Ruth Hayes looks at the dangers posed by potential lapses in biosecurity and shows how you can help
Horticulture industry chiefs are concerned that the Coronavirus emergency could bring about a reduction in the UK’s biosecurity.
They fear that if the C19 lockdown causes significant damage to the UK’s gardens industry, more plants will be shipped in from abroad where quarantine and disease screening may not be so rigorous.
It comes at a time when the business is already worried about the arrival of Xylella fastidiosa in the UK. This virulent disease, spread by sap-sucking bugs such as frog hoppers and spittle bugs, has wreaked havoc on olive plantations in parts of Italy and has also been found in France and Spain.
It prevents water from being transported from the roots to leaves with plants often exhibiting symptoms that can be confused with other common problems such as drought or frost damage.
To block the disease from the UK, where there are fears it could severely damage our oak, elm and plane trees, imports of olive trees and lavender bushes has been halted and gardeners are being advised to make sure they only buy UK-grown plants.
The same applies to other plants considered ‘high risk’ including almond trees, oleanders and rosemary bushes.
Paul Rochford, MD of Joseph Rochford Gardens Ltd, said: “Many people in most reputable garden centres stopped importing olive trees some time ago.
“We have to bear in mind that a big industry has built up around the sale of half-standard olive trees in supermarkets. Many of those come from Sicily, which is near Italy where there is the problem of Xylella, but you can bet that their biosecurity is pretty tight.”
However, he worries about less scrupulous merchants who uproot massive, ancient trees from the countryside, ‘stuff them in pots’ and import them to sell on.
The issue of biosecurity has been raised with George Eustice MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Worshipful Company of Gardeners wrote to him warning that the loss of the UK’s gardening industry could open a Pandora’s Box of horror for the nation’s plants.
A letter to the MP says: “A major loss of UK production capacity will not lead to a reduction in demand; but this demand will most likely be supplied from Europe with plant health screening losing the rigor that it currently enjoys. This will be a major setback to the work done to date and may derail future efforts.”
Prince Charles has been leading conferences with DEFRA to find a way of improving biosecurity, but Paul Rochford admits it’s a massive problem to address.
While larger businesses have the scope and knowledge to self-quarantine, smaller ‘landscape gardeners working out of their back yards’ may not have the space nor experience.
He said: If something like Xylella escapes into an area it’s a real business-finisher. You thought Covid was bad, but wait for this – you may as well just get the bonfire started.”
Reporting froghopper sightings
AG readers are being asked to help prevent Xylella from entering the UK.
Thousands of volunteers are needed to help map the distribution of spittlebugs, one of the chief carriers of the problem, that are found in gardens, meadows, grasslands and woodlands from April to late June.
There are ten species of spittlebug in the UK and the young, called nymphs, produce whitish, frothy blobs of spittle (often called cuckoo spit) on leaves and branches.
Gerard Clover, Head of Plant Heath at the RHS, says: “Xylella remains our number one concern but is not an issue bound by the garden fence. Understanding how and where the disease’s primary vectors move is fundamental to understanding how we can stop the devastation of our gardens and environment should it arrive.”
If you spot cuckoo spit in your garden you should report it online via surveymonkey.co.uk/r/spittle2020
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