HL Deb 24 July 1975 vol 363 cc431-5

Lord HOUGHTON of SOWERBY: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name of the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a statement on the continuing threat of elm disease to the landscape of Southern England, and whether any plans are being made to remove the thousands of dead trees which now disfigure the countryside.


My Lords, since the Forestry Commission's 1974 survey the disease has continued to increase. The felling of dead elms and other trees is the responsibility of the owner, with limited powers available to local authorities to take action in certain circumstances. Overall, a large amount of felling has taken place.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I expected a reply which revealed more understanding of the full extent of this calamity? Does my noble friend realise what devastation is now in progress throughout the Southern part of England? Does she understand what is going to happen to Devon and Cornwall, to speak of only two counties noted for their natural beauty, if this disease goes unchecked? Is all that the Government have in mind that owners will destroy diseased trees, and that local authorities may look benevolently upon that and hope for the best? Is that all that the Government can say?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I was answering the Question asked by my noble friend. The Government are aware of the extent of this disease. I cannot give the result of the last survey because the Forestry Commission's 1975 survey has not been published. As my noble friend probably knows, there is no known cure for this disease, and unfortunately no realistic means of containing it. Nevertheless, the Forestry Commission, through the Dutch Elm Disease Orders, are helping to reduce the further spread of disease within the lightly affected parts of the country. There are also restrictions on the import from abroad of elm bark and timber, and the Forestry Commission are also concentrating their research on protective measures. In all, whatever is possible to be done is being done but, as I am sure my noble friend knows, the problem is a very difficult one to solve.

Viscount GAGE

My Lords, arising from what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has said, are the Government aware that the County Council of East Sussex has nearly completed a comprehensive scheme for the eradication of this disease; and would it not be a good thing if other local authorities followed the excellent example of my county?

Baroness BIRK

Yes, my Lords, it would be a very good idea. In fact certain county councils and other authorities have been designated as such areas, and there is a great deal of difference in the action taken by local authorities and owners.


My Lords, did my noble friend say that the local authority have helped in replacing these trees? So far as I understand the position in Hampstead, while the responsibility is that of the Government the consumer has to replace out of his own money.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I did not say that the local authority helped. What I said was that in certain circumstances if the tree is a public danger the local authority can step in, but the responsibility is that of the owner. What the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, was referring to are much wider plans which some local authorities are pursuing to try to deal with the whole problem.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that, however great a threat Dutch Elm disease is to the landscape of this country, there is a much greater threat, which is the Government's own proposals for the taxation of woodlands, which give every encouragement to an owner to cut down his woodlands and not to replant, whether they are large or small, and for which there is a quite obvious and an easy cure?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, obviously that is a different question. I am sure the noble Lord will understand that I have no intention of answering it.


My Lords, if elm trees which have this disease are cut down presumably somebody will be storing them, either for sale or for burning or stacking. Could it not be made obligatory that the wood from these diseased trees should be burned instantly, because we have no guarantee that though the trees may be cut down the disease is not still spreading from them?

Baroness BIRK

No, my Lords at the moment this is not possible. It is certainly far less unsightly and better that the trees should be cut down rather than be allowed to remain standing once they have become diseased. On the whole, when they are cut down, many owners either cut them up for firewood or have them removed. I did not particularly go into this aspect.


My Lords, my point was that these trees may be cut down and stacked for months. Meanwhile, the disease may be spreading. Could these trees not be cut down and burned straight away?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, as I understand it, there is no law to cover that. So far as the spreading of the disease is concerned, it was also my understanding that these trees are a greater danger when they are standing upright and continuing to flourish than when they are cut down.


My Lords, is that not in dispute? I thought the latest information was that these trees spread the disease just as much when they are cut down as when they are growing, unless the wood is burned. Is that not so?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, may I look at that question? I am coming to the end of my free expertise on this subject!


My Lords, I think the noble Baroness said that there was no control for this disease, but that the Forestry Commission are taking steps to restrict its spread. Can the noble Baroness give publicity as to what these steps are, so that private owners may know how they too can help to stop the spread of this disease?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the Forestry Commission are encouraging the injection of trees in order to try to stop the spread of the disease. They are carrying out research, and giving grants for replanting. There is no point in hiding the fact that this is a very difficult problem. There is also the question of the restriction of available money.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the cost of cutting down the trees is really quite high? Is she also aware that as a result of the glut of elm wood on the market, you get practically nothing for it? Certainly you get nothing for elm suckers, where the beetle goes on living and spreading the disease. I say this because I have elms, and it breaks my heart to see them just dying. Is there not some form of Government or county council aid which we could have to make felling easier? Easier felling and guaranteed burning of the bark, wherein is the disease, would help more than anything else to check the spread of the disease.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, it is quite impossible for the Government to give any financial aid at the moment for felling trees. However, the Government are entering into discussions with local authorities to see whether it is possible to do something; but I cannot promise any finance at present.


My Lords, the noble Baroness may not be aware that recently Duponts brought out a new material for injection. It has been tried, and to a certain extent has been a success. Let us hope more of it may be imported into England.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Shepherd)

My Lords, I am sure the House is grateful for that information. May I suggest, however, that this important subject be carried on in the passageways of the House, where perhaps noble Lords would accost the noble Baroness for that purpose!