Plant Health across Defra

Author: Prof. Nicola Spence, Chief Plant Health Officer.

Prof. Nicola Spence, Chief Plant Health Officer

The Government is committed to protecting our trees and other plants from pests and diseases and building their resilience to threats.  Our woodlands and parks are an essential economic, environmental and social resource so it’s vital that we keep them vibrant and healthy offering homes for wildlife and places for people to enjoy.

Since the outbreak of Chalara in 2012, the Government has transformed its approach to plant health. I was appointed as the UK Chief Plant Health Officer in 2014 to provide clear leadership and accountability and represent the whole of the UK in EU and international activities on plant health. One of my first tasks was to publish the GB Plant Biosecurity Strategy setting out our long term strategy to tackle tree and other plant pests and diseases.

As part of this Strategy, we monitor what’s happening around the country, but we also need to look to our borders and beyond. The growth in the volume and diversity of plants and plant products entering the UK and other European countries through greater global trade and travel has increased threats to plant health. I’m committed to protecting our borders against the entry of pests and diseases. Our Plant Health Officers carry out targeted inspections at borders, restricting and monitoring the movement of high risk plant species and wood products to help minimise the danger of new pests and diseases arriving into the UK. We also have contingency plans and a strong emergency response ready to spring into action if needed.

We’ve invested more than £37m in research from 2012-2019 on tree and plant health and biosecurity. Recent successes include the discovery of Betty – an ash tree we believe to be tolerant to Chalara. Keeping abreast of the latest knowledge on pests and diseases, and how they affect our economy and landscape, helps us to put appropriate control programmes in place when dealing with specific pests and diseases.

Professor Nicola Spence, Dr Anne Edwards and Lord Gardiner visit ‘Betty’ the ash tree thought to be tolerant to Chalara

Government can’t work alone to protect our trees and woodlands. We all have to work together. The Defra Plant Health team, the Forestry Commission and the Animal and Plant Health Agency will continue to partner with communities and businesses to share expertise, information resources and ideas.

Our Plant Health Officers can’t be everywhere all the time, so it’s great that initiatives such as Observatree and OPAL exist, with the volunteers acting as extra eyes, ears and boots on the ground. I place huge importance on making identification tools and learning resources  available to inform our army of citizen scientists. Surveillance is key to understanding what’s happening out there in our woods, forests, parks and gardens, and the reporting tool Tree Alert  helps us to keep abreast of this.

Now, more than ever, we all need to play our part in protecting our trees and plants. Forestry Commission England’s Keep it Clean campaign sets out some easy steps that tree and plant professionals can take day to day to ensure they don’t inadvertently risk spreading diseases as they go about their work. If people visiting their local woods, parks and gardens arrive with clean boots, bikes and buggies, this will ensure that they aren’t harbouring invisible plant disease spores from sites they visited previously. We can all play our part.


I’ll be back on Out of the Woodwork before too long to tell you more about Defra group’s plant health work. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts either on here, or you can find me on Twitter.


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