Tree health experts have secured nearly a million pounds of European Union funding to develop an early warning system for threats to the UK’s trees

EU funds much-needed early warning system for UK tree pests and disease

The LIFE+ ObservaTREE project, which according to the Forestry Commission, takes an innovative new approach to managing risks to tree health, has been awarded 1.1 million Euros (nearly £945,000) over four years from the EU’s LIFE+ programme.

The announcement comes in the same week that Brighton newspaper The Argus reported that hundreds of thousands of Sussex oak trees are at risk of catching acute oak decline, and the government announced a ban on the importation of sweet chestnut trees, in a bid to curb the spread of sweet chestnut blight.

‘We are determined to do everything possible to protect our trees,’ says Dr John Morgan, head of the Forestry Commission’s Plant Health Service. ‘Acute Oak Decline is a complex condition, and this new Defra funding will enable us to better understand the condition and the number and distribution of trees affected.’

Led by Forest Research, the research agency of the Forestry Commission, the ObservaTREE project’s partners also include the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), the Woodland Trust and the National Trust. ObservaTREE will help to identify tree health problems earlier, and enable members of the public and voluntary bodies to play a greater role in protecting woodland health by reporting incidents.

‘Securing this funding demonstrates the Government’s commitment to plant and tree heath, which is one of Defra’s four key priorities,’ says  Morgan. ‘Bringing together all the main actors in one project will help policy teams and practitioners to collaborate on tree health matters across the borders of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It will also enable them to link up with other EU states and organisations who can share valuable knowledge about tree health threats with the UK.’

The UK has seen an increase in the incidence of new tree pests and diseases over the past decade, including the well-documented spread of ash dieback (Chalara fraxinea) as well as acute oak decline and sweet chestnut blight.

According to the Forestry Commission, this is due partly to the expansion and globalisation of trade in live plants and wood products: ‘Trade routes can act as pathways for the introduction of new pests and diseases, and ObservaTREE will enable vigilance for new threats to be stepped up, supporting implementation of the UK’s Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Taskforce Report,’ it says.

The Woodland Trust plans to recruit and train a network of volunteers and tree health ‘champions’ from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, says spokesperson Dr Kate Lewthwaite, ‘from ordinary citizens to those already working in forestry, horticulture and arboriculture’. These volunteers and champions will support Forest Research scientists, she says, by acting as a first line of response to reports of tree pests and diseases sent in by the public from their localities. ‘They will do this by responding to, screening and helping to investigate reports of suspected pest and disease threats.’

Dr Joan Webber, head of tree health research at Forest Research, added,’By helping to filter and check reported incidents, the Tree Health Champions will really help public-sector scientists to focus on the reports of greatest significance.’

Building a library to share information on the greatest pest and disease risks will also give impetus to the new UK priority risk register recently commissioned on the recommendation of the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Taskforce Report.

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