Open letter from Majestic Trees

by | Jun 9, 2014 | Featured Slider, Latest, News

Dear Professor Nicola Spence, Chief Plant Health Officer & Julie Hitchcock, Deputy Director, Plant Health Policy

Over the past two years UK growers have had many new import restrictions imposed on them. As more pest and disease threats arrive in Europe, more restrictions are brought in that further puts the viability and future of the UK nursery stock industry in doubt.  From the grower perspective it has seemed sometimes that the restrictions have been imposed with little care or understanding of the cost to the nurseryman’s livelihood.  Many nursery businesses have lost significant sums of money through these processes and have had new costs and administrative burdens imposed on them. On occasion it has appeared that government gives the industry a token hearing then decides on a course of action with no consideration for fairness, compensation or the glaring fact that these new import bans are only being enforced against UK nursery stock growers that you monitor and who are authorised to issue Plant Passports.

This can appear discriminatory against nurseries. Frequently, stock is imported for growing on before sale because there is inadequate supply of UK-produced younger plants, or because certain economic or growing fundamentals have caused this shift to happen. The import restrictions and movement bans can cause us hardship and they also push the landscape contractor, landscape architects, garden designers and the gardening public more and more to import stock directly from Europe. The regulations can have the unintended side-effect of pushing these non regulated importers to buy directly outside of your jurisdiction because of the restricted or non availability of certain species of trees for their projects, and who may not understand or simply ignore the process that they should go through. This erodes the biosecurity efforts we are all trying to make to protect the UK landscape. And as the landscape contractor, landscape architects, garden designers and the public ignore the bans, deliberately or through ignorance, the likelihood of new pest and disease (P&D) outbreaks arriving is dramatically increased as they find new nursery suppliers or traders, many who are more than happy to sell the stock to them, knowing full well that they shouldn’t do so.

These bans tend to focus on the most visible large UK nurseries which are often the most responsible ones in the first place. Our commercial reputations are based first and foremost on selling clean, healthy plants and trees. This is incredibly frustrating and if nothing is done about it, could cause nurseries to disengage with the whole plant health strategy just when I think you need them most to be involved. Furthermore, the government gets itself tied up in knots over ‘European legislation’which often results in our government’s refusal to act whichbeggars belief when the only reason we are getting the vast majority of these new P&D is because many countries within Europe don’t care a toss and have allowed and continue to allow new P&D to arrive within their borders which are then spread across Europe and thereby the UK!  Why on earth our government will not accept this glaring fact is beyond me, when almost every new P&D to arrive comes from Europe!

Rather than labour through a step by step examination of all the bans that have been introduced, l should like to point to a few examples which illustrate how ineffective the current surveillance is:

1. Ash – Late last summer tree growers were sent a letter asking for their expressions of interest to once again start selling ash trees (Fraxinus).  The letter made clear that we would not be considered for this proposal to allow the movement of ash from Pest Free Places of Production if Chalara fraxinea had been found on our nursery or within 10 miles of our nursery.  This had been expected because at HTA Committee meetings with FERA/DEFRA we were told that the EU was putting pressure on the UK government to lift this ban, and this was also trailed in the trade press.

I called my plant inspector who told me he had just been notified of this planned policy change and concurred that he believed we would meet the criteria.  Many forestry tree nurseries had already destroyed their crops, worth up to hundreds of thousands of pounds, by ploughing in their young stock. At Majestic Trees, we had a limited number of much larger trees worth tens of thousands of pounds, and we started to market ash in the anticipation that the ban would be lifted.

On 8th November we were notified that, literally days before we had planned to ship a number of trees, politicians had stepped in and decided to not lift the ban because they felt they could not guarantee bio security and were concerned that they would be criticised by the press if there was any further problems.  This decision, once again came with no offer of compensation. This was not only unfair, but seemed discriminatory for the following reasons.

Firstly, our nursery never had Chalara and has always been very vigilant in only buying from premium quality nurseries, and we personally tag 98% of the trees as bare root or rootballs that we bring in to grow on to larger sizes. Secondly, the ban is only enforced against plant passported nurseries. Garden Designers, Landscape Architects and Landscape Contractors can still ship to the UK as there is no control over them and the gardening public can buy as they want. Finally, the disease was only caught when a reputable nursery notified FERA that they thought they had it, after which Chalara was found at hundreds of directly imported landscape job sites throughout the UK. This has led to the unwelcome situation where some nurserymen are starting to say privately ‘never notify FERA of anything; it is not worth it, just burn it! 

In early November 2013, sensing the frustration in the industry, I decided that Majestic Trees would ship one large Fraxinus that had been sold, at the same time cancelling other orders and taking the remaining trees off sale. I felt that I would take a stand and ignore the movement ban with one tree to see how long it would take FERA to notice that one tree had gone missing. With landscapers still importing ash trees directly into the UK in 2013, I felt that I needed to show how nonsensical and discriminatory it is to prevent uninfected nurseries from selling clean trees whilst trade continues through unregistered companies/contractors and e-commerce. Nine months later no one has realised that I did this, which is the first example of how the restrictions and surveillance are ineffective in controlling the movement of ash.

2. Platanus and Castanea: These controls were brought in on 11th November 2013, and seemed reasonable and understandable, though we hoped that a way forward could be found were we could still bring in these species from select nurseries if they were subject to quarantine at our nursery. However, the government’s intention is to restrict all movements, but in reality is only implemented at nurseries with Plant Passports. As passported nurseries have a lot to lose, they would naturally be more vigilant, but it seems that a landscaper, garden designer, estate manager and even Joe public can still import these trees without notification. The official line may be on restricting all movements but the surveillance only seems to be carried out at nurseries. There is a broad consensus that most of the ash problems were directly shipped to job sites, and I am aware that Platanus were still be shipped directly before the more recent decision that we are now allowed to bring in Platanus from some German and Dutch nurseries. 

In late September/October 2013, I had already tagged a considerable number of Platanus and Castanea  on trips to France, Holland and later Ireland.  I notified the four nurseries where I had tagged that it would be very unlikely I could take delivery of these trees.  On 10 December 2013, with thousands of bareroot and rootball trees coming in, four extra heavy standard Castanea sativa arrived as rootballs from a quality nursery in Holland. On 3 February 2014, another ten Castanea and ten Platanus arrived from this same nursery which we caught, and then realised that there were four more Castanea that had arrived in December.  I decided to not say anything, but to see if FERA picked up on this.  The delivery notes, invoices and label/tags on the trees clearly identified these trees as the correct, banned species. Our excellent plant inspector, who spends many hours on each regular visit walking our nursery and knows his trees, did not catch this or notice these trees even though they were set out and potted as normal in a prominent position. At the end of his visit, Carlos the nursery manager showed him the trees and on the 4th April Majestic Trees was served with a ‘Notice’ to destroy the 20 Castanea and Platanus that landed on the 3rdFebruary. With landscape designers and contractors continuing to import, is this really fair or just?

With the demand for these two varieties and the high price they now command, I could easily have imported thousands of them and put them in a rented field nearby.  Furthermore, there has been a surge in requests on the continent for sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) labelled as Quercus rubra, and Platanus acerifolia labelled as Acer platanoides. This is a potential way around the restrictions because trees with these labels will often pass a casual inspection.  This has led to the unintended consequence of the ‘bans’ penalising the best, law abiding nurseries and driving up the price and therefore profit that some less thorough nurseries and traders can achieve. 

Specific examples aside, there also seems to be a serious lack of understanding that trees are traded around Europe not only for replanting in the tens of thousands in other countries in another nursery’s fields, but during the course of the winter and spring huge numbers of stock can pass through multiple countries and nurseries, going from yard to yard, before they find a home.  100 Platanus with a 30-35cm girth, grown in France might be bought to plant out in an in-ground nursery in Holland or Germany and could end up being traded then sold on to a UK landscaper as a rootball, but now carrying a German or Dutch passport.

It is extremely testing for nurseries to abide by the bans when they are under enormous economic pressure to sell their trees and when they see more flagrant breaches of the law in other parts of Europe. I have watched and listened to good nurserymen rationalising why they should do what they need to do to take care of business over the past 6 months, as we too often hear that nothing was done about examples such as the importing of 10-metre trees with 2-metre rootballs from Brazil as ‘plugs in the minimum amount of substrate’ through  Rome, or the use of banned pesticides or fungicides in certain countries that the majority of our Anglo Saxon MEPS voted against while the Greens and southern states MEP voted for, yet do nothing to enforce or ensure their growers do not use!  There is no doubt that many chemicals needed to be removed, but this injustice where these Mediterranean and Eastern Bloc growers are often not even aware of proposed bans, so do not lobby against votes, results in their MEPS always voting with the environmental block. Yet their countries continue to use these banned chemicals as there is no enforcement, just as there is little care about new P&D threats! The award of a €5,000,000 EU ‘tourism development’ grant to a very large Italian nursery which they then used to build a new nursery has added to the feelings of injustice and frustration in many UK nurseries.

A simple analogy is when you have children they will not respect or obey you if you impose rules that are not applied to their siblings or that they feel are unfair or discriminatory. Some will simply rebel and do whatever they please behind your back and eventually even your perfect child will get fed up when the rule is not applied to their brother or sister or if it is unjust and not thought through. This is exactly what I feel you have done with your nurserymen and the current legislation.  The rebellious ones have been ducking and diving from the beginning, but now many are deciding that if their colleagues can get away with it and enjoy the profits, they would be stupid not to follow suit or at the very least are rationalising that they shouldn’t be so straight and narrow in their interpretation of the rules.

I hope you can understand my frustration when others are seen to be circumventing the regulations to minimise their losses and where there seems to be no surveillance of the landscape sector, domestic gardening or internet selling routes? We are at best told it is being looked at for future legislation, possibly by 2017! We need action to save the UK now or else every P&D on the planet will arrive here. We need a solution were in a considered and even handed way both nurseries, landscapers, et al, who have the facilities to quarantine stock can trade with European nurseries of high quality, but under strict controls, likely more like we used to have before plant passporting came into place. The current ideas, though well intended, of a ‘Plant Quality Assurance Scheme’ are well meaning, but being voluntary will only be used by the nurseries who are not the problem, and do nothing to solve the problem, but simply add more red tape. The last 10+ years of Plant Passporting have been a failure; the old system wasn’t broke, so why not bring it back?

In the past I have tried to engage constructively with the process and feel I have given of my time generously in offering my informed opinion to help Defra and Fera at meetings in York, London and at my nursery, so I would like to know what your response is to the points I have laid out above and how we can address the issues raised.

I look forward to your reply.






Steve McCurdy

Managing Director

01582 843881 ext 221