Carl Sargenat AM, Minister for Natural Resources
I am pleased to provide an update on tree health in Wales. High-quality, resilient and healthy woodlands provide real social and community benefits for the people of Wales. Our woodlands also provide a significant contribution to the economy in terms of employment and income generation. Maintaining the health of our woodland is a key priority as the outbreak of Phytophthora ramorum in larch has shown us over the last three years. It remains the most important tree health challenge in Wales. The clear felling of large areas of woodland close to the communities of the Afan Valley and at Cwmcarn illustrates the significant impact such events can have not just on the timber and wood processing sector but also on the landscape and the people who live and work there.
The management strategy for Phytophthora ramorum sets out a pan Wales approach to slowing its spread, accepting that due to the nature of the disease and its distribution across Wales, eradication is not an option. Controlled felling of larch is being carried out in areas with high levels of infection, whilst targeted felling to prevent the spread of the disease is being pursued in areas of zero or very light infection.
On the basis of information from this year’s aerial surveys, I am pleased to say that the rate of spread of the disease is slower than in previous years and further surveys are currently being undertaken to see whether this welcome trend is continuing. Signs of other pests and diseases are also monitored during the surveys. We will continue to review and amend our management strategy for the disease (which must be based on sound research and evidence) in consultation with those affected.
Whilst the drier summers in the last couple of years have lead to a reduction in the rate of spread of Phytophthora ramorum there still remains a major ongoing requirement to manage the existing infected sites. As regulators, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has issued over 500 Statutory Plant Health Notices covering over 6,600 hectares (or 25% of all larch). These Notices compel landowners and managers to either fell the infected areas or contain the material on site.
The majority of the infected larch is on the Welsh Government’s public forest estate. Cwmcarn Forest Drive has had to be closed and will remain closed until major, potentially dangerous, forestry operations have been completed. NRW are doing everything they can to ensure that the needs of local people and visitors are considered when planning the response to this damaging disease outbreak. They have engaged with the local communities and have consulted with the archaeological trust carrying out bird and bat surveys to ensure that operations do not have an adverse impact on these important features of our environment.
We had an excellent response to our recent call for Expressions of Interest for Glastir Woodlands Restoration grant which will provide grant aid for the restocking of woodland that has been felled due to Phytophthora ramorum infection. An estimated 400 hectares will be replanted by 31 March 2016 as a consequence of this support and we will have a second call for Expressions of Interest in the autumn for replanting work to be completed by 31 March 2017. The Welsh Government has provided support to NRW to ensure that it is able to manage the large area of infected larch on the public forest estate.
This spring, NRW has been training Observatree volunteers to help carry out early surveys for tree pests and diseases. Observatree is a citizen science project and is collaboration between Forest Research, the Forestry Commission, the Animal and Plant Health Agency, Defra, the Food and Environment Research Agency, the National Trust, NRW and the Woodland Trust. It is funded by the EU’s Life Programme, with the aim to monitor the health of UK trees and to identify pest and disease threats to them. This will help us with the early notification of new pests and diseases because the faster we act, the greater the chance of successful eradication or management.
The disease in Larch has no effect on the quality of the timber and whilst the disease is a disaster for larch in Wales and its management presents a continuing problem for the woodland sector, local communities and visitors to Wales, it is also an opportunity to redesign and increase the species diversity and resilience of Welsh woodlands. This will provide a better quality environment capable of making a significant contribution towards tackling poverty by creating employment opportunities, generating income for businesses involved in the forestry and tourism sector and in making our communities attractive places to live, work and visit.