Britain’s oak trees are under threat from a disease which is ravaging olive groves in Europe, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has warned.
The horticulture sector is being urged to take action to prevent Xylella fastidiosa from spreading to the UK.
The disease, which can result in stunted growth, reduction in fruit quality and dieback, is having a devastating impact on plants in parts of mainland Europe where it is already present.
Mr Gove wants the European Commission to take stronger action to halt the march of the disease, including more checks on high-risk plants as they are moved between countries.
If the EU does not take action, the UK could take steps to stop the arrival of Xylella, including suspending imports of plants which carry the disease such as rosemary, lavender, olives, oleander and almond trees.
The disease is feared to have the potential to devastate many broadleaf British trees, including, oaks as well as plane, elms and maple.
The impact would be significant for the horticulture sector due to the restrictions that would need to be introduced, the Environment Department said.
The disease – for which there is no cure — had never been seen in Europe until 2013, when it was seen in Puglia in 2013. It has since wiped out many ancient olive groves.
It is thought to probably arrived from the Americas, where it is endemic – periodically wiping out entire vineyards and devastating orange groves.
The bacterium lives in the water-conducting vessels (xylem) of plants and spreads between plants via insects.
While it is difficult to predict which UK plants could be vulnerable to infection, experts are most concerned about a subspecies of Xylella which can survive in cooler climates.
In a letter to the EU Commissioner for health and food safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, Mr Gove said preventing further spread of Xylella was of ‘paramount importance’ and welcomed the introduction of emergency legislation and a review into the issue.
But he wrote: ‘I am very concerned about the increase in findings in the EU, most recently in mainland Spain, which raises serious questions about the robustness of the EU’s present arrangements and the wisdom of allowing high risk species to move across borders unchecked.
‘With the ongoing risk of infected plants being moved to new areas, it is vital we move swiftly to strengthen our protection, including through increased testing and setting higher biosecurity standards for production.
If the appropriate level of protection is not forthcoming from the EU’s review, the UK could introduce enhanced import requirements for plants from other EU countries, or a suspension of imports of high-risk species, he said.
In a letter to the horticulture sector, the Government’s chief plant health officer Nicola Spence urged all plant importers and traders not to bring in any host plants from EU counties or regions where Xylella is present.
She also called on companies to make careful decisions on sourcing plants and review their on-site measures to reduce the risk of disease introduction and spread.