Funding to fight Phytophthora

Defra has pledged £25m, but will the money be spent in the right places?

Phytophthora: funding will mainly help the National Trust as it owns most at-risk sites. Photo: Forestry Commission
Phytophthora: funding will mainly help the National Trust as it owns most at-risk sites. Photo: Forestry Commission

Defra has announced it will spend £25m on trying to eradicate plant diseases Phytophthora ramorum and P. kernoviae.

National Trust lead representative on the diseases and garden adviser for Devon and Cornwall Ian Wright said the trust welcomes the action, which is set to benefit hard-hit trust properties, especially in the South West.

Defra met with stakeholders last Thursday, including the HTA, National Trust and councils, to brainstorm where the money should be spent.

Wright says: "If we can (change) the way we work, there's a real chance of not eradicating but getting the disease down to manageable levels ... and to reverse the trend."

He emphasises that the problem is spread through Rhododendron ponticum, rather than rhododendrons generally. He says the first step is to clear this plant from high-risk sites, then understand how the disease works and increase awareness of it.

The £25m is there to defend tourism by removing infected plants at historic gardens. The National Trust owns most of the at-risk gardens that the cash will help. Growers look unlikely to directly benefit and will be hit by more inspections. Areas such as Cannock Chase and the New Forest will benefit, but the trust will gain most aid.

There is no help for Scottish gardens, which the trust doesn't cover - nor for commercial nurseries that grow the plants Defra blames for the problem, often with little scientific evidence.

The Government offered the horticulture industry £200,000 compensation for plants destroyed on inspectors' orders when the disease hit hard five years ago. Industry bodies turned it down because they couldn't afford Defra's stipulation that they match-fund it. But the industry will now be hit by more inspections, more destroyed plants and more closures because of this cash injection.

HTA consultant David Brown says some growers want compensation, while some want nothing to do with it.

The HTA says consistency of plant hygiene/passport enforcement/regulations across Europe is key or else there is no point in inspections or destroying plants in the UK. Growers have worked on plant hygiene and monitoring for disease and supply-chain management.

Hampshire-based Shelley Common Nursery owner John Middleton, who has almost been sent out of business by having plants destroyed by Defra, says the amount of money is huge but could be better spent on tackling diseased imports or compensating growers.

Wright says the National Trust has already spent a lot of money on eradicating R. ponticum and is "committed to improving biosecurity on all our sites". But whether the Government should bale out a £388.5m-turnover charity is a "tricky question", he says.

HTA policy adviser David Brown says it looks as though initial research will be into heathland and infection of Vaccinium and best-practice protocols will be drawn up for nurseries, which the HTA will help in compiling.

Wright says it is not just about clearance. "It's about the way we operate and manage our own sites. We have to work together on this. There's a lot of common ground."

DEFRA'S PLANS

HW talked to Dr David Slawson, principal plant health and seeds inspector at PHSI Defra.

What would you like the £25m to be spent on? "We intend to spend the money in three main areas: disease management (surveillance and clearance); education and awareness (publicity, awareness and development of codes of practice and biosecurity procedures); and R&D (£400,000 per year). Included in the highest priority for research will be work on Vaccinium: risk of P. ramorum and P. kernoviae, and management of infected sites."

Why has the National Trust not contributed financially? "The money announced for the new programme is Defra money because we accept that government has a major role in funding the programme of work to manage P. ramorum and P. kernoviae. However, we will seek contributions from other key stakeholders, both governmental and non-governmental, where this is appropriate and where it will accelerate the programme activity.

"The National Trust has contributed significantly 'in kind' by providing research sites, the launch site, hosting visitors such as the European Food & Veterinary Office inspectors, and organising and chairing a Phytophthora stakeholder group."

What best-practice protocols are you going to introduce? "This is an element that will form part of the education and awareness project. We aim to build on the good work that has already begun in different sectors of the industry. The development and use of best-practice protocols has been suggested by members of the commercial hardy ornamental nursery stock sector.

"In the gardening sector, the National Trust has already developed some of its own biosecurity guidelines. Plans are in progress to create a sector group, including the National Trust, the National Trust Scotland, the RHS, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Plant Network and others to coordinate further best-practice guidelines.

"We intend to work across the whole sector to help develop and coordinate these protocols."

How much will you target nurseries with more inspections? "Surveillance and action on nurseries and retailers is vital because movement of commercially traded plants is the key pathway of long-distance spread of P. ramorum. It is for these reasons that there is EU and national legislation on movement of relevant hosts. Given the importance of the pathway, it is vital that we work with the industry to reduce disease moving in trade. This may include increased inspection, use of the aforementioned best-practice protocols or a combination of the two."

How will you enhance surveillance for the pathogen in imports? "Again, because of the importance of this pathway, the new programme will work with the existing Plant Health & Seeds Inspectorate import teams to continue to inspect 100 per cent of imports entering the country from third countries (outside the EU) and we will continue with our surveillance programme of material moving within the EU, including specific port inspections of material entering from Continental Europe."


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