The UK Government has recently announced a ban of the import ash saplings (Fraxinus excelsior) due to the spread of the Chalara fraxinea fungus, AKA ash dieback. This has been a disaster waiting to happen and one that could be avoided. Although the ban has just been announced there widespread reports infection across the UK (including Scotland), this is not an isolated windborne infection, which the Sectary of Sate for the Environment Owen Paterson MP, is currently claiming that it is.

The government’s own scientific advisors have repeatedly given warnings that there are an increasing number plant pathogens entering the country, such as C. fraxinea, Phytophthora ramorum, P. lateralis, P. cinnamomi and P. kernoviae. They have also been telling the Government that there is a need to increase biosecurity in the horticultural trade (plant nurseries and garden centres). However, the Government has refused to take notice of these warnings, saying that putting regulations in place which required the horticultural trade to improve biosecurity would be an increase “red tape” and this would be “bad for the economy”. Really? The scientist who investigated the Phytophthora Spp. outbreak which caused over £2m of damage to Balloch Country Park, were told they are not allowed to name the Garden Centre (which borders the park) which is the most likely source of the infection. On the grounds of commercial confidentiality. No action been taken against the Garden Centre, nor can any claim for compensation be made due to the gagging order on the plant pathologist who investigated the outbreak. How exactly has this helped the economy?

Nor is the UK Government particularly keen coming clean on the cost of felling and destroying all the Larch (mostly Larix kaempferi) in the South West of England, to control an out break of P. ramorum. Should P. ramorum spread into Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), which is a possibility, this would devastate the British forestry industry, worth over £7.2 billion a year.

This is not all, the UK Government has a track record of opposing any form of environment protection at the European level as well. So it is rather rich for them to suggest that the current problem is the fault of EU for allowing international trade, without appropriate controls and biosecurity measure. The problem of imported plant pathogens is not new, Dutch Elm Disease was c. 1967 from North America. In spite of its name Dutch Elm Disease does not come from the Netherlands, it gets it name because the fungus that causes it and the way it spread by beetles were first discovered by two Dutch scientists (Bea Schwarz and Christine Buisman) in 1921. It is thought to originate from Asia, possible in the Himalayas, but no one really knows.

What we do know is that the movement of plants and living plant material is increasingly being moved around the globe. At the same time the number of plant pathologist being trained and employed in Britain is in sharp decline. At a time when we are seeing an increasing threat to our forests, it is galling to find that the UK government is cutting almost 30% of jobs at Forest Research. This is merely symptomatic of this Governments attitude to science, particularly environmental science which it sees as an inconvenience. Well Minster the truth can be very inconvenient and the cost of dealing with environmental damage is massively greater than protecting the environmental.

For the record, the author of this post is a plant ecologist who has, in the past, worked on forest biodiversity.

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