IMPORTS of high-risk plants and firewood must be brought to an end within five years to safeguard the health of the UK's forests, it has been claimed.

In a new report, industry body Confor has pointed out that the UK’s elm, larch and ash trees have already been devastated by imported pests and diseases, and there are many more out there which pose a real threat to both timber businesses and native wildlife.

Confor's report highlights the problem of imported plants in soil-filled pots, widely used by gardeners and landscapers, which enter the country with few checks or regulations and can contain invasive beetles, fungi, bacteria or other pathogens.

Another challenge is the 3000 tonnes of firewood imported into the UK every month. Confor said that this can be done safely if the bark is removed and the wood fully dried – but in a sample of consignments inspected last year, more than a quarter did not meet the required standards.

Confor suggested that phasing out firewood imports could have wider benefits for the health of the UK’s native broadleaf woodlands, as well as protecting them from disease. A scheme to bring woodlands into management for firewood would, said the trade body, supply this product from home-grown sources.

Confor England manager Caroline Harrison said: “Managing native woodland by thinning makes them better for wildlife by diversifying their structure and allowing in light – and encourages remaining trees to grow better to capture carbon and provide quality timber.”

In contrast to some potplants, seedling trees imported for the forestry sector are covered by the Forest Reproductive Material regulations, ensuring traceability and control – but the domestic sector is still committed to working with policymakers to phase out seedling imports within five years.

Fiona Angier of the Confor Nursery Producers Group said: “Forest managers, forest nurseries and landowners represented by Confor are agreed that the only plant material we should be importing is seed, but achieving this requires improvements in the way forest planting is approved.

“It takes two to three years to grow the young trees for a new forest.," she explained. "But the uncertainty of forestry grant schemes often means that millions of trees must be planted within a window of a few months, and the number of trees planted fluctuates wildly from year to year. Nurseries, who often have to burn stock at the end of the season, cannot maintain large-scale surpluses in case of a shortfall, so the industry is obliged to import plants to fulfil orders.”