Observatree project is asking citizens to help in protecting our trees from new pests and diseases, but why is this an issue and why is citizen science part of the answer?

First off, the UK is dealing with a sharp increase in threats to our trees from a combination of the increased trade climate change. Since 2001 the UK has seen a near exponential increase in the appearance of new tree pests and diseases.

The Government is already very active in this area and it’s approach to controlling new tree pests and diseases is to prevent them from arriving if at all possible, but if they do get here, to eradicate them before they become established. Government scientists at Forest Research are already investigating many of these new threats, collaborating with other scientists in the UK and overseas as well as woodland managers. However, in order for eradication to be successful any new arrival must be spotted as early as possible. We need to significantly increase the levels of surveillance but there is a mismatch between the number of trees and woodlands and the relatively small number of tree health scientists working on these threats to trees. This is where Observatree comes in.

Our aim is to harness the knowledge of all those millions of people in the UK that are in contact with trees on a daily basis. We are encouraging people, particularly those with some knowledge of trees, to be on the lookout for unusual symptoms and to report anything they spot using the online Tree Alert tool.

Of course, if we are collecting a lot of new data on the health of trees this can put a huge amount of pressure on the handful of diagnosticians and tree health officers responding to the reports. This is the second area where citizen science is helping. We now have a network of over 200 trained, specialist volunteers that help in filtering the reports to identify those that are significant in some way. They will also be undertaking follow up surveys. This means that the small number of government scientists working on tree pests and diseases are able to focus their time working on reports where their knowledge and skills are put to best use, and where the greatest progress can be made.

Some people may say ‘the Government needs to provide more resources’, but given the huge pressures on the public purse, it ’isn’t feasible to use public money to pay for this level of surveillance. Citizen science is a way of adding to existing surveillance activities, enabling the collection of data in greater quantity than would otherwise be possible.

Observatree is not intended to tackle tree health on its own, but it adds a very important dimension to the Government’s tree health management activities.