Bungled fungals

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but the suggestion that Britain must fell most of its ash trees forthwith is dotty. A small proportion of them are showing signs of the deadly imported fungal disease, Chalara fraxinea. Those trees are dying and might as well come down quickly. The rest can wait while we see what happens next. If the Department for Rural Affairs reacts as it did when confronted with foot and mouth, it will be prisoner once again to its own “projections” and its love of blanket modelling. It culled millions of cattle instead of injecting far fewer of them. There are fungicides waiting only for a licence which can attack this sort of epidemic. It is a fungus, after all, not a baffling insect. Among our wild populations there will certainly be trees which prove to be resistant. The ash family is as genetically varied as yours or mine. If we burn the lot of them we will lose the resistant strains too. The government’s crisis committee Cobra [cabinet office briefing room] needs to think now before it strikes.

Meanwhile, I have had the benefit of a day’s intensive seminar at Kew Gardens, hosted by the International Dendrology Society, the respected global group of tree growers. They include both professional growers and amateurs. Their members travel and observe facts way beyond Whitehall or our national plantations of pointless Sitka spruce.

Nobody can say that this “crisis” came out of the blue. In 2009 a delegation from the experienced Horticultural Trades Association went over to Denmark to observe the disturbing effects of this very fungus on Denmark’s ash trees. Most of the trees were already infected. The delegates wrote to Defra in concern at what they had seen. Defra never answered the letter. They also wrote to the Forestry Commission, who replied that the disease was “endemic” in Britain anyway. This opinion was based on their error, easily made, of mistaking a close fungal relation, which is harmless, for chalara, which is not. Even so, preemptive vigils and root-sprays could have begun three years ago.

When Cobra panics, it covers plenty of ground. In the first five days of its emergency, volunteer searchers fanned out into the woods while helicopters flew low over forests, allowing skilled observers to train binoculars on to the treetops. When mobilised, our specialists are tireless and the public rises to the challenge as if the nation’s cats are feared to have caught mange. In those five days 115 cases of the disease were identified, from Sussex up to Northumberland. All this activity is admirable, but it reminds me of my atheist Oxford tutor’s celebrated judgment on the Romans’ persecution of the Christians: “too little and too late”.

An avenue of chesnut trees

Thanks to Kew and the IDS I am now up to date on infections recently recorded on widely grown woodland trees in Britain. They are far worse than I believed when being gloomy here in September before any crisis was being politically discussed. Native alder trees, our Alnus glutinosa, have a deadly pathogen which has already wiped out millions of them in Germany. Corsican pines have a needle blight, new since the late 1990s, which leaves them looking like dead poles. Horse chestnuts, of course, are at risk to a deadly bleeding canker, while the fast-breeding leaf miner has been sapping their energy since 2002. Japanese larch trees are increasingly infected with spores of the killer Phytophthora ramorum and are being felled by the thousand. Fast-growing nothofagus has another deadly pathogen from the same family. Since 2010, yet another pathogen in this broad group is killing Lawsons cypress. Since 2011 native junipers in ancient clusters in Scotland are turning brown and dying off. In 2011 sweet chestnut blight at last showed its lethal head in Britain after 60 years of anxiety among tree watchers that it might cross over from southern France. As in the US, our hemlocks are being killed by fast breeding insects. Rhododendrons on the west side of Britain are plagued with the killer phytophthora too, and it has now transferred on to wild blueberries on heathland. In the face of these other crises, ministers have sat and watched.

Tracks from emerald ash borers

Maybe it helps that the ash tree is “native”, a slippery term in tree history. There are 8m in Britain and the wind-borne chalara is now blowing among them. I know all too well that the US has had attacks that are even bigger, including the loss of 100m ash trees to the dreaded emerald ash borer. For years, observers expected that this beetle would dispose of British ash by entering the country. As yet it has kept out, but meanwhile we can learn lessons from the US. Americans attempted to fell ash trees in a “quarantine zone” around infected trees, sometimes to the fury of their gun-armed owners. The cull did nothing to stop the borer’s spread.

Most of these bio-invaders have been imported in nursery-stock from abroad. The plant certificate system is a shambles. I have seen photos of the “certificat phytosanitaire” which French officials graciously attached to the very cluster of sweet chestnuts which brought the awful sweet chestnut blight to us from France last year. Inspectors tend to look only at the leaves and not at the leaves of everything which is being shipped. How can they, poor dears? The foot and mouth crisis opened Whitehall’s eyes to the scale of the traffic which had been bussing sheep all round Britain in a game of woolly ring-a ring-a-roses. Have their urban eyes been opened now to the massive rise in the movement of plants in and out of Britain from all over the world? The graph has rocketed since 1970 when I began my FT column. Our growers even send seed collected in Britain to New Zealand so that they can have it raised abroad in a sunny winter and gain time. When it comes back, foreign pathogens sometimes enter in these “native” seedlings’ soil.

Tree with deadly bleeding canker

Naturally the EU has done its magnificent best. While losing control of its currency and its human migrants, it has also lost control of its plants and trees. In 1965, as a teenager, I had to apply for a permit weeks in advance from HM Customs and Excise in order to bring home some impeccably pot-grown alpines from Germany. Nobody in their place of propagation, a botanical garden, would let me take the plants until they saw the UK permit. An official at Dover then took my parents’ address and told me to plant nothing until another official had come to check the plants’ health in my cold frame. When he trekked out to Northamptonshire, he was more interested in the score in the Test match than my prized Campanula raineri, but at least he looked. Nowadays, black polythene containers allow imported trees to be planted throughout the year. In every month millions whizz to and fro from Bucharest to Brussels without any need for a permit at all. How many salaried plant inspectors are there in Lithuania?

Japanese larch in Thetford Forest, Norfolk

Some of the infected ash trees came from there, others from Poland and Scandinavia. One of the dendrologists told me that he had discovered how many official inspections for phytophthora took place in the EU’s Ireland last year. The answer, extorted under the Freedom of Information Act, was a footling 19. In Britain there were thousands. I can tell you how many official plant inspectors were in EU Portugal in 1995, because I met a man who knew the entire expert team. The total was one, who lived in Lisbon and did not even have a car. Are there more than 10 inspectors looking out for deadly oak moths in insect-friendly Poland? In the nationalised park of Rigolin near Poznań there are 1,500 superb ancient oaks, a global treasure. They are now being killed by a boring beetle. This borer, a cerambix, cannot be controlled because another committee of the EU, the one for eurobugs, has registered it as a rarity and given it a protection order.

East Asia, too, has been generous with consignments of natural born killers, but the EU inspectors have failed to keep them out. Their plant health protocol is drawn up to facilitate “free trade”, but not to protect the environment. It needs to be put in a euro-incinerator along with all the infected canary palm trees in southern Spain. Far tougher rules are needed, and meanwhile we all need to grow more ourselves and import far less. It is a nightmare which nobody imagined back in 1970, but I can see the political chance of a lifetime in Britain. Six months ago I might even have said, “Robin’ll fix it.” Next week I will set out my master-plan, giving specific products for gardeners and tree owners who are living in terror of attack. Meanwhile our government’s plan for new high-speed links by rail will spread chalara even faster in the slipstream of its trains.

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