May 25 2022

Plant health – what we can do to help

As a Woodland Trust volunteer, I’m certain you’ve heard the term tree health mentioned, whether that be on Whittle, at an event, when visiting one of our wonderful woods or during your day-to-day volunteer activity. Tree health is fundamental to the work we do and core to the Trusts long term ambition. The future of our climate and nature depends on it. But what does it mean and what can we do?





Tree pests and diseases are one of the biggest threats to the future survival of our native woodlands. When pests and diseases are inadvertently introduced to an area outside of their natural range, the threat posed can be significant and long-term.


The State of UK woods and Trees section 3.4 talks all about pest and diseases. If you haven’t already, why not try to read this during plant health week.


We do not have to think hard to recall a tree disease from the past that is wreaking havoc with our landscape today. Take Dutch elm disease, introduced in the late 60’s on imports from Canada, 40 years on and it’s changed the UK landscape forever. The fungus is still on the move spreading North threatening our native wych elms in Scotland. Another example, arguably the most well-known tree disease is ash dieback. This year marks the 10th anniversary since the fungus was first identified in the UK at a time when ash was traded heavily across Europe. We are expecting anything up to 80% of our ash to be affected by the deadly disease, though it is hard to know how many will show resistance. Nevertheless, we no longer plant ash in our mixes. This is devastating for the species that use ash – 953 of them!


It’s evident from the above examples alone that the international model of plant trade that has developed over the past 30 years is influencing our landscape more than we could have ever imagined and not for the better. The threat posed from pests and diseases continues to increase, with climate change likely resulting in an increased ability for the species to thrive outside their natural range – we need to act now. As you read this there is unprecedented risk of new pests and diseases entering our shores. Our iconic oaks are under threat from existing pathogens in GB (such as oak processionary moth and oak decline) but also from overseas threats that we must avoid arrival of at all costs such as Xylella. Emerald ash borer is on the move throughout the far East and has arrived in Europe. Should it arrive in the UK, this deadly jewel beetle would quash any chances of rebuilding our ash populations with those resistant to ash dieback.





Wind back 10 years after ash dieback, the Trust knew that something needed to be done to reduce the threat to our trees. We needed to begin to reverse the reliance that had built on overseas production and imports. Cue, the birth of UKISG – UK and Ireland Sourced and Grown. This is our own procurement standard that enables the Trust to have confidence in the trees being planted. They’re traceable right from seed to sapling and have been grown in the UK and Ireland for the entire lifespan. The trust works directly with 34 brilliant nurseries across the UK and Ireland to ensure our trees are produced without risk of inadvertently importing threats from overseas. UKISG features heavily in the new Trust strategy and extra resources to deliver this are being explored.





You might be reading this wondering what can be done by individuals to help. The good news is a lot!





When visiting the countryside and woodlands make sure you arrive and leave with clean boots. This can be as simple as rinsing the excess mud off with water, or if you know there is tree disease on site use a disinfectant (such as Cleankill). This is a simple but highly effective way to ensure you as an individual are not inadvertently spreading pest and diseases between locations when enjoying the great outdoors.





If you have a garden or land and want to plant trees, then ensure you procure through the Woodland Trust UKISG scheme, or a local garden centre that you know grows the trees from seed through to saplings. This will allow you to be confident that those saplings are as safe as they can be from accidentally introducing foreign threats.





When purchasing plants for your house or garden make sure you’re doing so responsibly. You can do this by supporting your local independent garden centres who run their own nurseries, growing plants from seed. Look out for biosecurity signs and protocols on signs on the walls of nurseries. If you’re buying online make sure you research the site you’re using and their biosecurity principles and if unsure, email them ahead of buying. Or try growing new plants from seeds yourselves!

We are expecting the GB Plant Biosecurity Strategy to be published by government in the coming weeks, this sets out biosecurity plans for the next five years. WT called for investment in our domestic nursery sector that will help to fulfil the demand for trees at home and begin to reduce our reliance on imports which pose a significant risk to our trees. We also ran a campaign that had over 1,000 public respondents!


It’s an exciting time right now for biosecurity and we all have a role to play to create a safer environment for our trees to thrive into future generations.


Author: Alisha Anstee

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