Observatree II: Thoughts from Nicola Spence, Chief Plant Health Officer, Defra

It’s now almost exactly a year since Phase 1 of Observatree under EU LIFE+ funding came to an end and the project transitioned to Observatree II.

A great deal has happened over the past 12 months, both within the project and in the wider world of tree health, and I wanted to take this opportunity, as Defra’s Chief Plant Health Officer, to reach out to the Observatree ‘family’ and share some of my thoughts as the project moves forward.

Over the summer we published the Tree Health Resilience Strategy – the first output from the Government’s 25 year Environment Plan. The Strategy announces some important initiatives that will help to protect our trees, including:

  • raising public awareness of importance of plant biosecurity
  • continuing our work to assess risk from pests and diseases (P&Ds) – there are now over 1000 P&Ds on the UK Risk Register, approximately 30% of which are recognised as being capable of attacking trees
  • improving biosecurity standards and safe sourcing of plants
  • reducing the risk of importing P&Ds through good trade practices
  • reviewing the international passenger baggage entitlement
  • improving preparedness and contingency planning for Xylella and Emerald Ash Borer
  • the launch of Action Oak

Throughout the Strategy runs a strong theme of partnership and collaboration. Government cannot protect the health of our trees alone, and we recognize the need to develop and foster a sense of shared responsibility, both within industry and amongst the public. Whenever I hear about the ongoing successes of the Observatree project I am reminded about how much we have already achieved together. 

And what a year this has been for Observatree! You’ve successfully delivered the EU LIFE+ phase of the project, shored up funding and continued support from across the partnership, welcomed a new volunteer coordinator into the project (welcome Charlotte!), and carried out an intensive round of volunteer recruitment and training, as well as an active programme of communications and engagement. I wanted to say a big ‘thank you!’ to all the project partners and to their staff who continue to provide invaluable support to the project.

The volunteers have also been very busy, attending training events, and continuing to submit many important reports on P&Ds and, just as importantly, healthy trees. Many volunteers have identified Sentinel trees which they monitor at regular intervals and report on their status. This regular monitoring could at any time provide us with critical early warning of health issues affecting some of our most valued tree species. Around 1400 reports were submitted during this first year of phase II. These data are very informative and we need to ensure we use them well and make the most of everyone’s hard work.  I remain extremely grateful to you all for your continued engagement, energy and enthusiasm.

I wanted to take this opportunity to emphasise the value, and potentially significant importance and impact of your surveys and reports. It’s worth remembering ‘the journey’ that every survey and Tree Alert report goes on. Each submission you make is processed, assessed and finds its way into a growing database of tree health incident reports. Some require immediate follow-up and response, sometimes with very direct impacts on policy and operations, as was the case with the sightings of Oriental Chestnut Gall Wasp in St. Albans in 2015. 

OCGW galls on leaves

I’m also heartened to see the growing number of submissions of so-called ‘negative reports’ – remember that even if you don’t spot anything when surveying, we still want to know as these reports inform our current understanding of areas where pests or diseases are not currently present. It’s also worth remembering that even if you never submit any positive reports, you are still a real asset to the project and the wider tree health cause. Because Observatree volunteers have received training and are actively engaged with the project, we know we could call upon them at a time of need, for example to help out with wider surveillance during a tree health outbreak. 

The UK has a global reputation for setting the high standards for biosecurity of plants and trees, but there is no room for complacency. Increasing globalisation means an increasing threat of importing invasive plant pathogens.  Government cannot act alone – we all need to put biosecurity at the heart of everything we do and limit the spread of plant diseases and pests through simple actions.  Observatree remains a shining example of what we can achieve when we work together.

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