Introducing Dr Mary Barkham: Observatree volunteer and new Chair of the project Board

I was delighted to go to an Observatree training event at Llandeilo on 8 June 2018. This was the third training event that I have attended and, as well as an update on some priority pests and diseases, there was a very useful identification workshop on broadleaved trees. Some were more challenging than others, including some species that I was less familiar with like Wych Elm. I’ve now seen several of these where I live in South Wales. It just shows how much more observant you can become when you know what you are looking for. And I now know where to look for any Elm zigzag sawflies!

Training events are always a good opportunity to learn from other volunteers too. I’m always impressed by the knowledge and experience of participants and it’s really useful to know who is surveying where in your region. It was also nice for new volunteers to meet some of their more experienced colleagues.

This was my first training event since becoming Chair of the Observatree Board, so this blog is an opportunity for me to introduce myself and to summarise what the Board does. My background is in plant health (research to understand and control several different fungal plant pathogens of agricultural crops). I have also spent many years working with large public sector partnerships on environmental research, including the LWEC Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative. I’m now chairing the Observatree Board in my capacity as a Commissioner with the Forestry Commission. I continue to champion tree health issues, particularly in relation to getting the evidence base needed by decision-makers when there are so many threats to address. Observatree is an important part of this effort.

At the beginning I was inspired to become an Observatree volunteer during the first phase of the project. Like everyone involved with the project, I wanted to help make a difference in protecting our trees. To prevent any conflict of interests I am no longer an official Observatree volunteer, but I’m still keen to monitor my local woodlands and report via Tree Alert as necessary. Hopefully my experience as a volunteer will ensure that I have a good understanding of what it’s like for volunteers on the ground.

Funding for Observatree comes from several partners who meet regularly. They discuss progress towards achieving Observatree’s aims and share relevant information from their organisations. It’s an opportunity for partners to: discuss if further Observatree action is needed on particular pests and diseases, learn about project achievements and ensure that we have the volunteer activity needed across Britain. There is a lot of interest in Observatree from other organisations so we have to steer a clear path and make the most of relevant opportunities as they arise. However, we must not get distracted from our core aims, ensuring that our limited funds are well targeted. The range of project resources continues to increase and I have learnt to hang on tightly to my pest and disease field identification guides, which are highly coveted by others!

I hope that volunteers are finding that surveying in woodlands is an appealing task in our balmy British climate. It has certainly been a strange season with so little rain and we will be interested to see how it influences the tolerance of our trees and the spread of pests or diseases over the coming year.

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