LI issues update on ash dieback

An ash tree
Landscape Institute issues update on ash dieback

Over the past few years, several new pests and pathogens have emerged as significant risks to the UK’s woodlands, commercial forests and urban trees. The outbreak of ash dieback at the end of 2012 illustrates how rapidly new diseases can take hold, and the scale of the threat they can pose to trees.

Dr Mimi Tanimoto, UK Plant Sciences Federation executive officer at the Society of Biology, would like to bring a number of recent interesting and important developments to the attention of Landscape Institute members.

Submissions to government

The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) and several growers met recently with Defra representatives to discuss possible solutions for helping the industry in the wake of the ash dieback outbreak. These efforts reflect work under Objective Four of the government’s interim Chalara control plan, which aims to build resilience in woodland and associated industries.

The meeting followed several HTA meetings and exchanges of correspondence on the implications of Chalara with Defra ministers, resting with a letter in December from Lord de Mauley, Parliamentary Under Secretary for the Environment, in which government stated that itwould not be applying to the EU fund available to support plant health crises in member states and that no compensation would be made to UK growers as a direct result of the Chalara outbreak.

Tim Briercliffe, HTA’s director of business development, said he was deeply disappointed that the government had not applied to the EU fund set up for just this type of situation nor committed to providing UK growers with direct compensation. He added, however, that the meeting looked at positive ways in which the industry might be financially supported through this crisis.

These included looking at future measures to increase the resilience of the horticulture sector, he added, citing as an example, the use of re-plant grants as a useful mitigating factor for forestry nurseries. ‘We have also encouraged Defra to put in place a similar, time-limited, resilience scheme to that implemented in Scotland recently to help nurseries manage the threat from Dothistroma Needle Blight,’ Briercliffe added. ‘We also made the point that the amenity sector has been equally affected by the Chalara outbreak and it is important that any future proposals are relevant and applicable to the whole industry.’

Time is of the essence, he concluded: ‘The Government Action Plan on Chalara is not set to be published until the end of March. This is too late for growers who need answers and solutions now to help their businesses recover and survive into 2013. We have been working closely with government on this issue since before the outbreak was widely publicised and we will maintain this high level of input to ensure a good outcome for the industry.’

Scientific advances

In December, scientists from the The Sainsbury Laboratory and the John Innes Centre (both in Norwich) published the first RNA sequence data on the ash dieback fungus causing an epidemic of disease. They have released the data via a website to a system designed for the ‘social coding’ of software. The system, called GitHub, was also used to ‘crowdsource’ expertise during the 2011 E. coli epidemic in Germany.

Experts from around the world can now access the RNA sequence and start to analyse it immediately, speeding up the process of discovery. It also allows live peer review of analysis, which is said to help produce more accurate findings more quickly.

‘Bringing together knowledge and data through technologically-oriented social media is one of the most vital steps in beginning to understand this outbreak,’ said Dr Dan MacLean of The Sainsbury Laboratory, which is a research centre focused on the science of plant-microbe interactions.

Policy statement on forestry

Meanwhile, the Government’s recently released Forestry Policy Statement in response to the Independent Panel of Forestry’s Final Report ‘acknowledges the importance of the panel’s report and confirms that the government shares its vision for the future of our forests’.

The report sets out clear priorities for future government policy-making, focused on protecting, improving and expanding our public and private woodlands. It covers, among other things, the future of the Public Forest Estate, woodland creation and management, the economic development of the forestry sector, community involvement in local woodlands and tree health.

The statement confirms that the Public Forest Estate will remain in public ownership, and announces that a new body will be established to hold the Estate in trust of the nation and manage it for the long-term benefit of people, the economy and the environment.

In the media

A recent article in The Daily Telegraph, reported ‘the government’s belief that ash dieback is unstoppable but fungicides could save a valuable few’.

The best case scenario, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is to be able to save the most valuable trees.

According to an article in The Times, the department wrote to a company which had proposed a general treatment and confirmed that they had ‘serious doubts’ it would work in woodland, but that fungicides could help save trees of special conservational value, or young trees still in nurseries.

A recent Planet Earth Podcast, on the Natural Environmental Research Council website, addresses the idea of decoding the ash tree’s entire genetic sequence to produce a strain that’s more resilient to ash dieback.

Interesting and relevant posts on the OpenAshDieBack crowdsourcing hub include Is the high representation of fungal transcripts in the infected ash material unusual or alarming?, Analysis of the MAT1 locus of C. fraxinea KW1 isolate and AT1 and AT2 are of a different mating type to KW1

Play your part

If you have research, funding and policy updates on ash dieback that you would like circulating, please email mimitanimoto@societyofbiology.org

The UK Plant Sciences Federation is a special interest group of the Society of Biology operating with financial support from the Society of Experimental Biology and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation.

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