University wins £900,000 to help save forests from disease

25 March 2014

The University of Stirling has been awarded around £900,000 of Government money to take part in a UK-wide research initiative to help save forests from disease.

In recent years, new pests and conditions have emerged as significant risks to tree health and plant biosecurity. Experts say an increased trade in plants and plant products has also contributed to new pests and diseases entering the country. Climate change may also be playing its part.

Now seven projects – including one at Stirling – will share in around £7 million of public funding to look at new ways to tackle the problems – and support the UK’s woodlands, commercial forests and trees.

Dr Adam Kleczkowski , Deputy Head of Computing, Science and Maths at the University of Stirling’s School of Natural Sciences, who will lead on the Scottish project, said: “We are currently facing potential loss of all our ash trees due to ash dieback.

“This scenario is likely to repeat itself in the future, with different trees and pests, unless we learn how to manage our forests to protect them from increasing threats.

“Using this new funding, we will be developing approaches that bring together expertise in tree diseases and ecology, mathematical modelling, and economics.

“We will be working towards improved ways of dealing with one of the huge challenges faced by society to deal with our rapidly changing planet.”

Stirling will work with six other schemes across the UK. Total funding for all the studies has come from the taxpayer, via:

  • three UK Research Councils – the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council and Natural Environment Research Council (all funded by Government);
  • Defra (the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs);
  • the Forestry Commission; and
  • Scottish Government.

Environment Minister Lord de Mauley said: “Safeguarding the future of our trees and plants is enormously important - on more than one occasion we have seen the dreadful trail of destruction such diseases can leave behind. And it’s not just the environment that suffers, but the economy too. It is vital we invest in research like this to better protect our precious woodland from the future threat of pest and disease.”

The University of Stirling will work with the University of Cambridge, Bangor University and the Forest Research agency on a project called ‘Modelling economic impact and strategies to increase resilience against tree disease outbreaks’.

The project aims to address “the protection and enhancement of public benefits, including biodiversity and ecosystem services…building resilience in woodlands, and wider landscapes”.

All seven research projects across the UK will be carried out as part of a Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative (THAPBI). They aim to generate natural and social scientific knowledge to improve understanding of the environmental, economic and social impacts of changes in tree health.

The seven projects will focus on:

  • new approaches for the early detection of problems;
  • understanding public concerns;
  • increasing resilience against tree disease outbreaks;
  • finding genetic clues to better tree health; biological control of insect pests;
  • and understanding ash dieback.

In addition to Stirling, other projects funded under the THABI initiative are:

  • Population structure and natural selection in the Chalara ash dieback fungus, Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus - approx. £635K. Led by Professor James Brown, the John Innes Centre
  • Identifying genomic resources against pests and pathogens in tree genera: a case study in Fraxinus - approx. £760K. Led by Dr Richard Buggs, Queen Mary, University of London
  • Biological pest control of insect pests that threaten tree health - approx. £900K. Led by Professor Tariq Butt, Swansea University
  • Promoting resilience of UK tree species to novel pests and pathogens: ecological and evolutionary solutions - approx. £1.4M. Led by Dr Stephen Cavers, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
  • New approaches for the early detection of tree health pests and pathogens - approx. £1.9M. Led by Dr Rick Mumford, Food & Environment Research Agency (Fera)
  • Understanding public risk concerns: an investigation into the social perception, interpretation and communication of tree health risks - approx. £615K. Led by Dr Clive Potter, Imperial College London

Funders say the research will aim to address knowledge gaps identified by Defra’s Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Task Force and the objectives of the joint Defra/Forestry Commission “Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Action Plan”. The projects will also ensure that the UK has increased research capacity in these areas. 

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