Dangerous and destructive new pests are putting UK forests in serious danger, announced The Independent last week. Moreover, ineffective biosecurity has lead to the spread of exotic tree diseases that can be hazardous to vast areas of forestry investments in the country.
The issue has been a cause for concern even among policy makers and scientists lately. In her keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference on October 2, 2011, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said: "Many of our native trees are dying. Bleeding canker in chestnuts, sudden oak death syndrome and a rampant disease skipping from species to species causing whole plantations to be felled."
Apparently, these diseases have become more prominent in the last decade, with the emerald ash borer from North America and the oak wilt disease being particularly disturbing. Both of these could spread through UK forests if effective biosecurity is not in place.
In addition, a survey by Hull University found out that spreading leaf miner caterpillars, which target horse chestnuts, could make the trees even more vulnerable to diseases. The larvae live in colonies as large as 700 on a single leaf and can quickly defoliate a large tree.
These persistent diseases can have serious implications for forestry investments in the UK, especially taking into consideration that these investments have enjoyed increased success in recent years. Forestry and wood processing contribute an estimated £7.2 billion in gross value added to the UK economy. Therefore, forestry diseases, if not properly dealt with, can have devastating effects not only on individual forestry investments, but also on the UK economy as a whole.
This begs the questions -- what is the main cause of the problem; and how can investors effectively deal with it. Experts believe that widespread diseases are typically caused by one of two reasons - globalization of plant trade, which can transmit plant diseases easily across borders; and climate change. Changes in temperatures lead to environmental changes in different geographic areas. Pests that cannot successfully adapt to their changing natural habitat move to other geographic regions in an effort to expand their living range.
So how can UK investors protect their forestry investments from the devastating effects of pests and plagues?
First and foremost, we suggest that investors assess the vulnerability of the lot before they tie their money to it. Looking carefully at the type of trees, the history of the lot and the disease patterns in the particular geographic area is crucial. The company operating the forest should have a track record documenting the probability rate of your forest suffering from an illness and how much that would cost you as an investor. There are also independent consultancy firms, which could be able to do the assessment for you.
Once you make your initial investment, effective tree management and biosecurity play a key role in protecting your forest from getting sick in the first place. Young trees need extra special care. Being more vulnerable, these stands should be carefully monitored from the very beginning. Proper selection of suitable tree species, and of suitable races of a given species, is also important. Trees become particularly susceptible to diseases when they are introduced to new areas, where they have not had sufficient time to adjust to the climate, environmental conditions and to build immunity against local pests.
In the case that your trees show signs of illness, according to experts, one of the most effective methods of preventing an outbreak is silviculture. This is the process of effectively tending, harvesting and recovering lost stands. Silviculture uses a combination of methodologies, depending on whether your investments has the goal of conserving a forest or you plan to generate your profits from timber production and sales.
Some of the methods silviculture employs are: thinning that remove dead trees or those with infected legions, thereby protecting the healthy ones; re-planting with more illness-resistant species; and choosing even-aged management (trees planted in the same year and growing in the same manner) vs. uneven-aged management (forest made up of multiple age-class trees) according to the characteristics of the disease.
The silviculture method works to not only successfully curb spreading diseases, but also to prevent outbreaks of insect pests, and accelerate the recovery of devastated stands.
Lats, but not least, insuring your forest at the time of initial investment might be a smart idea. While it will not protect your trees from illness per se, it will compensate for your losses in revenue if disaster strikes. Insurance companies will evaluate your lot and should be able to give you different policy options to choose from.
Forestry investments are long-term investments with a competitive financial potential. Investors should not forget, however, that these investments involve living species. Therefore, more than any other commodity investment, trees require adequate sustainability management if investors are to enjoy the maximum potential returns they can bear.