A leading forestry owner has warned the nation’s trees are under threat from diseases being brought into Britain as a result of the booming interest in horticulture and gardening.
William Theed, whose Brendon Hill forests in Somerset were the first in the UK to be diagnosed with the larch-killing phytophthora ramorum disease, believes the nation could lose as much as half its tree cover if controls on plant imports aren’t tightened.
The forester, who has been growing trees for more than half a century, says that “wave after wave” of diseases are being imported into this country and that Dutch-elm style inundations could soon become the norm.
“It is too late for the larch,” said Mr Theed, who owns more than 1,500 acres of forest. “With that tree I would say we are looking at the same scenario as we were with elm. Our grandchildren will know a Britain which is larch-less. But that pattern could be repeated with other trees.
“Unless we get a grip of it we are going to lose half our trees. You are talking about waves of trees disappearing,” Mr Theed said.
He added: “For so many reasons we need trees – they give us the landscape, the (clean) air, the climate and all the rest of it.
“Trees do a huge service in converting dirty air into oxygen. I fear we could suffer. It is very frightening.”
Dr John Morgan, head of the Forestry Commission’s Plant Health Service, refused to downplay Mr Theed’s warning.
“He’s got a point – the globalisation of trade is recognised as potentially increasing the threat. What regulators need to do is put control measures into place to prevent diseases coming in.
“The rate at which globalisation has increased has exceeded the rate at which regulators have caught up with threats – sometimes of diseases that are as yet unknown.
“That is recognised in the current EU plant health regime – the proposals to develop a new regime are under way now and as a member state we will get sight of these soon and be able to participate in a review,” said Dr Morgan. “We would certainly urge anybody with an interest in trees to get involved.”
Only last month the Forestry Commission published its “generic guidance” on a range of simple biosecurity measures which people can take to help protect Britain’s trees, woods and forests from damaging pests and diseases.
Later this week the whole matter will be the subject of a discussion at the Association of Professional Foresters’ Show in Warwickshire.