7 Pillars of Biosecurity

Author: James Roberts, Biosecurity Officer for Urban Forestry & Arboriculture.

Sun Tzu lived around 500BC in the ancient Chinese state of Wu. A military strategist, a general and a scholar of the ancient world, Sun Tzu’s most famous text, ‘The Art of War’, still exists today. However, what you might not know about Sun Tzu is that he was a small woodland owner and the writer of another, less well known text on how to protect the forests of Wu from attack by invasive non-native pests and diseases.

This lesser known text is called ‘The 7 Pillars of Biosecurity’. In this short text Sun Tzu distils his years of contemplation on how to protect the trees of Wu into 7 short passages. So I thought I would spend the rest of this blog post interpreting and extrapolating from these passages, to tease out what Sun Tzu suggests woodland managers can do to protect against the ravages of tree pests and diseases.

Sun Tzu’s 7 pillars of biosecurity

  1. “If you know the enemy and know your trees, you need not fear the result of a hundred outbreaks.”

In the first verse, Sun Tzu outlines the importance of knowledge. By knowing the composition of your woodland, you can determine what the greatest threats to them are. Armed with this knowledge, you can focus your attention on your priority pest and disease species, making sure that you are able to identify them, know their distribution, and understand how they are spread.

  1. “Tree health is important to the nation – it is the ground of death and life, the path of survival and destruction, so it is imperative to examine it.”

The second pillar of biosecurity according to Sun Tzu is to survey the land for the signs of pests and diseases. Regular surveys of key areas can give vital early warning of their arrival and provides the best opportunity to control them where they are found.

If the survey turns up something suspicious, report it to the Forestry Commission. Sun Tzu may well have informed King Helu of Wu by pigeon; in the modern era you can report your findings through Tree Alert.

  1. “I have heard in war that haste can be folly, I have never seen that delay was wise.”

‘Assess the situation before you act’ says Sun Tzu. How widespread are the effects? How damaging could the pest or disease be? How likely is it to spread further and how could it impact the wood? By answering these questions you will understand the potential risk. This will ensure your plan is proportionate to the situation.

  1. “There are but three colours, yet their permutations are more than can ever be seen.”

Consider your best course of action in light of the risk. Is eradication possible? Can the pest or disease be contained? If control is unlikely, how can the woodland adapt to the new situation? Like Sun Tzu’s colours, combining these options can give you many different strategies to fit the situation.

  1. “All pathways are based on deception.”

Like the Trojan horse of ancient Greece, pests and diseases can go undetected in common materials. Soil, water, organic material and living plants can all contain damaging pests and diseases. Undertake a pathway assessment for your woodland. What activities, management or recreation, happen in the woodland? Could these activities bring in Trojan materials?

  1. “Though the enemy may be stronger in numbers, we may prevent them from fighting. Discover their plans and the likelihood of their success.” 

In the penultimate pillar of biosecurity, Sun Tzu calls upon woodland owners to build up their defences. Use your pathway assessment to highlight areas of concern and put in place measures to reduce the risk. Educate woodland users in the need to keep boots and equipment clean. Where the risk is great, stop high risk materials from being brought in to your woodland.

  1. “Prepare for the unexpected”

In the final pillar, Sun Tzu leaves us with an instruction to put in place contingency measures in case of the discovery of a damaging pest or disease within your woodland. You should know who to call for assistance, keep records of new plantings, have biosecurity kits available and know where you can destroy infected materials. If these measures are in place when a discovery is made, you will have a head start on the outbreak and have given yourself and your woodland the strongest strategic position.

(Disclaimer: The existence of the ancient text “The 7 Pillars of Biosecurity” is considered by scholars of ancient China to be completely fictitious)

Okay, so you got me. Sun Tzu didn’t really write a text on biosecurity. He was far too busy defending the Wu kingdom from other warring states. However, if he had, then I think his advice would have looked something like this. The 7 steps outlined above really amount to a common sense approach to biosecurity for woodlands. Remain vigilant for the presence of a damaging pest or disease whilst putting in place simple measures to reduce the likelihood of something unpleasant arriving in the first place. If you follow the 7 steps above, then you will be doing all you can to protect your woodland from future threats. For more information on biosecurity and the simple steps you can take to help protect against invasive non-native pests and diseases, visit the Forestry Commission’s biosecurity web pages.


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