UK ash growers met at the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) on 13 November for an update on ash dieback and to discuss future action.
The group expressed unanimous regret that the disease had arrived in the country and shared popular concern for the threat that it poses to the UK's natural environment. However, growers also felt that the situation might have been avoided if the government had taken action earlier.
The HTA first alerted the heads of plant health at the Forestry Commission and Fera authorities to ash dieback and called for an import ban following a Tree and Hedging Group study tour to Denmark in 2009. At the time, scientific opinion within Europe was that the pathogen that causes the disease was already established in Europe, including Great Britain, and that no quarantine measures were thus appropriate. However, in 2010 a new, more virulent strain of the disease was apparently identified though industry was never informed and ash continued to be specified in grant-funded planting schemes. Even when the disease was first identified in the UK in February this year, the HTA only learnt of its arrival on 18 July by means of a Fera press release.
If action had been taken earlier and imports banned as the HTA requested, then it might have been possible to contain or even eradicate the disease. This is now increasingly difficult given the spread of the disease in the wild. Under the government's action plan, mature trees are not currently being removed, but newly planted diseased trees and diseased trees in nurseries are being destroyed. In view of the specific chronology around the introduction of this disease, growers are looking to government to help mitigate their financial losses and safeguard their commercial viability, as well as using the plant health budget to meet the cost of any destruction orders.
Over the last week the HTA has surveyed ash tree growers in order to assess the scale of the issue and the impact that it is having on businesses. The initial results (from those that have completed the survey to date) show the total value of ash stock held is in excess of £2 million but this figure is expected to be considerably more. In unit volumes 1-2 year old seedlings account for most of the stock being held. Across the industry there is a significant expectation of loss with 13% of growers already having destroyed ash stock and 43% anticipating that they will have to destroy stock in the future.
The survey shows that all respondents expect to see some negative impact on their business with a fall in profits, negative cash flow and some potentially going out of business. There are also examples of businesses that, despite not importing ash trees, are unduly affected as their healthy ash tree stock no longer has a market. This particular point is to be taken up with government as it will be essential to maintain growing businesses within the sector if it is working towards the aim of becoming self-sufficient in tree production in the future.
The group acknowledged that solutions need to stimulate market demand and that the forestry and amenity sectors have different needs in that respect. In the forestry sector woodland owners who have planted ash under Government grant aided schemes since 2010 should receive aid for remedial work, whilst in the amenity sector the needs of those growers who have made long term investment in ash stock should be addressed.
HTA Director of Business Development Tim Briercliffe comments, "The crisis facing ash tree growers this winter is very serious. Whilst we recognise the need for Government to pay immediate attention to measures to control Chalara fraxinea it is essential that the short term financial challenges that will face ash tree growers this winter are addressed. I would like to see Government providing financial support to growers this winter and engaging sensibly with us in discussing long term changes to grant-aided tree procurement that can ensure a more resilient and UK-grown solution for tree planting in the future."
The HTA will be attending a further Defra stakeholder meeting on ash dieback taking place on 15 November.
For further information, please see www.the-hta.org/ashdieback