The traditional response to a disease outbreak is initially panic and then to respond with a raft of regulatory measures designed to drive the disease out of the country. I’m sure that “Dutch Elm Disease” means that there is an action plan that DEFRA and FC can put in place. Notwithstanding that the outbreak will have taught us a lot about how to manage “Ash Die-Back”; the words I expect to hear are “order”, “disease”, “regulate”, “require”, “fine”, “force”, “prosecute”. The words that I fear will not be used so often are “discuss”, “discover”, ”health”, “help”, “encourage”, “support”, “enable”, “partner”, “provide”.
But it need not be like this. Much of the underlying message from the Independent Panel is about the engagement of Society with its woodlands; you should not trample on that – even in a crisis like the one that “Ash Die-Back” might become. And a lot of the good ideas about how to take forward and address some of the issues that the Panel highlighted point in a direction of partnership and support. Does that give us a clue about how to effectively manage a disease outbreak in a different way?
Engagement with Stakeholders
Leaving aside any existing statutory right of entry for FC officers to inspect, fell and remove infected trees, the Ash Die-Back epidemic will be a publically acceptable trigger for FC to get to grips with all their owner/manager stakeholders in order to ensure bio-security. It will be an opportunity to create a database (in fact I think that implicitly it will be a requirement that there is such a database) of woodland owners where Ash trees are present. But negatives should not be discarded and, for true bio-security, would we not want to know about all woodland? Establishing the owner/manager of all woodlands that results in a record that Ash is absent is still valuable – immensely so in relation to our longer term objectives. At the end of this phase we should be working towards a database (a rolodex would do):-
- that links owner/managers with woodlands, and
- a marker of the presence/absence of Ash in the woodland
It would be nice if this was linked to mapping software but let us not look at anything too complicated at this point – Government can probably afford a card index. The database would, of course, be essential to the issue of Statutory Notices and the like; one up from nailing the notice on the tree.
Creation/Maintenance of a “Woodland Database”
This level of voluntary engagement – to control and combat a real threat – is an opportunity. If bio-security involves felling, tree extraction and (perhaps) stump removal then factors such as the presence and quality of road access to the woodland, the tree/understory density, species mix and ease of access for felling/processing machinery or felling teams are factors that should/could be recorded, in one go, in an initial site visit.
If this additional information can be obtained the “Woodland Database” is on its way to having a use beyond the management and control of “Ash Die-Back”.
Moving towards the “well maintained woodland” paradigm
Information about woodland location & ownership, management, composition & density, and access for management machinery will all be necessary for any bio-security interventions but they also feel like the building blocks that would allow the amount of, and potential for further, active woodland management.
Collection of data for the purposes of active management of “Ash Die-Back” should be a necessary part of FC disease management. Additional of similar data in woodland currently without Ash trees is arguably part of increasing our resilience to further bio-security threats and the inclusion of data that will be helpful in current & future active control (such as the availability of access to machinery and the presence/absence of active management regimes) can be argued to be precautionary so long as they are proportionate.
A comprehensive database like this can then be manipulated to produce ranked lists of woodland currently not under good management but that could be put into effective management with varying degrees of ease. And when sorted by size and composition; and matched to the availability of external resources (such as forestry subcontractors, processing plants, haulage capability and sawmills) and existing markets (for instance for woodfuel pellets) it would enable any fiscal incentives to be tightly targeted to woodlands with capacity and can be efficiently put into management to supply existing (or potential) markets. At that point, once the woodland machine begins to turn over and produce hard commercial benefits, softer environmental and social benefits should begin to accrue (through obliquity) and can be enhanced through other means (such as through stewardship grants – which would otherwise be ineffective without the impetus of good management).
And bio-security is also enhanced because in a actively and well managed woodland disease is more likely to be spotted and dealt with early in order to maintain profitability and the softer benefits that will flow from biodiversity/social use (and which themselves can generate income).
Engagement with the wider community
If “Ash Die-Back” is to be managed through a removal and eradication policy and since Ash is a feature of gardens, parks and hedgerow, it will not be enough to focus on woodlands. Nor will it be sufficient to cover off the presence of Ash in the agricultural environment through active interventions with this sector through other arms of DEFRA. Even the involvement of Local Government in relation to parks, and Department of transport in relation to road & rail margins will not cover off all the potential reservoirs of this disease.
So there will need to be a wide engagement with society as a whole to identify Ash in the environment and detect when “Ash Die-Back” could be present so that the normal bio-security countermeasures, whatever they are, can be triggered. The trick will be to stop whipping up public panic (which is undoubtedly to secure appropriate funding within Government and lay the foundations for future funding calls by the big players outside Government) and harness public awareness of that they become the eyes and ears of a bio-security campaign.
Ash is readily identifiable and a public “Ash-Mapping” campaign is in-tune with current crowd-sourced research such as the Zooniverse projects (see https://login.zooniverse.org ), “i-Spot” (see http://www.ispot.org.uk/surveys ) or surveys run by the BTO (see, for instance the “Winter Thrushes Survey” which is linked to “Google Maps” – http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/winter-thrushes ). Enlisting the public’s help will reduce the burden of reporting in public places (including in towns and cities), decreases the risk of missing outbreaks and of harbouring local disease reservoirs. It also offers the opportunity of using a simple task – report a tree; tell us if it’s sick – to raise awareness, foster community involvement (echoes of the “Big Society”) and provide a channel for further deeper engagement with the public on the issues of trees in our landscape.