Why the Forestry Commission took to the skies to protect our trees from disease

Written by Naomi Larsson on 6 August 2018

The inspirational line manager award winner from the Civil Service Awards 2015 talks about his department’s pioneering work in aerial surveys

Photos: Forestry Commission

Ben Jones is on the frontline of the fight to save our trees. A forest manager for Forestry Commission England, for years Jones has led a team working to stop the spread of diseases and pests that threaten the UK’s forest and woodland. The current battle is against a disease called phytophthora ramorum, which can kill trees. 

He first came across it affecting rhododendrons and ornamental gardens in south-west England in 2004. By 2009, the disease had moved to larch trees in Cornwall, and to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, mainly the west coast of the country “where the climate is very conducive and very suitable for the disease”. 

Phytophthora ramorum is known to affect 130 other species of trees and bushes. It doesn’t affect humans or animals, but more than two million trees have been felled in attempts to quell the killer disease. 

Jones leads a team that surveys and engages in advisory and control work to help protect the UK’s trees and woodlands. “The work that we do really plays an integral part of the UK’s commitment to plant and tree health biosecurity,” he says. “It’s very much about protecting the species that we've got. It's a very significant part of the Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] commitment to protecting the environment.” 

Jones says the UK has a healthy forest and woodland population, but trees and plants are subject to “quite high levels of risk and threat” as a result of the international trade of plant species. 

“The risks are associated when you start moving plant material around the globe, sometimes the species that we have here in the UK haven’t had the evolutionary exposure to those pests and diseases, and as a consequence those pests and diseases can be quite damaging,” he says.

“That's essentially the work that the team and myself is doing – very much managing to mitigate the risks that come from that trade process.”

They do this by conducting specialist surveillance of forests and woodland in the form of aerial surveys from a helicopter. “We developed the techniques ourselves and started using them when the phytophthora ramorum first started affecting larch trees,” says Jones.

“We had to change our survey approach from a ground-based survey to an aerial survey to cover the areas of ground that we needed. We developed it and first started using it from 2010 onwards, and we've been refining and enhancing it on an annual basis. You get a very different perspective looking down on a forest from above than you do actually being in it and looking up through the trees.”

The aerial surveys are undertaken by a team of Forestry Commission tree health inspectors. “We rotate duties within the aircraft,” Jones adds, “so whoever is sitting in the front with the pilot does the navigating, and sitting in the back are two team members with cameras – one forward facing and one rearward facing.”

They develop a flight plan before they set off, which covers as much of the target host species as possible. When they fly the team observes the forest and woodland from above and looks out for anything of concern. “The disease shows itself with branches dying back and sometimes complete crowns dying,” Jones says.

They take photographs and once back on ground will then investigate what they’ve seen from the air. If necessary, they’ll fell some trees to test them for the disease. 

“Because the disease is a quarantine disease, it's subject to statutory action,” says Jones. This means the owner or occupier of the land gets served with a notice to fell and remove the tree – essentially killing the tree to stop the disease sporulating and spreading.

Though the tree is removed, Jones says the “timber can still be used from that material, but it's got to go to a timber mill where it can be dealt with under license. Some special requirements have got to happen to the bark from those trees”.

The team’s work on Phytophthora ramorum has reduced the impact on larch trees by an average of 12.4% per year in England between 2010 and 2014. Jones was awarded the inspirational line manager of the year at the Civil Service Awards 2015, in part for his work pioneering this world-leading aerial surveillance programme for early detection of these diseases. He says he has always cared for the environment. 

“It’s very interesting and worthwhile work. I work with a very positive and enthusiastic team who all have a very similar mindset.”