New £5.8m tree lab sends distress to the public to report pests | trees and forests

The public is urged to watch for any signs of disease in local trees, as the UK launches a £5.8m high-tech tree laboratory to combat the spread of pests and diseases.

The UK is particularly vulnerable to the increased spread of plant pathogens due to its warmer, wetter winters, and because it is a center of global trade. The new research lab is set to tackle these threats by clamping down on pests in the UK and abroad, including the oak moth, the emerald ash borer and the long-horned citrus beetle.

The Holt Forest Research Laboratory in Surrey – a key part of the new Center for Forest Conservation – will be able to analyze and investigate disease reports faster and more comprehensively than ever before. The public can report views via the Tree Alert website, and a specialist will come and look at the tree, or send in samples for further testing.

“The public is our eyes and ears on the ground,” said Gerard Clover, chief of tree health at Forest Research, part of the Forestry Commission. “It is indebted to all of us to play our part in reporting unusual pests and diseases and unusual signs and symptoms.”

More than 3,700 reports were recorded from the public between April 2021 and March 2022, a 25% increase over the previous year. “We expect this to grow as public awareness increases. When people report things, it will enable us to respond and diagnose these things in a timely manner,” Clover said. “This represents a real change in our ability and capabilities. It is a very important investment.”

As part of the project, a mobile field lab — a truck with a small lab inside — will roam across the country running on-site tests, meaning the disease can be diagnosed more quickly. Helicopters are already scanning the forests from above.

Projects include studying the risks to UK forestry from non-native trees and the pine wood nematode pest, as well as researching alternatives to ‘lost’ tree species.

Last year, a Woodland Trust report found that only 7% of the UK’s indigenous forests were in good condition, with imported pests and diseases one of the main threats, along with destruction through development, the impact of the climate crisis and pollution. In the past 30 years, the UK has seen the arrival of more than 20 serious tree pests and diseases.

Holt’s lab will be able to provide a quick and comprehensive analysis of tree diseases. Photo: Courtesy of the Forestry Authority

Sir William Worsley, Chair of the Forestry Commission, said: “We take the whole issue of tree health really seriously. The participants are first class and this gives me confidence that we are at the top of the game. She understands risk management and then takes appropriate action in a hurry.”

The National Trust cut down at least 30,000 ash trees last year as a result of death, with warnings of a “catastrophic” increase in disease due to the climate crisis. Ash death – spread by fungal spores – is among the diseases that experts can do little to contain once it spreads.

The researchers will collaborate with institutions abroad, including in France, Portugal, Italy and Canada. An emergency law was introduced to ban the import of timber from certain regions of France and Italy after the discovery of the pine moth.

Five to 10 pests are added to the UK’s plant health risk register every month, according to Professor Nicola Spence, UK’s chief plant health officer, making it very difficult to reduce disease overall. An increase in storms also damages trees and makes them more susceptible to infection. “We can’t speculate on the course and potential risks,” Spence said. “Of course climate change also exacerbates that because things are moving outside their historical range.”

Trees are an important part of the UK’s strategy to tackle the climate emergency, and the Committee on Climate Change has recommended that 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of forest be planted every year until 2025. The UK is one of the most nature-depleting countries in the world, and planting native forests is a must. Essential for habitat restoration.

Alisha Anstey, who is responsible for policy on tree health and invasive species at the Woodland Trust, welcomed the investment. She said: “We hope this expansion will help the UK’s capacity and capacity to control the existing pests and diseases that are wreaking havoc on our tree and woodland landscapes. We also hope it will tackle the threats posed by external pests and diseases that have not yet reached the UK and, most importantly, You should not reach – like an emerald ash digger.

But she added: “We must stress that this is only one component of what is needed to protect our trees, now and in the future…Crucially, we must continue to focus on the importance of prevention. With two new pests and diseases discovered in the UK in the past six months Alone, we must not lose sight of the urgent need to reduce our dependence on tree imports by investing in our local nursery sector.

“Continued tree loss to pests and diseases will significantly hamper the UK’s ability to increase tree cover to meet climate targets and tackle a growing biodiversity crisis.”

Five common diseases of trees: what to look for

ash death Because of a fungus that arrived in Europe 30 years ago from Asia, it is expected to kill 80% of ash trees in the UK. Fungal spores can travel tens of miles making them impossible to contain. It was first recorded in southeast England in 2012 and is now widespread. In the summer, dark spots appear on the leaves of diseased ash trees, then they wither and fall off. Dark brown lesions form on the trunk and eventually the entire tree dies.

Dutch elm disease An aggressive form of this disease arrived in the UK in the 1960s and spread very quickly until in 1980 most English elms died. It is caused by a fungus spread by the elm bark beetle that feeds on the tree. When they feed, the spores of the fungus get inside and release toxins that cause the tree to die. Dutch elm disease turns the leaves yellow, before they drop and die. The twigs refuse, making a “shepherd’s crook.” Under the bark there will be dark brown streaks on the outer wood.

oak moth It was first identified in London in 2006 and likely made it into live, imported wood. It has since been found in some surrounding counties. Larvae will appear over the next three months. They are black with long white hair and move in long processions from nose to tail, which gives them their name. The nests are usually dome or teardrop shaped and the size of a tennis ball. They strip oak trees of their bark and cause them to lose their leaves. The larvae can cause rashes and breathing difficulties, and they should not be touched.

The largest European spruce bark beetle has eight teeth In 2018, a subpopulation was discovered in Kent, and several have since been found, with outbreaks also in East Sussex. There is concern that it could cause significant damage to the UK fir timber industry. The best way to identify the beetle, which lives mainly in stressed or weakened trees, is to pluck a piece of the bark. Under the bark it produces a distinctive pattern of grooves where the larvae burrow. They form a shape somewhat similar to a fish bone, and the grooves widen as the larvae grow.

Phytophthora pluvialis This fungus-like pathogen has no common name, and was discovered in Cornwall in 2021. Since then outbreaks have been detected elsewhere in England, as well as Scotland and Wales. It can affect western hemlock, Douglas fir, and many species of pine. It results in a sticky, white sticky, and pestle in the tree’s trunk, twigs, and root, which looks as if someone cut through bits of bark with a knife. It causes the needles to turn brown and fall off, and new shoots die.

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