I don’t know about anyone else, but COVID-19 and the succession of lockdowns have warped my sense of time. It seems like only the other day the UK government and Forestry Commission introduced a legal requirement for the issue of UK plant passports by companies and personnel handling and moving specific types and categories of timber and wood. Since this included all conifers, sweet chestnut and London plane it would be likely to snare a broad swathe of forestry and arb contractors.

The system came into operation on 14 December 2019, ironically complying with new European Commission (EC) legislation because at that time the UK was still a member nation of the European Union (EU). We would not leave the EU for another six weeks on 31 January 2020, and would not cut ourselves off completely from EU’s rules and regulations – including those governing the movement of timber and wood – for another eleven months.

READ MORE: Badger culling: Was the government right to backtrack on policy?

The date of real departure was midnight on 31 December 2020 when the transition period period expired, although the UK government preferred, apparently for reasons related to political capital and kudos, to call it the ‘implementation period’. That said, I doubt whether many in Northern Ireland, still tied to Brussels trading rules and regulations by the Northern Ireland Protocol, would agree.

Forestry Journal was alerted to the new UK plant passporting system and the implications for UK foresters and arborists in 2020 by a reader/subscriber who works as a dual forestry/arb contractor on the western side of the British Isles. Our contact had already signed up to become a registered authorised professional operator (RAPO) and as such was already subscribing to all requirements which the status demands under the new regulatory system. The single most significant requirement is submission to annual rigorous inspections by the FC or, more exactly, private sector companies and personnel operating on their behalf as FC contract inspectors. Having registered in late 2019, our contact had already been subject to one inspection and was now due for a second. 


This time round he was able to provide Forestry Journal with a copy of the forestry inspection report form (FIRF) which has to be completed as part of the paperwork and premises inspection. The FIRF is, by any standards, a lengthy and complex document comprising 75 questions. Language used appears unnecessarily technical and even overly academic. For instance, a tree species is referred to as a ‘taxon’, a term which as a professional botanist and plant pathologist I have never had cause to use in half a century of research, teaching and consultancy.

Many of the questions are lengthy and complicated, and thus require correspondingly complex consideration when providing the answers. The length of the document is highly pertinent in relation to cost of the exercise which is met by the RAPO, because charges are levied according to the time required for the inspector to prepare for and execute the inspection, including travel to and from the RAPO’s premises where applicable.

Inspections are not carried out by plant health professionals from the FC, but by private companies which charge for the work. 

Two big differences in the nature of inspections this time round relate to the tree species now designated as Plant Health Forestry Regulated Material (PHFRM) and the charges levied for the inspection. Juglans (walnut) and wingnut (Pterocarpa) have joined conifers, sweet chestnut and plane on the list of PHFRM. Charges levied on RAPOs in England have risen quite substantially, although charges in Wales and Scotland appear to be unchanged, compared with 2020. 

A letter sent to our contact in July 2021 by Plant Health (FC), and pertaining to his second inspection since registration, confirms professional operators who have registered and are authorised by the FC to issue plant passports must be inspected by the FC within 12 months of their initial authorisation; and be re-inspected within 12 months of their previous inspection. 

Forestry Journal:

The RAPO will be contacted by the inspector to arrange a convenient date and time for the inspection to take place. The RAPO will be expected to answer questions on plant passports, provide evidence of plant passports issued and provide examples of his/her plant passport management system.

Owing to the ongoing COVID-19 situation, the majority of inspections will take the format of a virtual visit. However, in some cases a physical site visit, with appropriate COVID-19 social distancing controls, may be required. RAPOs are at liberty to discuss this with the inspector when arranging for the inspection to take place. 

The inspector will make an appointment with the RAPO prior to the inspection to explain the reason for the visit. At this point the inspector will ask seven introductory questions to check the inspection can be completed:

• Will the visit be a physical visit or a virtual visit due to COVID 19 constraints which may include lockdown constraints and professional operator shielding requirements?

• Who is the nominated person responsible (or their delegated representative) for the communication with the Forestry Commission?

• Please confirm if the registered premise is able to provide plant passport information and examples of plant passports issued, for the movement of regulated material by all the professional operator's premises?

• How many locations responsible for issuing plant passports will the registered premises supply passport information and records on behalf of? Please give the name and address of each location identified in question 

• How many plant passports has the professional operator issued since authorisation on or after 14th December 2019 i.e. when the new EU legislation was introduced? An estimate will be acceptable.

• Please provide the number of plant passports issued by each location. An estimate will be acceptable.

In order to improve efficiency of the inspections, the FC says RAPOs must ensure all relevant plant passport information is organised and available to inspect and the person responsible, or the delegated representative for this, is present and suitably prepared for the inspection. 

Where a main or headquarters office cannot supply information for all the locations issuing plant passports, inspections will also have to take place at the regional offices issuing plant passports. There will be a charge for each inspection, so inspections at multiple sites will result in an increased cost for the professional operator. This may also cause a delay to the inspection process with inspections potentially taking place more than 12 months after authorisation, which affects compliance with the Plant Health Regulation (EU 2016/2031). 


Anyone who thought they'd heard the last of the EU had better think again because questions 11 to 31 cover EU-format plant passports that would have been issued by RAPOs from 14 December 2019, when the new EU legislation was introduced, until 31 December 2020. 

Questions 32 to 63 relate to UK-format plant passports, those issued on and after 1 January 2021. The FIRP is clearly too long to reproduce here, but the following seven questions (45 to 51) give a good idea of what is in store: 

45. Have scientific pest names or EPPO pest codes been used for plane, walnut and wingnut? 

Forestry Journal:

46. Have the plant passports been incorporated into the design of the delivery advice note? Or has the plant passport taken the form of a sticker applied to a delivery advice note? Or is the plant passport a standalone document that accompanies the delivery advice note? State which type of plant passport format has been used. 

47. Is the plant passport clearly distinguishable from any other information or label which may also be indicated on that substrate?

48. Is the plant passport easily visible and clearly legible?

49. Is the information on it unchangeable and permanent?

50. Is the method of attaching the plant passports compliant?

51. Have all loads of controlled timber i.e. (a) to (e) been examined prior to a plant passport being issued to authorise their movement? 
(a) all conifer species with bark, isolated bark of all conifer species, 
(b) Castanea species with bark, isolated bark of Castanea species 
(c) all Juglans species with or without bark and all Juglans species isolated bark 
(d) all Platanus species with or without bark and all Platanus species isolated bark 
(e) all Pterocarya species with or without bark and all Pterocarya species isolated bark. Have all loads of Christmas trees over three metres tall and foliage taken from conifers over three metres tall been moved with a plant passport?

52. Have any exemptions been used for the non-issue of plant passports, for example; for local movement or direct retail sales to domestic end-users?

Suffice to say the questions are many, comprehensive and often complex. Abbreviations are used without any apparent explanation of what they mean. For instance, how many know off-hand that 'EPPO' in this plant health context is the accepted abbreviation for the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organisation. EPPO also stands for ‘European public Prosecutor’s Office'. How many will know that PFA stands for ‘Pest Free Area’ and not ‘Professional Footballers Association’ for which the abbreviation is commonly used? 

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And why use the word ‘taxon’ (a taxonomic group of any rank, such as a species, family, or class), a word I have never had cause to use in almost 50 years as a professional botanist and plant pathologist?


After a small section entitled ‘Importer Inspection Questions’ (seven questions) comes the final and most succulent section, at least as far as the inspectorate are concerned. And worth considering in detail since it covers exactly how, and by how much, professional operators will be charged for this service they are providing for the UK government. Remember, the charging clock starts ticking from the moment the inspector contacts the professional operator to arrange for the inspection:

• How many hours did the FC contract inspector require for the physical onsite (or remote virtual) inspection?

Forestry Journal:

• How many hours did the FC contract inspector require for administration time associated with the inspection? Administration time will include communication to set up and agree the meeting and any additional time required to complete the inspection report form.

• How many hours did the FC contract inspector require for travelling time to complete the onsite inspection (time includes travelling to and from the site)?

According to the letter from Plant Health Forestry (Professional Operator Inspections 2021-2022; dated July 2021), and seen by Forestry Journal, charges are levied as follows:

“The charge for each inspection in connection with a plant passport authority is set out in Schedule 1 of The Plant Health (Fees) (Forestry) (England and Scotland) Regulations 2015 (as amended). In England from the 15th July [2021], fees are £49.50 up to and including the first hour and £12.38 thereafter, for each additional 15 minutes or part thereof. In Wales and Scotland, from the 15th July [2021], the fees are £37 up to and including the first hour and £9.25 thereafter, for each additional 15 minutes or part thereof. The professional operator will be charged for time spent on administration, travelling and the inspection.” 

It would appear that the above charges, relative to 2020, reflect an increase for professional operators in England, but not for those in Scotland and Wales.


The million dollar question is what can be achieved in pest and disease management by a requirement for plant passports to be issued by foresters and arborists to cover movement of PHFRM within the United Kingdom. 


UK forestry continues to face an array of dangerous and damaging insect pests and plant pathogens of which the most recent and by far potentially most devastating is Ips typographus (larger eight-toothed European spruce bark beetle). Spruces (Picea sp.) are the main hosts for Ips typographus with Picea abies (Norway spruce) as the primary host in Europe. Distribution and frequency of Ips typographus in Europe is determined by the range and planting intensity of Norway spruce.

The larger eight-toothed European spruce bark beetle has already demonstrated the ability to saw its way through home-grown Norway spruce. And with a capacity to attack home-grown Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) this notifiable bark beetle pest has the capability to cut the legs off UK commercial forestry. 

Forestry Journal:

After two breeding populations of Ips typographus were found near Ashford in Kent in late 2018, the Forestry Commission imposed restrictions on the movement of specified material of the genus Picea (spruce) within a demarcated area covering virtually the whole of Kent and an adjoining slither of neighbouring East Sussex – the Plant Health (Ips typographus) (England) Order 2019. Whether or not this clearly drastic action has worked is up for discussion. 

The FC has since announced the discovery of three more breeding populations in Kent and East Sussex and in a July 2021 press release said the boundary of the demarcated area would be extended to prevent the accidental spread of this pest. The area was duly extended on 20 July and now includes areas within Greater London and Surrey, virtually the entire land area of East Sussex and a sizable slice of coastal Essex from the Thames Estuary as far north as Colchester. 

Forestry Journal is reliably informed by contacts on the ground that the number of outbreaks identified in 2021 is nearer to 13 than three. 

Whether or not these new infestations identified in 2021 originate from, or are related to, the late 2018 outbreaks found near Ashford in Kent is unclear. However, if they originate from subsequent pest introductions into the country they will most likely have been brought in on Norway spruce (the primary plant host of Ips typographus) and from European countries where Ips typographus is endemic. If so, UK plant health authorities clearly need to monitor exactly what in the way of Norway spruce is entering the UK, from where and the ports through which it is coming in.

Forestry Journal:

If additional, multiple introductions do turn out to be the source of these most recently found breeding populations then the question should be asked as to why Norway spruce is being imported at all from countries where this beetle pest is present and indeed endemic. And reflect on whether three wasted decades (1990 to 2020) in the planting of commercial conifers across the UK means we would not need to import such high risk timber and wood.

The United Kingdom is a small and densely populated land mass with intense forestry and arb activity. Recent experience with plant pathogens like Phytophthora ramorum (sudden larch death) and Cryphonectria parasitica (chestnut blight), and insect pests such as Thaumetopoea processionea (oak processionary moth) and now Ips typographus shows that once here, and with a subsequent foothold, they will inevitably spread and become impossible to eradicate. If you can’t control economically damaging forestry pests and pathogens, don’t bring them here in the first place.

After digesting the contents of a forestry inspection report form, professional operators could be forgiven for wishing they were stacking shelves in the local supermarket rather than stacking sawlogs roadside.