Environment Bill

Earl of Kinnoull Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Baroness Young of Old Scone Portrait Baroness Young of Old Scone (Lab)
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My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 104 in the name of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, who, alas, cannot be with us at this late hour. With his permission, I shall lay out his amendment, which would reduce the importation of tree disease by ensuring that all trees planted by or for the Government would adhere to a biosecurity standard.

Over the last 30 years we have imported more and more plants and trees, and plant diseases have gone up correspondingly. We have at least 27 new pests and diseases recorded with impacts on native plant and tree species. Wales alone is set to lose more than 6.7 million larch trees because of the spread of phytophthora ramorum—one should not have to say that at this time of night. Sweet chestnut blight is spreading like wildfire. Ash dieback is well recorded, and its impact will see something like 90% of our native ash trees going and a cost to the economy of £15 billion by 2050.

On the continent, xylella fastidiosa is rampaging through the lands and is as near as the Netherlands and Denmark. It eats everything, basically—over 500 species of tree and plant so far. If it arrives in the UK, the effects on our native species could be devastating, so this is a really important issue. However, we do not need to do what we currently are doing, which is to import a very large proportion of our tree and plant supplies. We could be growing these trees in particular here in this country. The Government are one of the biggest purchasers in the market for trees so, if we are to change the way in which trees are sourced and minimise the risk, it is only right that the Government take the first step. The new biosecurity standard that the amendment calls for would set a new standard in sourcing of trees by government agencies and third parties from UK growers, thereby curtailing the risk of importing diseases on tree stock and at the same time delivering investment that would see hundreds if not thousands of new jobs created. I hope that the Minister can consider this amendment.

I support Amendment 92 on agroforestry, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and declare my interest as chair of the Woodland Trust. To give one example, we did a very interesting experiment in Wales with electronic sheep. It is true to say that shelter belts protected the electronic sheep. Now that we are doing it with proper sheep, those protected by tree shelter belts produce bigger lambs with less lamb and ewe mortality. Therefore, there are all sorts of benefits for animal welfare and biodiversity, and I am sure that the Minister is clear about their benefits of hedgerows and very short trees. Farming needs agroforestry, but nowhere is it enshrined in statue as the desirable way forward, and this amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, would do just that.

Amendment 103 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, whom I have just usurped from introducing his own amendment before I speak to it, is a great amendment. The noble Earl has been doing wonderful work on the UK Squirrel Accord. We really must take effective action on animal damage if we are to see a big increase in protection of ancient woodlands and the increased creation of woodlands that climate change requires. Deer management, for example, is failing in many parts of the UK because of a lack of the co-ordinated action by all landowners in an area that must happen if proper control is to take place. Amendment 103 would ensure that all public authorities play their role and encourage other private landowners to do so in that co-ordinated, area-based way which is essential.

Earl of Kinnoull Portrait The Earl of Kinnoull (CB)
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My Lords, a note to self is to employ the noble Baroness, Lady Young, as my speechwriter.

I shall speak to Amendment 103. Before I make my few remarks, I thank the Minister and his Bill team, who met me. We had a productive exchange of views. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who have supported this amendment, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I declare my farming interests, but also particularly my interest as a trustee of the Blair Charitable Trust, which not only has substantial landholdings in the north of Perthshire but runs land on behalf of a number of other substantial landholders, and therefore is one of the largest forestry concerns in Scotland. There are no grey squirrels in north Perthshire but my gosh there are a lot of deer, so I do know about that.

I also chair the Squirrel Accord, which is the coming together of 40 organisations across the whole of the United Kingdom to try to deal with the grey squirrel problem: its killing of broadleaf trees in Britain, preventing fresh broadleaf plantations in, for the example, the south of England being made today simply because the trees will be destroyed before they reached maturity. The Squirrel Accord includes all four Governments of our country and their nature agencies, the major voluntary bodies and the major private sector bodies. No one who has ever been asked to be a part of the accord has said no, and we are a number of years old.

As I said, the accord deals with the grey squirrel problem. Therefore, I am pretty familiar with that. The problem is simply that these animals will destroy the trees before they reach maturity. Therefore, all the planting that we need to do, for admirable climate change purposes, will simply not succeed if we do not put in place a good management system so that the trees can see themselves through to adulthood. As I mentioned in Committee, the Royal Forestry Society surveyed its membership and got 777 responses this year. The grey squirrel was noted as the number one threat to the planting of trees. I meet the Deer Initiative every now and then. It is similarly trying to promote a UK-wide way of handling this.

The Squirrel Accord has a good plan for how to manage everything. It is a plan that involves plenty of science, and the major science for fertility control, which is just one element of it, is being done at Defra’s own laboratories. It is now three years into a five-year project and going well. We have good science and good connections to deliver the product of that science in various ways into the countryside of Britain to deal with the problem. However, if there are refuges then we will get nowhere, because the responsible landowners and land managers will do everything and those who are not interested will do nothing. The purpose of the amendment is to try to cater for that and to make sure that the Government not only have the powers to handle it but will exercise those powers.

At this late hour I will not make many more points, but in the meeting I had with the Minister and his Bill team there was mention that the Government felt that they may have the powers. I, with my rather elderly wig on, felt that those powers probably needed to be newly minted, but it would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether he believes that he really does have those powers, and to hear comfort that those powers will be exercised so that there can be no giant refuges and so that all the work of the Squirrel Accord and the Deer Initiative, which I hope will be reinvigorated, and the work of those up and down the land who are trying to promote the ability to plant trees, particularly our native trees again, will not go to waste.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and indeed all the speakers in this group. On Amendment 103, I have to draw to noble Lords’ attention a study published about three weeks ago by the Woodland Trust and the National Trust of a trial that found that there are practical alternatives to plastic tree guards. I note that the Woodland Trust is planning to stop using plastic tree guards by the end of this year. Given how much we have debated plastics in other parts of the Bill and much discussion of the problem of microplastics, that is very much to be appreciated, while also offering support for the need to make sure we protect young trees.

I will also briefly comment on Amendment 104, so very ably and expansively introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. I fear electronic sheep may be wandering through my dreams.