Dr Terry Mabbett reports on the looming complications for British plant exports amid ongoing Brexit chaos.

AS the New Year dawns on January 1, 2021, there will be new checks and controls on some goods as they enter Northern Ireland (NI) from Great Britain (GB). Plants and other horticultural/forestry products like seeds are among the goods that will be affected.

A whole new tier of bureaucracy and paperwork will kick in on January 1. This is because NI will remain part of the European Union’s SPS (Sanitary and Phytosanitary) zone in the post-transition period, with a ‘border’ in the Irish Sea separating NI and GB. This situation has arisen under the Northern Ireland protocol – included in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – and is designed to remove the need for a ‘hard’ border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The EU controls the entry of plants into its single market to keep out pests and diseases, which means plants crossing the Irish Sea will be subject to new inspections, new documentation and additional costs. Estimates suggest the new Irish Sea border will involve as many as 30 million customs declarations annually on trade between GB and NI.

The owner of a garden centre in County Antrim, NI, told the BBC that the most significant change will be plants imported from GB requiring a plant health/phytosanitary certificate (PC) issued by a qualified plant inspector, who will naturally charge a fee for their services.

The new GB export/NI import scenario is described by the garden centre owner as follows: “The nursery in England will put all the plants on a trolley ready for dispatch and then contact the plant inspector, who will come to inspect the consignment of plants. It is envisaged to take up to seven days given a current shortage of plant inspectors. And all this time, the plants will be sitting on the trolley and deteriorating, because like [fresh] food products, plants are perishable.”

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The nursery owner said he already has suppliers in GB raising doubts about whether they can continue to supply the NI market, given these anticipated problems. He could switch to alternative suppliers in the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands, but fears his customers will still lose out due to restricted choice. What’s more, the situation makes a mockery of all that talk about trees ‘grown in Britain’, leaving affected foresters and arborists to ‘groan in Britain’ instead.

And there’s another potential problem looming for the new trade route from GB to NI, because as things now stand, from January 1, seeds from GB cannot be sold in NI. The BBC says some GB seed companies have already been emailing NI customers and telling them to get their last orders in now, because the EU has not yet granted GB ‘third country listing’ for the supply of seeds and other plant propagation materials. Third country listing is recognition from the EU that an exporting country meets the minimum standards to supply a product into the EU single market.

Forestry Journal: Western red cedar sown and grown in GB could experience hiccups during dispatch to Northern Ireland.Western red cedar sown and grown in GB could experience hiccups during dispatch to Northern Ireland.

At the time of writing, the UK government had submitted third country applications to the European Commission (EC) and the EC commission in turn had requested additional information on several technical issues. All those involved, including GB plant and seed exporters and NI importers, agree that a swift resolution is required to avoid unwanted layers of bureaucracy and additional costs.

Of no direct interest to forestry and arboriculture but demonstrating the extent of potential problems is uncertainty surrounding export of seed potatoes and vegetable seed from GB into Northern Ireland.

Scottish seed potato producers have been told they will be unlikely to be able to ‘export’ to Northern Ireland from 1 January 2020 as things stand. The irony around this is the exceptional quality of Scottish seed potatoes which are considered to be a global gold standard. Due to climate, seed potatoes grown in Scotland are less prone to disease, which places the tubers at a higher standard than EU regulations. Climatic conditions prevailing in the seed potato-producing areas of Scotland are less conducive to the build up and flight of aphids which vector a number of potato diseases.

Paulo Arrigo, who runs Franchi, a vegetable seed supplier based in Harrow, north-west London, told The Guardian how the company had seen a 6,000 per cent increase in demand from some customers who are stockpiling. He said: “Do you know what DEFRA’s advice was? Tell everyone in Northern Ireland to get their stocks in before Christmas.”

Of course, things may well change. There are still some weeks to go before the end of the year and we are frequently told how negotiations with the EU invariably go right up to the wire. However, at the time of writing, the future of plant and seed exports from GB to NI appears to be all at sea. One ray of light in an otherwise cloudy and confused sky is that Christmas tree shipments for the 2020 season will miss any post-Brexit blockage.


All plants and plant products moved from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will need to:

  • be pre-notified via TRACES NT* in advance of arrival
  • enter Northern Ireland via an appropriate point of entry
  • be accompanied by a plant health certificate/phytosanitary certificate (PC).

*TRACES NT (TNT) is the European Commission’s digital certification and management platform for all sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, supporting the importation of animals, animal products, food and feed of non-animal origin and plants into the European Union.

The GB operator intending to move regulated plants and plant products to NI will need to secure a phytosanitary certificate (PC) prior to the goods departing GB, with sufficient time to allow for inspections and any testing which may be required. A phytosanitary certificate is an official document that certifies that the material has been inspected, is considered free from pests and the need for quarantine, and conforms to the plant health regulations of the place of destination.

In order to obtain a phytosanitary certificate, the operator will need to apply to the relevant plant health authority: the Animal and Plant Health Agency in England and Wales; the Scottish Government in Scotland; and for wood, wood products and bark only, the Forestry Commission in England, Wales and Scotland.

Physical inspections for the sake of securing a phytosanitary certificate can take place inland, prior to movement to NI.

The above account is an excerpt from: UK and EU Transition: New rules for 2021, ‘Moving goods under the Northern Ireland Protocol’.

See www.gov.uk/transition.

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