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Not enough experts to spot the next ash dieback, MPs are told

Dwindling research expertise could be threatening the UK’s ability to identify emerging threats to trees and plants, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has heard.

The warning came in the written evidence to the committee’s inquiry into tree health, launched in November 2012 following the discovery of the ash dieback disease Chalara fraxinea. The inquiry is probing issues that include whether there are sufficient resources for research to provide evidence of the emergence of threats.

A number of responses, including that by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, raised concerns about tree health research skills. For example, David Lonsdale, a retired tree pathologist who worked at the Forestry Commission agency Forest Research for 26 years, said a core of specialists is crucial for tackling tree health but that this is under threat in the UK.

“We have seen a severe decline in the number of specialists in the universities and also some decline in the number of specialists at Forest Research,” he writes in his evidence. “Some of the long-established specialists, who joined that organisation in the 1960s and 70s were replaced after retirement but their departure seems to have led to an overall loss of expertise.”

His view is backed by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which is funded by farmers: “Erosion of expertise and capacity in the UK to identify and carry out research into new pest, weed and disease threats inevitably means that … limited resources have to be mobilised to address a specific issue,” it said.

The Natural Environment Research Council’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, concluded that while institutes and government agencies are capable of responding faster than universities to threats, “with the current financial crisis, the agencies and institutes are under continued pressure”.

The issue was even flagged up by the Defra, which says it will commission a review of capacity and capability on plant health shortly.

On general funding for research in the area, the National Trust said in its response that a “total costing of impacts of plant disease outbreaks would reveal that funding R&D in this area is an economic imperative”.

The charity also said that research “must be adequately funded to improve our understanding, improve the effectiveness of our actions and preventing wider costs to both the plant trade and the wider environment”.

The statement was backed by Scottish Natural Heritage, which said it would support an increase in resources for research in the area.

However, Defra emphasised that despite a big cut to forestry research in the UK, the amount spent on plant health research will increase due to an extra £8 million allocated in the government’s Tree Health Action Plan, announced in 2011.

In addition, it said, the two main research bodies in the area—Defra’s Food and Environment Research Agency and Forest Research—will increase the proportion spent on tree health research.

Taken together, these investments add up to an increase from £2.8m per year between 2008-2010 to £5.7m in 2013-14.

However, the Forestry Commission’s research budget will shrink from about £11m in 2010-11 to £8.2m in 2014-15. More than 90 per cent of this funding goes to Forest Research.