nurseries' Steve Ashworth said cost was a worry with inspections £145/hour plus travel, and more draconian measures likely. He said measures were not necessarily implemented evenly across the EU.

Majestic Trees' Steve McCurdy said the "biggest problem" was xylella "leapfrogging to England" and that landscapers and "Joe Public don't take the issues seriously and "Google for the cheapest". 

He said inspectors were wasting their time if those people are not stopped.

Anthea McIntyre MEP explained EU plant health law, which she said she negotiated from a position between southern Europeans, who wanted draconian measures and the Dutch, who wanted fewer plant health restrictions.

She said she took a risk-based approach rather than bans and aimed to reduce red tape.

McIntyre said Brexit would "cost us".

Ayletts' Marcus Cousins said garden centres "have a duty of care" and need to understand the regulations.

In her summary of the day Defra chief plant health officer Nicola Spence spoke of the progress that was being made in working more closely with the trade and the commitment that is there to continue this into the future for the benefit of all. She closed by mentioning the five p’s that are fundamental - prediction, prevention, protection, promotion and partnership: "We will continue to work together, share and learn to upgrade our plant health regime – this is just the beginning of a new phase for plant health." 

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