Can plant passports raise our trees from the ashes?

Britain has already had twice as many tree plagues in this century as it did in the whole of the last


Universal “plant passports” could be needed to combat imported diseases such as the fungus set to ravage Britain's 80 million ash trees, senior Government scientists said yesterday.

Speaking as the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, convened a meeting of the Cobra crisis committee to discuss how to tackle one of the biggest-ever threats to the British countryside, scientists suggested that in future all plants sold in Britain for planting out might have to have a "passport" that would enable their origin to be traced.

The scheme is a potential response to the growing threat to our native trees and plants from foreign pathogens imported into the UK, such as the ash dieback fungus Chalara fraxinea, which has swept across Europe and now arrived in Britain.

It is feared that the disease will be as devastating to Britain's woodlands as Dutch elm disease was in the 1960s and 1970s, and Cobra was assembled yesterday to plan concerted, cross- departmental action to combat it.

However, a briefing by some of Britain's leading plant health researchers in London yesterday made it look increasingly likely that the deadly fungus, first detected in young trees in February and in mature woodland trees last month, is already firmly established here and eradication will be virtually impossible.

The future of the ash, "the lady of the woods" and one of the best loved elements of Britain's landscape, as well as its third most numerous tree, now looks bleak.

Depressing facts highlighted by the briefing included:

* Chalara may be present in mature ash trees in Kent, as well as in East Anglia, where it was first found;

* The disease is likely to have been carried to Britain by fungal spores blown across the Channel from the Continent, as well as by imports of saplings – which was the pathway first identified – and thus further outbreaks can be expected in south-east coastal counties. It may spread naturally at a rate of 30km a year;

* Tackling the disease in mature woodland trees by spraying with fungicide or by burning is likely to be impracticable, and trees cannot be vaccinated; once infected, they cannot be cured.

Most alarming of all yesterday's disclosures by the plant health experts was the massive jump in imported tree pathogens in Britain over the past decade. Dr Joan Webber, head of the Forestry Commission's Tree Health Research Group, said that during the whole 20th century, Britain had five major pest and pathogen outbreaks affecting its trees, two of which were outbreaks of Dutch elm disease.

However, in the past 12 years there have been more than double that number, all of which were "introduced organisms" coming from abroad. The Chalara fungus, first detected in Poland in 1992, was from Japan, she said, where it exists harmlessly alongside Asian ash species. But once it got to Europe, it changed and became harmful to European ash trees – a process that could be replicated with other pathogens. Chalara may have arrived in Europe through imported seeds, she said.

Dr Steve Woodward, of the University of Aberdeen, listed a whole series of new tree diseases in the UK, including pathogens affecting Scots pine and juniper, two of the only three native conifer species found in Britain, as well as others badly affecting the larch, alder and cypress.

It is thought most of these have come in with plant imports. No one knows exactly how many plants are imported into Britain every year, though the total runs into billions. One known figure is more than 5.2 million ash saplings brought in for forestry between 2003 and 2011.

Chalara was first detected on ash saplings imported from the Netherlands.

It is in this context that plant passports, in practice individual labels with tracing details, may be needed in future, said Dr David Slawson, of the Food and Environment Research Agency. "What can we do to prevent future tree pest and disease incursion?" he said. "I think all plants for planting that move within the community could have a plant passport, which at the moment only certain plants have."

Plant health in Britain is governed by the European Union plant health regime, which has not been revised since the 1970s and is widely regarded as unsatisfactory. The legislation is being reviewed, and Britain will suggest that plant passports could be part of a new arrangement.

The immediate action that the Government will take to combat ash dieback is likely to be outlined at a "Tree Summit" being convened by Mr Paterson next Wednesday.

In practice, its strategy will depend on whether or not Chalara can be contained in the south-east corner of England. Containment may be possible, but eradication looks unlikely.

The disease can spread at a rate of 30km per year

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Flat out: Michael Flatley will return to the stage in his show Lord Of The Dance
Michael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux / Redhat / Solaris / Puppet / SAN

£65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

Business Analyst

£250 - £350 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst, Bristol, Banking, Business Obje...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape