Matt Ridley

Losing the ashes

The Forestry Commission’s carbon fetish is to blame for the failure to act sooner to save our trees

Losing the ashes
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I’m pessimistic about the ash trees. It seems unlikely that a fungus that killed 90 per cent of Denmark’s trees and spreads by air will not be devastating here, too. There is a glimmer of hope in the fact that ash, unlike elms, reproduce sexually so they are not clones — uniformly vulnerable to the pathogen. But it’s only a glimmer: tree parasites, from chestnut blight to pine beauty moth, have a habit of sweeping through species pretty rampantly, because trees are so long-lived they cannot evolve resistance in time.

The Forestry Commission’s apologists are pleading ‘cuts’ as an excuse for its failure to do anything more timely to get ahead of the threat, but as a woodland owner I am not convinced. An organisation that has the time and the budget to pore over my every felling or planting application in triplicate and come back with fussy and bossy comments could surely spare a smidgen of interest in looming threats from continental fungi that have been spreading out from Poland for 20 years. The commission was warned four years ago of the problem.

Here’s what the commission was up to instead. Just last year, I received a letter from the Forestry Commission demanding access to survey one of my woods to answer the question ‘what are the forecasts for timber, biomass and carbon?’ in order to ‘help the United Kingdom meet international commitments, such as reporting for the Global Forest Resources Assessment and the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (MCPFE)’.

Notice the Sir Humphrey-esque circular argument: surveys must be done so that the results can be reported to assessment meetings. In other words, as far as I can tell, the Forestry Commission’s priority has been, as in so many government bodies, to supply talking points for the international carbon-obsessed bureaucracy. The implicit assumption here, of course, is that climate change is the greatest threat to Britain’s trees, when in reality far greater threats come from diseases carried around by foresters themselves.

This is happening throughout the world of nature conservation. A climate fetish has sucked all the oxygen from the real threats to species and habitats — indeed it has actually begun to make those threats worse. Remember, climate change has extinguished no species in modern times, not one. For a while the scientists thought they had one — the golden toad of Costa Rica, supposedly extinguished by the loss of cloud to moisten its cloud-forest habitat. Climate alarmists like Tim Flannery made much of this pitiful and beautiful harbinger in their books.

But the awkward fact was that the temperature had not changed in Costa Rica. The forests were drier, true, but only because so many of the trees had been cut down on the lower slopes of the mountains. And in any case, the golden toad actually succumbed, like so many other amphibians, to a fungus brought in perhaps on the boots of conservationists. I have lived long enough to see the great amphibian decline blamed on acid rain, ozone depletion, climate change and all sorts of other red herrings. Those in the know now admit that the true culprit was probably the international laboratory trade in African clawed toads carrying a chytrid fungus. Was that conclusion delayed by the other obsessions? I think so.

As an ardent champion of free trade, by the way, I make one exception: we are far too free in trading live creatures that can carry diseases or smuggled pests. We need to get more serious about this issue.

Instead, the perpetual urge to elevate climate change as an ecological threat has distracted the world from the truth that the greatest cause of species extinction is the invasion of alien exotic species: fungi, weeds, snakes, rats, cats, goats, mink, grey squirrels. No other cause even comes close to this one. Of the 181 species of bird and mammal that have died out since 1500, just nine were on continents. The rest were on islands (Australia counts as an island in this respect, having an isolated and vulnerable fauna).

Island animals and plants are far more vulnerable to introduced predators, parasites and competitors than continental species, but even on continents invasive aliens are the biggest problem: in the British countryside, mink, grey squirrels, Spanish bluebells, Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed. Every chance I get I tell wildlife charities: if you want a donation from me, shut up about carbon and speak up about invasive aliens. But government effectively tells them the opposite, so they smile politely at me as if I was mad.

The Forestry Commission’s comparative neglect of ash bio-security as it flits off to MCPFE meetings about carbon is emblematic of the entire problem. Indeed, the Forestry Commission was until very recently urging and bribing us to bring exotic aliens into the countryside: sitka spruce and lodgepole pine were their idea. The latter was a commercial disaster as well as useless for red squirrels and crossbills. It is a startling fact that in the 20th century, ancient semi-natural woodland in public hands had a higher probability of being felled and replanted as regiments of sitka than if it was in private hands.

The carbon fetish is not just distracting us from real conservation problems; it is actually making some worse. In the name of supposedly fixing the climate at some imaginary equilibrium, we are dashing for biomass. On current plans, by 2020 Britain will be burning 60 million tonnes of wood in power stations, 10 per cent of our transport fuel will be biofuel and large areas of the countryside will be producing crops of anaerobic digesters to make gas for electricity.

Much of this biomass will be imported. The land required to grow it will not be available to grow food, which will be displaced on to other land cleared from forests, which as the University of Leicester found in a recent study will ‘actually increase emissions relative to petroleum fuels’. So we will be increasing our dependence on imports, driving up energy bills, driving up food prices for the world’s poor, cutting down precious rain forests and increasing carbon emissions. Quintuple whammy: good work, lads.