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Bishops warn against the use of non-native trees in climate fight

21 February 2020

Disease could negate tree planting, Dr Smith tells the Lords


Ash trees showing signs of dieback. The disease has been linked with respiratory problems in humans

Ash trees showing signs of dieback. The disease has been linked with respiratory problems in humans

THE fight against tree disease might be a “losing battle”, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has warned.

Speaking in a House of Lords debate on tree pests and diseases on Thursday of last week, Dr Smith suggested that disease might undermine efforts to combat climate change through tree-planting. “There is evidence that some diseases are surviving in this country because our temperature is edging up. The danger is that, as diseases take hold because the new climate is more attractive for them, it will be even harder to get the extra trees in, not least our native trees.

“Native trees are less likely to need lots of fertilisers, and are more likely to grow healthily, because this is where they have developed.”

Trees were vital, he said. “Strategically planted trees, along with appropriate hedging, can make a material difference by reducing pollution alongside busy roads. In urban areas, they regulate temperature, helping to reduce heat in the summer and, if planted in the right places, acting as windbreaks, and even providing energy savings in the winter.”

He spoke of their importance in halting flooding, providing a haven for wildlife, and improving the mood of people.

He asked what the Government was doing to reduce dramatically the numbers of trees being imported, from which diseases often spread. “Can we follow the good example of the Woodland Trust, which now only plants trees propagated in this country? How do we address this downward spiral, when, with increasing temperatures, more diseases are coming? There is the danger that we are fighting a losing battle.”

Bishop Smith spoke of initiatives being implemented by the Church of England: “The diocese of Lincoln is planning to use small areas of under-productive glebe for tree planting. The Bishop of Norwich has taken to presenting all confirmation candidates with a hazel sapling. . . Those who know the spiritual works of Julian of Norwich will understand the hazelnut’s significance.

“Plans for the Lambeth Conference taking place in Canterbury this summer include planting the ‘Lambeth Grove’ on four acres of diocesan land near the village of Shepherdswell.”

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a former Bishop of Oxford, spoke about ash dieback: “The rapidity of the spread has taken everyone by surprise. There is now hardly any part of the country unaffected.

“Trees are not only good to look at but are good for our health. Recent studies in medical journals show a correlation between the spread of ash dieback and the increase of respiratory diseases in a given area. In all, DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs] has estimated that ash has a social and environmental value of £230 million per year.”

He continued: “It is vital that we identify, develop, and plant strains of ash which are resistant to the disease. The Government say that they have put £6 million into this, but I wonder whether this is adequate for the scale of the crisis. . .

“Ash dieback is devastating our countryside, causing significant damage to our ecosystem, to our health — spiritual, mental, and physical — and to the economy. There needs to be a sense of urgency both in research and replanting, which we can but hope will spring from this.”

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