0 Government says fighting tree pests 'absolute priority'

ashEnvironment Secretary Owen Paterson told delegates at the inaugural National Forestry Stakeholder Forum yesterday that he had made addressing tree pests and diseases an 'absolute strategic priority'.

Ash dieback is just one of a number of deadly diseases that threaten the UK's native trees.

Acute Oak Decline and Oak Processionary Moth are two pests and diseases currently affecting Britain's trees.

The CLA has welcomed the Government's focus on fighting tree disease in response to the ash dieback disaster.

"We are extremely pleased Mr Paterson has shown his determination to tackle tree disease and look forward to seeing this in action" said CLA President Harry Cotterell.

"He confirmed he is to divert resources from other areas of Defra to ensure tree health and protection is given the priority it deserves."

A report has said job cuts are threatening Britain's ability to combat new diseases of trees and crops.

An 'Audit of Plant Pathology Education and Training in the UK ', published by the British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP), reports a serious decline in teaching and research on plant diseases in British universities and colleges.

Plant pathology has been lost completely or greatly reduced at 11 universities and colleges while fewer than half the institutions which teach biology, agriculture or forestry offer courses in plant pathology.

Professor James Brown, President of the British Society of Plant Pathology, said: "These job losses are severe. Britain is not producing graduates with the expertise needed to identify and control plant diseases in our farms and woodlands. One of the most worrying finding is the decline in practical training in plant pathology', Professor Brown said. 'Only one in seven universities now provide practical classes which give students hands-on experience of plant disease.

"The appearance of ash dieback in British woodlands should be a wake-up call to the government and industry. New diseases threaten our woodlands and our food crops. Plant pathology education in Britain needs to be revived, to reverse the decline in expertise and to give farmers and foresters better ways of controlling these diseases."

The plant pathology audit finds that British universities have appointed very few plant pathologists in the last 20 years. Many of those who remain are aged over 50. The report attributes the loss of expertise to a shift towards subjects which bring more short-term income into universities.

The report says the position has worsened recently. There has been a long-term decline in plant pathology in many universities but there are now concerns about the long-term viability of the subject in Britain because of the loss of large numbers of plant pathology lecturers at Warwick University and Imperial College, London.

"We hope Mr Paterson accepts our offer to be part of the Tree Health Taskforce chaired by the Government's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Boyd" Cotterell.

"We urge everyone to look out for symptoms of ash dieback but also to check trees for other signs of disease such as Acute Oak Decline and Oak Processionary Moth. There are many tree pests and diseases that could spread rapidly and threaten the future of our forests even further."

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