Forestry Commission celebrates a decade since making fundamental changes in plant health response after ash dieback crisis

Ash dieback

A blog on the Government's website published on 6 December reflects on a "decade of ash dieback response in the UK".

The Forestry Commission blog says: "The discovery of ash dieback in the UK, terrible as it was, became a catalyst for many aspects in today’s plant health world that are easy to take for granted.

"Following the findings there was an upsurge of media attention and public concern that our native ash would have the same fate as millions of elms following the introduction of the fungus causing Dutch elm disease in the mid-1960s," says Barnaby Wylder, Plant Health Forestry Lead in the North West of England: "The government appointed an independent Tree Health and Biosecurity Task Force to rapidly produce a report with recommendations how to best protect the UK from plant pests and diseases."

However, it was several months earlier, in June 2012, that Horticulture Week uncovered something the Government was hiding - 2,000 young trees infected with ash dieback had been imported into the UK.

While Defra tracked them down after they were sold by mail order, the Government sought to not let anyone know. For the news to get out, it took the importer telling HortWeek what had happened so the industry could be warned about the threat. It was not for almost another five months that the Government admitted what was going on and for the Government to ban ash imports.

The disease led to a fundamental change in UK plant health policy, with a chief plant health officer Professor Nicola Spence being appointed (in March 2014), and the Plant Health Risk Register being developed following a Task Force being appointed and making those recommendations.

Wylder said in the Defra post: "We now have a dedicated open-access resource that has identified and helped raise awareness of many very serious tree pests and diseases we want to avoid establishing in the UK – and with this knowledge colleagues in Forestry Commission, APHA and trained volunteers from Observatree undertake more targeted inspections to ensure they are not in UK plant trade or countryside.

He added: "It seems strange to think that in 2012 there was a Chief Veterinary Officer acting as a commander in animal related emergencies, but with no equivalent for plant health. Since 2014 we have been fortunate to have Professor Nicola Spence leading plant health response in the UK and representing the UK on a world-wide forum promoting the cause of plant health and biosecurity.

He said that developing and implementing procedures for preparedness and contingency planning, predicting, monitoring and controlling the spread of plant pests and diseases was also a reaction to ash dieback: "Back in 2012 the Forestry Commission England Plant Health Team was less than a tenth of its current size. Likewise, there are now many more plant health inspectors in APHA than a decade ago ready to respond to potential plant health outbreaks.

"Our scientists are also prepared in the case there should be another incident on the scale of ash dieback: In 2012 the Forest Research Tree Health Diagnostic Advisory Service (THDAS) was a very small team due to resource constraints.  Following high levels of media attention in Autumn 2012, members of the public were greatly concerned with the unfolding ash dieback situation and an overwhelming number of well-meaning reports of possible symptoms arrived by email, phone and letter.

"Today we have a much-expanded team of expert scientists in THDAS rapidly responding to tree health reports across the UK, and a brand-new quarantine facility within which to work.  Nowadays anyone from Tree Health inspectors to concerned members of the public can report suspicious tree health symptoms online using TreeAlert and the scientists receiving these reports can see precise location details and images of the reported symptoms.

"The most positive news is within the genes of our ash – a small proportion of our trees show a high level of tolerance to the fungus and, as long as these are not removed during essential management of the badly-affected trees, we shall in future decades have healthy ash trees within our landscape.  The first phase of a national archive of tolerant ash was planted a few years ago. Scientists including many in Forest Research (Alternative link: Ash dieback (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus) - Forest Research), RBG Kew  (Alternative link: Watch: How Kew is tackling ash dieback | Kew) and the Living Ash Project should not be left alone to search for these trees, so if you see a healthy-looking ash (as pictured below) amongst obviously poorly ones in spring or summer take a photo.  If it still appears healthy in another two-three years it might be you have discovered a tree essential to the future of the species in the UK, so don’t keep that knowledge to yourself - please report it to us."

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