UNPICK is part of the multi-disciplinary Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative (THAPBI), funded under the auspices of the Living With Environmental Change Partnership with support from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Forestry Commission, Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Scottish Government. The aim of THAPBI is to generate knowledge to tackle pests and diseases and to support the future health of the UK's woodlands, commercial forests and urban trees. The research will address knowledge gaps identified by Defra’s Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Task Force and the objectives of the joint Defra/Forestry Commission ‘Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Action Plan’.


The UNPICK project, an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, Forest Research and the University of Bath, is investigating how the public perceives and understands the growing threats to tree health from invasive pests and pathogens. In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in new pests and diseases, some of which present a significant risk to tree health, plant biosecurity and ecosystem functions. Current major threats include ask dieback caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (previously called Chalara fraxinea), Phytophthora ramorum disease causing the widespread decline of larch and acute oak decline. In addition, oak processionary moth presents a direct threat to human health. An increase in the global plant and wood product trade may be contributing to the risk of new pests and diseases entering the UK and climate change may also be increasing the risk of these pests and diseases spreading.

UNPICK will compare public reaction and involvement with three recent tree disease outbreaks in the UK: ash dieback, ramorum blight and the oak processionary moth. The study will explore how individuals encounter these tree pests and diseases in different contexts and assess the role of science and policy communication and media coverage in raising awareness. The project will examine how concern has developed over time and identify the different ‘hazard sequences’ that may have influenced perceptions and understandings of risk in these cases. The dramatic public and media response to ash dieback raises important questions about why the public reacted as it did to the event. What was driving their concern and how can we harness this in future to get the public more involved with tree health issues generally?

This timely research will provide key insights into public motivation at a key moment in efforts to safeguard tree health in the UK and internationally. The research will contribute to the policy evidence base by defining the nature of public concern about this important issue, drawing lessons for future risk communication and engagement.