5 Capacity and capability
38. We received evidence that it has become increasingly
difficult to source UK funds for research on tree health issues
over the past twenty years.
Defra has acknowledged that the overall budget on forestry research
has decreased over the last five years, but emphasised that the
amount spent on plant health research has increased.
The table below sets out the funding provided by Defra and the
Forestry Commission over the past five years on plant health research,
and the funding planned up to 2014/15.
|Defra Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Action Plan
|Defra Plant Health Research (managed by Fera)
|Forestry Commission Plant Health Research
39. By contrast, we have been informed that the estimated
annual economic cost of tree disease alone (not including ash
dieback disease) to the UK is nearly £172 million.
Ash trees are used for both hedgerow trees and woodland trees.
When we tried to determine the total cost of ash dieback (both
to the public purse and private landowners) to the UK, witnesses
were not able to provide a definitive answer.
We invite Defra to provide us with an estimated overall cost
of ash dieback disease to both the Government and private owners
in the UK, including management, removal, replacement and protection
40. We heard concerns that where limited resources
are diverted to address a specific threat after it emerges, longer-term
preparatory work, such as monitoring and research, is further
under-resourced. The National Farmers Union stated that "investment
in preparation and monitoring services are critical to effective
and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology pointed in particular
to the focus of Defra's Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Action
Plan, noting that "it could be argued that the research element
of this programme has a mainly short-term focus, responding to
current problems, rather than preparing for emerging threats and
supporting research that will underpin a future UK response".
The Woodland Trust added that:
"Resource constraints lead to a "firefighting"
approach to dealing with outbreaks to the detriment of other work
that in the long term would help build resilience in woodland
and wider landscapes by enhancing biodiversity and enabling adaptation
to climate change."
41. Ongoing research and development work relating
to threats to plant health in the UK is essential to enable an
effective response. We welcome the increased funding available
for plant health research but we are concerned that the overall
budget for forestry research has reduced over the past five years
despite a marked increase in the overall level of risk and consequent
economic impact. We are concerned that resource constraints inevitably
lead to a focus on short-term "fire-fighting" leaving
long-term preparatory work, such as monitoring and research, under-resourced.
42. In line with Defra's key priority to safeguard
plant health, it is essential that ring-fenced funding is provided
for long-term research and development work that focuses on preparation
for future plant health threats in order to ensure an effective
response in the UK. This work should include monitoring; the development
of control measures; developing a greater understanding of resistance;
and researching other risk areas such as soil, untreated wood
and insect pests.
43. There was broad agreement from our witnesses
that there is a lack of relevant expertise in the field of plant
health, both in terms of the numbers of people and their technical
background. The Scottish Forestry Trust told us that the total
number of tree pathologists in the UK is "probably about
5 or 6" and that they are mostly over 55 years old.
The British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP) has carried out
an audit of plant pathology training and education in the UK which
found that the UK has seen a reduction in plant science institutes
and that several UK organisations have reduced their cohort of
plant pathologists over the last fifteen years.
The BSPP audit also highlights the problem that the age profile
of specialists in this area is weighted towards the 41-60 age
group and that "the great worry is that in 10 years' time,
those specialists at the higher end of the age profile will have
retired and take with them many years of accumulated knowledge,
while there are insufficient new entrants".
44. When questioned on the apparent delay in taking
action to pursue a pest-risk analysis in relation to Chalara
fraxinea, the Forestry Commission explained that:
"The difficulty was that we were already
dealing with a number of outbreaks of other pests and disease
at that time. The record will show that the number of pathologists
available in Britain to deal with some of these pests and diseases
is very small at the present time. Ideally, we would have liked
to have got the pest-risk analysis done more rapidly than we did
do, but we were dealing with fires at home at the time."
45. A report by The Woodland Trust identifies a key
knowledge gap as being "how the disease will progress under
UK conditions, how long infected trees will survive and what the
response of the rest of the ecosystem might be".
Increased expertise in the UK is needed to plug this knowledge
gap and build on lessons learned from the EU.
46. Defra have informed us that a range of immediate
initiatives are being taken to address skills shortages. At a
strategic level, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir
Mark Walport, is undertaking a study alongside Defra's Chief Scientific
Adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, to determine the UK's long term needs
for capability in the provision of research.
47. In order to provide evidence of emerging threats
and to be ready to manage them, the UK needs a core of dedicated,
well-motivated experts. We support the Government's commitment
to take action to address the decline of expertise and start to
build up the UK's capability in this area.
48. We invite Defra to set out in its response
to this report a full list of the immediate initiatives that are
being taken to address the lack of relevant expertise in the field
of plant health, including clear timeframes for implementation
of these initiatives and details of the funding that has been
allocated; and an explanation of how Defra is co-ordinating its
response with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills
to ensure that the most effective and collaborative solution is
49. In order to secure new entrants and to maintain
a suitable level of expertise in the field of plant health, we
recommend that funding is provided to increase the number of university
courses and research posts, with a corresponding increase in the
number of related university places in the UK.
39 Ev w73 Back
Ev w8 Back
Defra's budgets for 2013/14 and beyond are indicative only. Back
Ev w45 Back
See, for example, Q221 Back
Ev w32 Back
Ev w57 Back
Ev w45 Back
Ev w73 Back
British Society for Plant Pathology, Plant Pathology Education and Training in the UK: An Audit,
September 2012, p7 Back
Report of a Woodland Trust Conference, Chalara fraxinea and
other threats to woodland (2013) Back
Ev w50 Back