Observatree/IPSN Conference on Tree and Plant Health Early Warning Systems in Europe

Held on 23-24 February 2016, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK

If you would like to see any of the presentations given, please click on the presenter’s name/organisation, highlighted in green.

Watch our ‘Talking Heads’ conference video where key speakers give their views on specific tree health questions.

‘Shared passion for plants and ambitions for plant health’, Dr Charles Lane, Consultant Plant Pathologist, Fera



Dr-Charles-LaneOn 23-24 February 2016 I had the pleasure of hosting the Observatree/IPSN (International Plant Sentinel Network) conference on Tree and Plant Health Early Warning Systems in Europe at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (organised in collaboration with EPPO – European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organisation). This conference aimed to help identify and share best practice about tree and plant health early warning systems.
The UK is establishing itself as one of the leading practitioners in this new area of citizen science. For my sins, I had the pleasure of being the Conference Organiser but none of this would have happened without the redoubtable support of both the organisation and scientific committees ably supported by Simon Conyers and Jeanette Parker (Fera) and Ellie Barham (IPSN Coordinator from BGCI).

The conference was divided into four sections:
• Project Updates
• Volunteer Perspective
• Science Perspective
• Policy and Stakeholder Perspective

postersThis amounted to 25 talks and 20 posters across two days.

Planning the conference, we hoped that about 50 or 60 people would want to attend. We were amazed when we had to close registration at 150 people (from 18 countries around the world) with at least a waiting list of 30! From our experience this level of interest was unexpected and unparalleled. It serves as a very useful straw poll of the current interest in early warning systems for plant and tree health.

First session – Project Updates

Sara Redstone I had the pleasure of introducing Sara Redstone from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew who welcomed us and wished us well during our two days at this wonderful venue.


Anne-Sophie-RoyAnne-Sophie Roy (EPPO) set the scene for the conference providing a most interesting overview and insight into how early warning systems fit into EPPO’s work.


Ellie-BarhamEllie Barham provided an excellent introduction into the practical elements of early warning systems talking about International Plant Sentinel Network – a new EUPHRESCO funded network working with Botanic Gardens and Arboreta around the world.



Peter-CrowPeter Crow, Observatree’s new Project Manager, was the first to speak from the project and provided a fresh perspective of the aims, setting the scene for further Observatree speakers later on in the programme.


Professor Nicola SpenceDefra’s Chief Plant Health Officer, Professor Nicola Spence, the second keynote speaker of the morning, talked informatively about ‘Protecting Plant Health – A UK Perspective’ and the role of early warning systems in further strengthening plant biosecurity. Nicola described how plant health was a fundamental part of Defra’s strategy and cited how successful Observatree volunteers had been in helping with surveillance for Oriental Chestnut Gall Wasp. The challenge is how to quickly mobilise this volunteer workforce both in ‘times of peace and war’ and she emphasised how ‘partnership working is critical’.

David Slawson, OPAL, Imperial College, brought the session together as chair. His own reflections included the importance of early detection and that ‘prevention is better than cure’ when thinking about invasive plant pests and diseases.

Further talks were given by:

Second session – Volunteers Perspective

Deborah-McCulloughThe next session, chaired by Dr Gabriel Hemery, Sylva Foundation, started with a very inspiring keynote talk from Deborah McCullough, Emerald Ash Borer in North America, Michigan State University, about her experiences in dealing with outbreak management of Emerald Ash Borer in Michigan. This informative talk was very sobering as it reminded us of the consequences of an alien pest arriving in the UK.

Helen-JonesHelen Jones, Observatree, Woodland Trust, focused on the angle of volunteers. This included a compelling video of the role volunteers played during the finding of Oriental Chestnut Gall Wasp in 2015. Accompanying Helen was Andy Gordon, an Observatree volunteer, who shared his knowledgeable expertise on Acute Oak Decline.

Talks were given from a diverse range of organisations:

From my perspective the key element that came out of these talks was the value of hearing directly from volunteers – our eyes and ears – coupled with real-life experiences of a scientist working with an invasive species.

At the end of the formal part of day one delegates and organisers gathered together in the evening. Reflections were given about what was seen, people met up with old friends or made new ones in the world of citizen science, research and early warning systems.

Session three – Science Perspective

Dr Alain RoquesDay two started brightly with a welcome and introduction to BGCI from the Secretary General, Paul Smith. This led to keynote speaker Dr Alain Roques, INRA, France, who provided a valuable insight into the role of Botanic Gardens as part of early warning systems. The session was chaired by Dr Richard Baker from Defra who, along with Alain, are some of the first pioneers in the development and application of early warning systems to strengthen plant health. Alain provided a helpful comparison and insight into the opportunities and challenges from working with planted trees in arboreta versus setting up trial plots to monitor for pest and disease damage. He clearly demonstrated that each has their strengths and weaknesses.

Ana Perez-SierraAna Perrez-Sierra represented Observatree along with her colleagues from the Forest Research Tree Health Disease and Advisory Service. She gave a great account of the project resulting in many follow-up conversations with the team. It was quite clear, from these conversations, that we have developed something really special in Observatree that is applicable for many other organisations across Europe but also further afield.

The session continued with further presentations by:


Prior to the final session an extended lunch break meant many had the opportunity for a quick exploration of the Botanic Gardens before getting hands on with two brainstorming workshops.

workshopsA good level of participation helped to map out a new European Tree Health Early Warning System Knowledge Network – a key deliverable of the Observatree project. A flurry of coloured post-it notes, under the expert stewardship of social scientist Dr Alison Dyke (Stockholm Environment Institute at York University), was really productive and will help us develop a map of citizen science related networks.

Baldiserra-GiovaniThe workshop session provided an excellent opportunity to speak to the EUPHRESCO Coordinator, Baldiserra Giovani, who was seeking ideas for future research projects. Delegates could also see the work being carried out by Craig Docherty (Stirling University student) on gamification and tree health.


Session four – Policy and Stakeholder Perspective

There was no sign of flagging in the final session chaired by Anne-Sophie Roy from EPPO.

Dr-Nigel-BellThis was opened by Dr Nigel Bell, New Zealand Better Border Biosecurity (B3), whose organisation was one of the founding fathers and leading practitioners of the concept of sentinel plants and early warning systems. It was interesting to hear feedback from several Botanic Gardens who had participated in International Plant Sentinel Network surveys and the opportunities for reciprocal surveillance work with European compatriots.

Observatree was represented this time by Andy Hall, Forestry Commission, talking about policy and operations impact of early warning systems on day-to-day working of Forestry Commission Tree Health Officers.

The conference concluded with two enjoyable presentations:

Final thoughts

Final thoughts – Dr Lisa Smith

lisa-smithDr Lisa Smith, Head of Animal and Plant Health Evidence and Analysis for Defra, had a difficult job of summing up and providing reflections on two fully packed days. It was really interesting to hear her perspective on how early warning systems and the work of projects like Observatree and International Plant Sentinel Network are influencing the thinking and ways of working in National Plant Protection Organisations.

The key elements she picked out were the challenges around integrating ‘big data’ from various surveillance initiatives – both for national and international benefits – and the opportunity for a step change in horizon scanning. The diversity of talks about new pests and diseases and technologies also confirmed the need for early warning systems to be working in partnership and collaboratively on a global scale.

The value of citizen science in contributing to early warning systems is clear, but also the wider social and well-being benefits of connecting everyone with the environment. We need to inspire the next generation to be equally passionate about plants. She concluded by saying that although we are only a small community belonging to the ‘Plant Health Family’ we are bound together by our shared passion for which she thanked us all.

Final thoughts – Dr Charles Lane

conclusionAs Conference Organiser I had very mixed emotions when the conference was over – sad to say goodbye to so many friends (both new and old) but equally glad as I could finally relax along with the team who had made everything happen so successfully! None of this would have happened without the continued support of national and international funding partners from Defra, EUPHRESCO and EU Life+ together with the support of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Looking back over the two amazing days it truly was a celebration of the excellent work that has been going on within UK projects like Observatree, International Plant Sentinel Network and OPAL. But it was also inspiring to see from others how we could extend and expand the impact of volunteer resourced early warning systems to help protect our country’s plant health.

See the conference programme

Read conference abstracts

Read poster abstracts

Read our press release

EPPOThis conference was organised in co-operation with EPPO.