During September and October, the Observatree project delivered eight mentoring events across Scotland, England and Wales for their network of tree health surveyor volunteers.

Led by tree health teams from the Forestry Commission and Natural Resources Wales the events enabled volunteers to see real examples of pests and diseases in the field, practice their observation skills and spend time with tree health experts and other volunteers in a woodland setting.

Focusing on the priorities

Each event focused on Observatree priority pests and diseases specific to the region. At Scotney Castle (Kent) volunteers were trained to spot oriental chestnut gall wasp and chestnut blight, seeing examples of Phytophthora cinnamomi and Amphiporthe fungus on sweet chestnut. Volunteers in the North East of England saw Phytophthora austrocedri on juniper along the Pennine Way, learning how the disease has spread through the site and that some of the juniper is still quite healthy.

At Llanvihangel Court (near Abergavenny) volunteers were able to see examples of Siroccocus tsugae on cedar and Diprion pini (common pine sawfly) on Scots pine. Seeing signs and symptoms of these priority species has expanded the knowledge base of the volunteers, making their own tree health surveys more effective. An additional outcome of the events was the observation of Chalara dieback of ash in two new 10km grid squares meaning that the disease has been reported in these locations for the first time.

Early warning in action

An important aspect of the Observatree project is to be an early warning system for priority pests and diseases that are not present in the UK, but pose a threat if introduced. Early detection of such outbreaks makes eradication of the pest or disease more likely so Observatree volunteers have been trained to recognise symptoms of some of these emerging threats.

At the Yorkshire Arboretum Dr Charles Lane, Tree Health Scientist, Fera Science Ltd, organised a simulated longhorn beetle outbreak activity. Volunteers were briefed that there had been a reported sighting of a longhorn beetle by a visitor to the arboretum and that they would be surveying the site to decide if it was an outbreak of the Asian or citrus longhorn beetle.

Volunteers surveyed a plot of trees in the arboretum inspecting each tree for exit holes noting tree species, number of exit holes and height of the exit holes up the tree trunk.

Cementing observational skills

Over the course of the project Observatree volunteers have received ongoing training to build up their practical skills of observation, surveying and tree health reporting. Mentoring events provide an opportunity to reinforce these essential skills. At Sharpenhoe Woods (near Luton) volunteers were provided with some example Tree Alert reports to follow up.

Provided with a basic tree health report and a 10 figure grid reference, volunteers were tasked with finding and surveying trees that had been reported. This tested their observational skills and accurate use of GPS units to find 10 figure grid references. Volunteers were also able to practice their sampling skills and biosecurity procedures on some ash saplings infected with Chalara dieback of ash.

Scotlands mentoring event took place at Dawyck Botanic Gardens (near Peebles). Volunteers were encouraged to consider information required for a successful Tree Alert report – good description of signs and symptoms, wider context of symptoms, useful photographs and accurate grid references. Volunteers saw examples of Siroccocus tsugae on cedar, Gynosporangium on rowan and suspected cases of Chalara dieback of ash and Phytophthora austrocedri on juniper. Tree health experts explained how volunteers should take samples from trees infected with these diseases.

No stone unturned

The North West England event was something a little different. Volunteers had the opportunity to visit a stone importer to understand issues surrounding potential points of entry for tree pests. They also learnt about legislation that regulates the import of wood products and wood packaging materials to prevent pests and diseases coming into the UK. Volunteers were given access to the warehouse, where stone is stored and processed, and were tasked with checking wood packaging for import marks used to show that the wood has undergone correct treatment.

Following the tour of the stone importer yard volunteers surveyed surrounding woods and trees for signs of disease. They were shown how to take suitable foliar and bark samples and, following lab tests, have been informed that the two samples were positive for Chalara dieback of ash and Neonectria galligena – a nectria canker on willow.

What the volunteers thought

“Thanks for organising another valuable training day. I am sure everyone got something out of it. In the afternoon we found the established surveyors leading those new to the programme in survey work. It was a good reminder to be systematic in our approach to trees. It was interesting to see the effects of Amphiporthe fungus on sweet chestnut.”
Richard Churchman, volunteer from Polegate

“This was the best training event I have attended so far.  I really enjoyed being out in the field vs the classroom environment and I definitely learnt a lot more. It has given me lots of confidence and I am really looking forward to surveying this weekend.”
Ben Smith, volunteer from Bristol

Thanks again for organising the training day at Dawyck. It was so nice to see you again and to spend the day with all the very knowledgeable mentors from Woodland Trust and Forest Research and the enthusiastic volunteers – I learnt a great deal during the day.”
Doug Ferrier, volunteer from Kirkliston

The expert opinion

“I had a very interesting day. I think I learnt as much as the volunteers. Very good surveying information supplied by Andrew [Wright from Natural Resources Wales].”
Kevin Izzard, Plant Health & Seeds Inspector – APHA

“Thanks for a good day yesterday. I feel it went well and hope that the group found it useful. They asked lots of good questions and seemed really engaged with the work.”
Helen Carter, Tree Health Officer – Forestry Commission England