Drought threatens UK government’s mass forestry program

The UK government’s tree planting program is at risk due to drought, the plant health officer has warned.

The arid conditions have caused heat stress in young plants and made them susceptible to disease, Nicola Spence told the first International Plant Health Conference, held in London on Wednesday.

Last year, the government said it would triple forest cover before the next general election in 2024, with mass forestry projects across the country. The aim was to help increase biodiversity, capture carbon and make landscapes more resilient to floods and drought.

But this year’s record drought conditions have put that at risk, with many planted trees unable to withstand the pressure.

“You can clearly see the impact on the trees in our campaign,” Spence said, adding, “I am very concerned about the trees that have been newly planted as part of our government’s initiative to triple the number of tree plantations. So I think we’re going to have to look carefully at the establishment of those particular trees.

Diseases and pests affecting UK trees include oak processionary moth, ash dieback and chestnut blight.

The threat to the tree-planting scheme is worrying, as former environment secretary George Eustice announced it as a ‘central pillar’ of the government’s net zero plan.

Currently, the goal is to plant 7,000 hectares of wood per year by May 2024.

The climate crisis makes certain pests thrive and plants more susceptible to disease, as changing weather conditions make them weaker and therefore more susceptible to pests. This can harm crop yields; recent examples include the bacterial disease xylella fastidiosa wiping out entire olive groves in mainland Europe.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that each year up to 40% of global agricultural production is lost to plant pests and diseases, costing the global economy more than $220 billion (£194 billion), while invasive insects cause losses of at least $70 billion.

Conference attendees said reducing pesticides using nature recovery programs was paramount to food security. Indeed, reducing the use of pesticides and encouraging biodiversity helps to foster a healthy population of predatory insects, which in turn feed on many pests.

The English government is currently planning to pay farmers to take part in nature recovery schemes called integrated pest management, where they are doing so under the new grant scheme which is to replace the EU basic payment scheme . However, there are concerns that the Liz Truss administration is considering rolling back these plans.

Spence urged the government to keep this program on track, adding: “Integrated pest management is a very important tool globally. As far as the UK situation is concerned, this is something that needs to be part of our toolbox for future pest control.

Due to global warming, British gardeners are increasingly opting for Mediterranean plants, including olive trees, as they can withstand arid conditions. However, this trend could put the country at risk from xylella fastidiosa, which can also wipe out popular herbs such as rosemary, many garden plants and some fruit crops. It can affect 600 different popular plant species.

Spence said xylella is one of the “major eyesores” for plant scientists because it spreads so quickly and has many host plants. She said olives are a particular concern: “People always say why worry about the olive, we don’t grow it here. Well, actually, there’s a lot of demand for it. You see them outside restaurants or planted in gardens and they will survive in the UK.

She added, however, that the trade in olive trees is strictly regulated.

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