I will not be importing oaks this season. Will you?

I find myself in a difficult situation. A few weeks ago I was fortunate to be present to hear details of imminent changes to regulations concerning Oak Processionary Moth (OPM) and oak trees. I heard details, asked questions and probed the implications of these changes. That may not sound like a difficult position to be in, yet I am uneasy.

Boningale Nurseries: Supplies trees, shrubs and perennials to the landscape market - image: HW
Boningale Nurseries: Supplies trees, shrubs and perennials to the landscape market - image: HW

There is no ban on the import of oaks: ask your local Plant Health Inspector and you will be told there is no ban, but you will be told the regulations have changed. The change is subtle, but ramifications are profound: European oaks above size 6-8 can no longer be legitimately imported. My dilemma is that I know this: to carry on importing oaks would be to knowingly flout the regulations. Yet I know only too well that other nurserymen are getting an unclear message and are likely to take a different stance. If I apply the regulations as I know I should, my company might end up the only nursery in the UK following these regulations correctly and not importing oaks. Left with the options of flouting the regulations or suffering a commercial disadvantage, I’m choosing a third way: I’m doing my best to inform the rest of the Trade.

OPM is now widespread across most of Europe to the extent that our European colleagues can do little to control it. In 2006, OPM was introduced to in the London area, traded here from Europe: the pest is now established in London. It’s up to us to avoid that happening across the UK. Our Authorities applied to the EU Commission some time ago to designate the majority of the UK a Protected Zone for OPM. So for some time now, an exporter could not legitimately issue a Protected Zone Plant Passport for an oak unless stock was inspected and found free from OPM over the past growing season. So far so easy: plenty of European stock passed inspections.

The problem is, while OPM is easy to identify at the point in its life cycle when it forms highly visible ‘nests’, it is far more difficult to identify the many other stages of its life cycle: inspections in the past were not thorough enough to guarantee the pest is kept out of the UK. Indeed, there have been cases recently when the pest has entered the UK. If we’re serious about keeping it out, we need to do more.

Changes to the Regulations, applying from August 21st as national measures in England, might not appear great, but there is one profound difference: they now prescribe details of the inspection that must take place before a passport can be issued. The important point is, European inspections to this level did not taken place over the past growing season, so protected zone plant passports cannot now be legitimately issued.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that it is not for the UK importer to ensure the relevant inspection takes place: it’s up to the EU Exporter, who might well not understand the changes that have now come into force. So, what will happen if a UK trader asks a European exporter for oaks? The Exporter might well supply the stock in ignorance, issuing a protected zone passport just as he would have done in the past. The only obligation on the UK nursery is that it receives a passport.

Importers must already inform our Authorities of all imported oaks. Will future notifications be followed up? I for one will ask that ALL imports are investigated, as I believe none will meet this new inspection criteria. It will then be for the UK Authorities to ask their European counterparts to investigate. This will take time, but once started must be followed through. If things are as I believe, all oaks trees imported over the coming season will fall foul of the new regulations.

As a Trade we have rightly become excited by Xylella, but there is more to Biosecurity. OPM could be kept out of the UK, but only if we strengthen biosecurity. It will be foolish, irresponsible and potentially very costly for all of us, if the Trade does not accept the reality of the current regulations and stop importing oaks. That will mean there will be too few oaks to go around this season, but it will also mean we keep OPM out of the country. I will not be importing oaks this season. Will you?

Tim Edwards is chairman of Boningale Nurseries


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