Why prevention is better than waiting for a cure

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Why prevention is better than waiting for a cure

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The crisis facing Ash trees has prompted this post before I pull up the blog-drawbridge for the half-term break.

When people move species and goods around the planet, wildlife populations and ecosystems can suddenly encounter new diseases to which they have little or no natural resistance. The impact can be devastating. Many will remember the damage wrought by Dutch Elm Disease across Britain. In the USA, the planting of a single Japanese chestnut in a New York garden, in 1904, introduced a fungal blight and led to the complete destruction of a whole ecosystem. Untold biodiversity was lost down the eastern seaboard of the continent, and the ecosystem services that the American Sweet Chestnut forests once provided – straight-grained, rot resistant timber that built the first American railroads, and an annual chestnut crop that fed people and livestock across the country – vanished completely in the space of just a few decades.

The discovery of Ash Dieback fungus in a native wood in England should concern everyone. The impact that new fungal diseases have on wildlife seems to be growing sharply. All around the globe, a huge variety of frog, toad and other amphibian species are being driven towards extinction due to the arrival of a novel and pathogenic fungal infection. Bats in the USA are experiencing mass die-offs caused by another pathogen, ‘white nose syndrome’. And at home we are seeing habitats threatened by the arrival of new and plant and tree diseases.

This should be a wake-up call. I am pleased that the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, confirmed over the weekend that further imports of Ash should be stopped immediately.  But on its own, that will not be enough.  Public bodies must monitor and respond to disease spread, and land managers need to intensify vigilance as the RSPB is doing on our reserves. But there is an undeniable risk that this may be too little too late.

And there are wider lessons to be learned from this crisis.

Governments and public bodies need to ensure that the movement of species into - and out of - the country adheres to the highest standards of biosecurity across the board, with effective screening for the most dangerous diseases and other invasive species. The development and resourcing of an early detection and rapid response capacity will mean that new arrivals can be quickly contained and managed, saving vast expense and environmental damage down the line. And ordinary people need to be given the knowledge and opportunity to maintain vigilance in their own areas to facilitate that early detection and monitoring of pathogens and other new invasive species. The EU is developing new international legislation on invasive non-native species, due in draft over the coming weeks. This is a major opportunity to implement proportionate, effective regulation on species movements and response mechanisms which we, as a European island nation with strong trading international links, should fully embrace.

What lessons do you think we should learn from the ash crisis?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • One other thought; many people are experiencing fuel poverty so I hope the diseased ash will be used usefully and not just be "destroyed" for that would be yet another insult to the Gods.

  • This is a good blog on the wider bio-security ramifications but can I ask how this was allowed to happen at all? Yes the fungus may have arrived on the wind but the key FC scientists was unconvinced by this scenario despite the east coast locations.

    What lessons are to be learned by the departed Caroline Spellman ? All this nonsense re FC re-organisation and FC Woodland Sell off. How has she wasted her energy here instead of applying herself to reforming a structure that "was nt broke"? Its at her desk that this catastophe of our ash trees lies.

    As for Paterson I do nt know what to say he appears less competent.

    I repeat what I said "what is the environmental movement going to learn" ? There are millions of pretty informed and "active" members out there ie National Wildlife and Woodland Trusts, RSPB and FoE and Greenpeace. The Woodland Trust campaign quite simply failed to deliver an "in time" ban. Was it big enough to carry it forward ? Should there be integrated campaigns across these memberships on areas of overlapping interest ? How did I only hear of this in the last few months ?

    I will be trying to get some answers from Simon King President of Avon and all the Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust Ambassador ; this is primarily their "ball" but really this failure belongs to all of us and I am utterly gutted by the prospect of witnessing this.

  • I agree with all you say Martin, successive Governments and not just in this country, have been far far too slack in not providing and implementing a higher standard of control over the import of plants and animals from overseas. Also, when a threat does appear, so many times they have been much to slow in taking preventative measures, as in the case of this ash die back, presumably, because of being scared of upsetting commercial interests. New Zealand pygmy weed imported by garden centres is now a pest so prevalent on so many wetland rserves and there are hundreds of other examples.

    Basically, there be much more rapid preventative action taken when a threat is initally identified and there needs to be proper inspection and testing of items to be imported, a type of quarantine for plants, before they are allowed to be traded commercially. The costs of that inspection and testing should be born by the commercial importer.