“Ash Die-Back” : Disaster or Opportunity?


in Forestry Info/Pests & Diseases, Opinion

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.

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Imogen Radford October 27, 2012 at 18:12

Shouldn’t action such as suggested in this article build on these various pieces information and of mapping of ash tree distribution?
National Forest Inventory, mentioned by FC in this article:

“The Commission already has a wealth of information about the distribution and health of Britain’s trees, and we will be doing more to visit woods with ash trees to assess their condition. As part of prioritising this disease, we will shortly be releasing interim results on tree health from the National Forest Inventory to help provide a picture of the overall health of ash trees across Britain.”

This mapping by FC:

Mapping referred to by one forester in this article:

I think it is very important to encourage people to be alert and look out for the symptoms.

There is a lot of advice around at the moment, including this FC Q&A
and pictorial guides and videos from this FC web page (towards the bottom of the article):

But it is quite difficult for us ordinary people to be sure what we are seeing, especially at the beginning of autumn when the leaves are falling off anyway.

If we do think we see something that might be of concern should we report it and risk wasting their time? Have they got the resources to deal with lots of reports?

Imogen Radford October 27, 2012 at 20:32

another example of crowd-sourcing is the LeafWatch app http://leafwatch.naturelocator.org/ for people to report horse chestnut leaf miner moth

Imogen Radford October 27, 2012 at 22:20

okay, now I’ve had a look at the photos I took of the ash trees I saw today (in Norfolk), and after a lot of thought and hesitation decided that I ought to report them as potential cases. However only those who have ash trees on their land are invited to make such reports. And I’m conscious that I might be wasting their time, and I could be wrong.
What should members of the public do if they see trees they suspect could have the disease, do you think?

Hen- Save Our Woods October 28, 2012 at 09:03

Thanks for all this info’ Imogen. I want to start off by saying that I really do hope what you’ve found isn’t the disease but you should definitely report it.

Although I think that the FC could get overwhelmed by reported sightings of the disease from the public, I think that the public are one of their greatest assets in this case. Particularly when it comes to Joe Bloggs checking the hedgerow he walks past on his daily dog walk!

It’s up to Government to find a way to harness the power of crowd sourcing and give the FC the resources to cope with the potential influx of information.

I see that there is a dedicated website and smartphone app being released tomorrow now. This is fantastic news! This type of technology is perfect for this sort of thing.

Roderick Leslie November 2, 2012 at 11:08

I think this is great – if 600,000 people could support the protest against the forest sales, why can’t we have 600,000 tree inspectors ? And where better to start than SOW, leaders in social media ?

With GPS phones & cameras I hope by next spring we could have a system in place where the public can send in suspected attacks to something like a lab where experts can asses, respond to the sender and pass on to the control task force if it looks a likely case. We’ve got the model in the medical labs which do all those millions of tests that are taken every year.

And between now and then we need the media – especially countryside TV & magazines – behind us in a massive publicity campaign: they’re not doing so badly already, with Ash in every single edition of the Guardian & Times this week.

And I very much agree with the writer about the mapping of our woods – every square inch (or it should be cm as its all done for the EU !) of farmland is mapped – knowing who owns the land is the first step to management because you can’t influence someone you can’t talk to !

There will be regulations and plant health orders and all of that but they’ll only work if everyone understands and is behind what we have to do to try and save our Ash trees.

Roderick Leslie November 2, 2012 at 11:11

PS there’s already been the traditional reaction against people in the countryside. For starters, just like with Foot & mouth the chances of the general public playing a significant part in spreading the disease is low – its quite different for foresters going from wood to wood – we do need to take care.

But I’m convinced we’ll get far more back from the volunteer surveyor force than any risk – fire used to be the traditional reason for keeping people out – but as a forester in a heavily used forest in the SE told me a few years ago ‘fire has almost stopped being a problem since mobile phones because the public report them so quickly now.’

Imogen Radford November 2, 2012 at 11:27

Ashtag.com is up and running for iphones, android phones, tablets and PCs – anyone can report a suspected case of ash dieback now


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