The government grant system, which funds most ash planting in the UK, has been so unstable that nurseries have not been able to predict demand and have had to import trees to make-up shortfalls, says Grant Murray of Alba Trees Nursery.
He added: "There has always been ample capacity for British nurseries to grow all the ash the country wants. But the government’s grant structure is so unpredictable that we never know year to year how much will be needed. Therefore, many nurseries have had to make up the shortfall from imports. If the bureaucratic grant system had been better run, then there would have been far fewer imports and we might have avoided this situation.
"At least in retail, there can be patterns of demand each year. But demand in the forest industry is controlled by the decisions of a few civil servants and we do not know what is happening until our trees are half way through their growing cycle. All of us have to burn hundreds of thousands of unwanted trees each year and it is all because we have no idea what the market needs’.
Jamie Dewhurst, of J&A Growers, says banning imports is not the final answer: "The Government has not banned imports – it has just insisted that ash trees come from a pest-free area. It is possible for anywhere in Europe to be declared a pest-free area, so imports may continue after inspections. We cannot rely on the government to sort out this mess, the fact remains that the European Plant Health Regime has proved to be inadequate."
Maelor Forest Nurseries MD Mike Harvey thinks that the public can help: "We really need to improve the transparency of plant trading, both for forestry and ornamental purposes. Any nursery or garden centre should have detailed information on where exactly their plants were grown. Many diseases which kill trees are hosted on normal garden plants; a greater awareness from foresters and the general public of the potential risks associated with buying plants will help us protect the plant health of the UK. As an island nation, we still have the power to take action and protect our environment, but this can only be achieved through collaboration with our EU colleagues and learning from past events."
More than 70 million plants for forestry planting are annually produced in the UK by both Forestry Commission and private nurseries, while 10 million plants are imported for forestry planting annually. Some plants are exported by UK nurseries but the bulk is planted within the UK.
Meanwhile, inspectorates programme head Kelvin Hughes has written to all nurseries involved to emphasise that movement of trees from outside and within the UK is prohibited.The letter states that inspections will continue over the winter to establish where any pest-free areas are.