A dark November evening in London was brightened as many of those involved in the Observatree project gathered at the Houses of Parliament for a reception to celebrate what the project has achieved over the first three years and to help look towards its future. The project team and volunteers were joined by influential guests: MPs, peers, senior members of Defra plus representatives from the forestry, environment and charity sectors. Our event was sponsored by Chris Davies, MP for Brecon and Radnorshire and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry. We thank him for his support.

But this was not like a typical parliamentary reception. We did not want floral arrangements on tables. No. Our business is pests and diseases. We took along large wooden models of Asian longhorn, Emerald ash and Bronze birch borer beetles to adorn the historic setting. And they certainly generated interest as they went through the airport-like security scanners as we entered the building.  You’ll be pleased to know that they don’t class as sharp objects! Our Observatree hand lenses were also placed on tables for anyone to take and at least one of the catering staff was seen using them to scrutinise the canapés they were serving (not in relation to their size!).

Discussions amongst those present were very supportive and complimentary of Observatree. Our three guest speakers highlighted many reasons why our work is so important:

Sir Harry Studholme, Chair of the Forestry Commission’s Board of Commissioners, introduced the project speaking about some of the recent tree health stories from across the world, such as the Mountain pine beetle in the US that had resulted in the loss of 40 million acres of trees. He stated that in the UK we have only 37 native trees and shrubs and that only a handful of tree species underpin our forest industries. He considers the UK to be very exposed to such threats and that if pests and diseases do arrive in the UK we must eliminate them, ideally by finding them before they spread.

He said he felt that Observatree differs from many citizen science projects because of the quality of data coming in from the network of 230 volunteers and that this is due to the exceptional training and support they receive backed up by the highest quality resources.

Sir Harry ended by saying “This is a war we cannot afford to lose. We must continue the fight on all fronts simultaneously.”

Professor Nicola Spence, Chief Plant Health officer at DEFRA confessed she never goes anywhere without being vigilant for unhealthy plants and has an Observatree hand lens in her handbag at all times.

She said that tree health is a priority for government and that Observatree is pioneering the use of expert volunteers as a model. Volunteers revisit the same trees and woods on a regular basis and may spot things not seen by official surveillance.

Professor Spence said with the Oriental chestnut gall wasp, she had seen the effectiveness of Observatree first hand. Among her plant health counterparts in Europe and more widely, no-one has a network like this so she said she feels very privileged to be part of it.

Beccy Speight, Chief Executive of the Woodland Trust praised some of the exceptional volunteers in the network who have gone the extra mile to deliver for the project.

Beccy gave the example of when project volunteer, David Griffith, spent half a day with Forestry Commission England tree health officer Barnaby Wylder learning how to identify and sample Chalara-infected material. David then went through west Wales and over one long weekend found 11 new 10km grid squares with Chalara, submitted high quality reports and collecting samples for analysis. Such efforts make a very valuable contribution, producing additional data for the tree health teams.

“This kind of volunteering is not shallow and broad but narrow and deep, responding to a specific need. People are so keen to join that the project has a waiting list and can afford to ask for people to bring good tree identification skills as a starting point.”

On reflection this was a very successful event that celebrated the impact of the project together with contributions from volunteers.  Having such a strong presence will hopefully mean that we can take our work beyond current funding levels – we’ll keep you updated on that. Finally, I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who contributed to the evening, especially Dianne Stilwell of Forest Research’s Communications team who sadly passed away earlier this year. Dianne and her experience with such events will be greatly missed.