Anger about government response to oak disease

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs is under fire from leading growers for overreacting to findings of sudden oak death, Phytophthora ramorum in nursery stock of viburnums and rhododendrons.

To monitor the movement of susceptible plants and to alert growers DEFRA sent out 2,000 posters and information leaflets at the end of last week. It has also amended its original statutory notice, which asked for written notice from growers within three days of receipt. Now inspectors can be notified in other forms like e-mail or telephone. Managing director Tim Edwards, of Boningale Nurseries near Wolverhampton, said: “It’s a knee jerk reaction from DEFRA. This is one the busiest times of the year for us and it’s the peak selling time for rhododendrons.” In a bid to reduce the extra work for nurseries and growers involved in monitoring plants and alerting DEFRA, Edwards believes that the passport system, in place for fireblight hosts, should be extended to Phytophthora ramorum-susceptible plants too. Managing director Simon Ellis, of Crowders Nurseries in Lincolnshire, also feels DEFRA is mishandling the situation. “DEFRA is in on the back foot from BSE and foot-and-mouth disease and wants to cover itself from all angles. But plants, unlike sheep, travel thousands of miles, and can undergo numerous rootings, cuttings and pottings before they end up with a customer. “Unless DEFRA pumps in a lot more staff and funding into this initiative, it will not be able to control the monitoring of plant stock from the UK let alone Europe. Also, unless other European countries are banning American produce, who’s to say they’re not exporting infected stock here?” DEFRA’s principal plant health seeds inspector, David Slawson, stood firm on the measures being taken by the Government and said the increased workload could be undertaken by its 80 local inspectors spread throughout England and Wales. “We need to take emergency action as a precautionary measure to ensure that people are aware of the danger this alien disease can cause. We don’t want forests of our national oak tree, which has a lot of emotion attached to it, to go down in the same way that they have in California, where hundreds of thousands have died over the past five to six years.” Though DEFRA has made 1,000 additional plant inspections since April 12, it will not be taking on more staff to process the findings. “It will be a challenge at this busy time of year, but were still not quite sure of the scale of the task,” said Slawson. “We’ll prioritise our inspections on the higher risk plants. I want this done in a way that inconveniences traders as little as possible.” Some retailers welcome DEFRA’s cautionary measures. “It’s very important to deal with this if it’s something that could go the same way as Dutch elm disease. If we lost all the oaks, it would be a major disaster,” said trainee manager Daryl Shelver, at Coblands Choice Plants in Reading. “Staff here have read the DEFRA literature and if a plant now wilts and dies inexplicably, are now taking a proper look at it.” For further information about sudden oak death, including photographs and help with identification, visit

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