Tree health and plant biosecurity - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

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.[39] 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.[40] 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.[41]

08/09 09/10 10/1111/12 12/13 13/1414/15
Defra Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Action Plan N/AN/A N/AN/A £2m£2m £2m
Defra Plant Health Research (managed by Fera) £1.3m£1.4m £0.7m£2m £1.6m£1.4m £1.3m
Forestry Commission Plant Health Research £1.5m£1.4m £1.4m£1.7m £2m£2.3m £2.1m
Total£2.8m £2.8m£2.1m £3.7m£5.6m £5.7m£.5.4m

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.[42] 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.[43] 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 costs.

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 biosecurity"[44] 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".[45] 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."[46]

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.[47] 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.[48] 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".[49]

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."[50]

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".[51] 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.[52]

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 realised.

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

40   Ev w8 Back

41   Defra's budgets for 2013/14 and beyond are indicative only. Back

42   Ev w45 Back

43   See, for example, Q221 Back

44   Ev w32 Back

45   Ev w57 Back

46   Ev w45 Back

47   Ev w73 Back

48   British Society for Plant Pathology, Plant Pathology Education and Training in the UK: An Audit, September 2012, p7 Back

49   Ibid. Back

50   Q20 Back

51   Report of a Woodland Trust Conference, Chalara fraxinea and other threats to woodland (2013) Back

52   Ev w50 Back

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Prepared 11 March 2014