How we can protect our trees

Trees, woodlands, and forests are wonderful things. They purify our air, beautify our landscapes, and provide refuges for both wildlife and people. But our trees are at risk from an ever-increasing threat. The Forestry Commission’s biosecurity information officer Laura Brooker explains.

A group of people in outdoors, among plants, chatting 
Volunteers at a joint Forestry Commission and Observatree tree health training event (Source: Forestry Commission).

Since the early 2000s, the number of non-native tree pests and diseases present in the UK has increased significantly, and one of the main reasons for this rise is that people and goods can now move around the world further and faster than ever before. This movement is giving these unwanted pests and diseases a perfect way to hitchhike around the world as well, allowing them to become established in countries outside of their usual native ranges. 

Keeping trees in good health by preventing the spread of pests and diseases is a really important issue. The increasing numbers of tree pests and diseases in the UK shows how vital it is for us all to take collective responsibility to act now to protect our trees, woodlands, and forests for future generations. But how can we as individuals help to protect our trees? The answer is simple – by carrying out good biosecurity measures. 

Two hands holding up branches, one with green foliage, the other diseased and black 
Wilting and blackened ash leaf, one of the symptoms of ash dieback (Source: Forestry Commission).

‘Biosecurity’ refers to a set of precautions that aim to prevent the introduction and spread of harmful organisms. You may already be aware of some of the more well-known harmful organisms, such as ash dieback (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus), which originates from Asia but is now widespread throughout the UK. 

Ash dieback is a highly destructive fungus affecting ash trees, especially the common ash (Fraxinus excelsior). It causes blackening and wilting of the leaves and shoots, and when it progresses into the twigs and main stem it causes dark cankers to form which can eventually girdle and kill the tree by cutting off its supply of nutrients and fluids from the roots. Remember to use caution when walking in any area with standing dead trees by paying attention to your surroundings and avoiding such areas when wind speeds are higher than usual.

A person leaning over to clean wellies with water and a brush
Cleaning your boots and other kit down is an easy way to prevent the introduction and spread of pests and diseases (Source: Forestry Commission).

The term ‘biosecurity’ may sound technical or complicated, but it can be achieved using really simple measures. Tree pests and diseases, including the fungal spores of ash dieback, can be moved around in materials such soil, water, leaves, and other organic materials that we pick up on our boots, walking poles, and other kit whilst out walking. 

To make sure you are not helping pests and diseases move from one place to another, simply brush as much material as possible off of your kit before leaving a site, and give it all a good clean down before your next walk. This is especially important if you are going on walking holidays abroad, as it will help reduce the chances of you bringing further non-native pests or diseases back into the UK. Not only will these simple actions help to prevent the introduction and spread of pests and diseases, but they will also keep your kit in better condition for longer.

Keep it clean logo
The Forestry Commission’s ‘Keep it Clean’ campaign is encouraging everyone to carry out everyday biosecurity measures (Source: Forestry Commission).

In order to raise awareness of how important it is for us to all carry out good biosecurity measures, the Forestry Commission launched their ‘Keep it Clean’ campaign back in 2016. ‘Keep it Clean’ is a simple, memorable call to action that aims to encourage everyone to incorporate good biosecurity practices into their daily routine. It also provides advice on how to do this. You can find more information about biosecurity and the ‘Keep it Clean’ campaign on the Forestry Commission website. 

Carrying out good biosecurity measures is just one of the actions you can take to help us keep our trees in good health. Unfortunately, tree health professionals can’t be everywhere all the time to monitor changes in tree health, so help from walkers who are really familiar with their local areas can allow us to identify and tackle problems with tree pests and diseases more quickly than would otherwise be possible. The earlier problems are spotted, the higher the chances that outbreaks can be eliminated or controlled, so alongside partnerships such as the Observatree project, we aim to create ‘more eyes on the ground’ by providing training to volunteers on how to identify tree pests and diseases. But you don’t have to be a volunteer to help us monitor tree health. If you see a tree that looks in poor health whilst out and about, you can simply report it to us using our online reporting tool Tree Alert. Our experts will then look into your report and follow it up as necessary.  

By working together to ‘Keep it Clean’ and report poor health in trees as soon as possible, we can ensure our trees, woodlands, and forests stay healthy so present and future generations can continue to reap their many benefits. 

Magazine of the Ramblers