What future for our forests?
Our woodland faces an uncertain future. Amidst the furore surrounding the government's plans about the future ownership and management of England's public forest comes an altogether different piece of news which could affect our trees just as much.
New research has revealed that the horse chestnut – the conker tree – is under even more threat than we previously thought. It was well known that the leaf miner moth was causing cosmetic damage to the species but the latest study shows that it’s much worse than that.
“The future does not look promising for a tree that, up until six to eight years ago, had thrived in the UK for the past 400 years,” said Dr Glynn Percival from the University of Reading.
Horse chestnuts aren’t the only ones in danger. Native oak species are under a growing threat from a disease called Acute Oak Decline. Worryingly it seems to effect older trees and there have been increasing reports of it over the last few years.
The exact cause and how many trees are affected are still unknowns but some tree scientists are comparing it to Dutch elm disease, which eventually killed over 80% of the UK’s elms.
So that’s horse chestnuts and oaks in trouble. Anything else? Sadly yes. Although not as iconic as these two, the Japanese larch is another species in big danger.
In the past couple of years serious outbreaks of the ramorum disease – for which there is no cure - have been spreading across the country. The disease not only kills the larch quickly but spreads deadly spores. To combat this spread, the Forestry Commission have earmarked 4 million trees for destruction. If the disease spreads to ecologically important woodland plants, the result could be even more serious.
“Forget the latest row about Government plans to sell off the Forestry Commission,” said the Daily Mail about the disease. “This is much more serious. After all, you can’t privatise a corpse.”
The government plans themselves, described as the biggest change of land ownership in Britain since the Second World War, are almost universally unpopular. In a recent YouGov opinion poll 84% of respondents thought that our woodland should be kept in public ownership and the Save Our Forests petition has at time of writing almost 400,000 signatures.
However, at the moment it’s impossible to calculate the potential impact on wildlife and the environment of these plans with any degree of certainty. Geoffrey Lean in the Telegraph is excellent on the economics and the analysis from the Guardian’s John Vidal of how the plans have alienated left, right and centre must be sobering reading for the government.
We can disagree with these plans on moral, political or economic grounds, but can we say categorically that they're more of a threat to our woodland than leaf miner moth, Acute Oak Decline or the ramorum disease? And if not, why aren’t we shouting from the rooftops about them?