Importing and exporting plants

It is important to recognise the risks posed by plant imports to crops and other plants in the UK, and to international conservation efforts. So, to safeguard plant health in Britain, there are statutory controls on importing plants and plant products into this country.

Citrus can't be brought back from the Canary Islands, Norway and Turkey, for example, without official approval. Credit: RHS/Advisory

Quick facts

  • Importing plants poses potential risks of introducing new pests and diseases
  • There are restrictions on importing plants into the UK, though many plants can be imported from the EU without official documentation
  • Rules on exporting plants vary by type of material and where they are being sent
  • If in doubt, contact the Animal and Plant Health Agency

Don't Risk It!

Though the law allows for import of plants by private individuals as detailed below, it is important to remember that there are pest and disease risks associated with this. The RHS advises not to bring back plants or plant products from other countries in your baggage. Defra’s “Don’t Risk It!” campaign explains more about the risks of bringing in plant material via passenger baggage or other non-commercial routes.

As islands, the UK is free of many pests and diseases present in other parts of Europe and beyond. The UK has “protected zone status”, which means it can apply additional measures to the import of plants from the EU, for a wide range of species.

Even plant material that appears healthy may be harbouring pests and diseases. Some hosts of Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterial pathogen causing devastating outbreaks in Europe, can be infected for months before symptoms become apparent.

If you do decide to bring in plants from abroad, you must ensure that you comply with the relevant plant health regulations. Border force have a leaflet which explains restrictions on imports of plants and plant products. If you are in doubt about if you can import a plant, contact the local plant health authority for the part of the UK where you are landing the plants. For example, if you are bringing plants in via Edinburgh airport, contact the Scottish authorities even if you live in England.

Importing plants from the EU

Many plants can be brought in from the EU unrestricted, as long as they were grown in an EU country, are only for your personal use and are visibly free of pests and diseases.

Restrictions

Disease threats

Import of ash (Fraxinus) for planting, including seed, by any route is currently prohibited by law. This includes movement of Fraxinus within the UK as well.

You are also prohibited from bringing in sweet chestnut (Castanea) plants or seed and plane (Platanus) plants in passenger baggage.

There are also restrictions on those plants that can act as a host of Xylella fastidiosa. In regions where outbreaks have been declared, there is a considerable list of plants which cannot be moved from the control zone – this list consists of over 300 plant species.

Outbreaks have been detected in the following areas:

  • France: Provence Alpes Cote d’Azur (PACA) (Southern France) and Corsica
  • Italy: Provinces of Lecce and Brindisi (Southern Italy) and the promontory of Monte Argentario in the southernmost part of Tuscany
  • Portugal: Municipality Vila Nova de Gaia
  • Spain: Balearic Islands - Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza; Mainland – Alicante, Madrid and Andalucía

The RHS recommends that no plants are brought back from regions where Xylella is present. An outbreak of Xylella in the UK would lead to considerable impacts, including mandatory destruction of plants and movement restrictions on a huge number of plant species. In areas where Xylella is not present, you will still need to obtain a plant passport for those species found to be hosts for Xylella in Europe to bring them back to the UK. You can find a list of these species in this guidance document from Defra.

Remember, if you are uncertain if you can bring a plant back to the UK, you should contact your local plant health authority. Defra also have a pest alert advising consumers about the risk of Xylella.

Pest threats

Many other plants from the EU pose a threat to UK plant health, such as those that are hosts for pests that the UK has a protected zone for. The list includes those covered by the tree pre-notification scheme (below) as well as various palm species, due to the risk of palm borer and red palm weevil, and many conifer species due to the risk of regulated bark beetles. The RHS recommends that when bringing these hosts back to the UK, you ensure the supplier can meet the UK’s protected zone regulations. 

Tree pre-notification scheme

The tree pre-notification scheme requires you, by law, to inform the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) if you are bringing any of the following tree species into the UK from the EU:

  • Castanea (sweet chestnut)
  • Olea europea (olive)
  • Pinus (pine)
  • Platanus (plane)
  • Prunus (stone fruits)
  • Quercus (oak)
  • Ulmus (elm)

You only need to tell the APHA if you are importing these plants privately. If you are using a UK-based nursery they will notify the APHA for you. The APHA can be contacted on planthealth.info@apha.gov.uk or call 01904 405138.

Bringing in plants from outside the EU

There are different rules depending on if you are accompanying the plants (e.g. bringing them back in passenger baggage) or importing them unaccompanied (e.g. through the mail). Imports of plants that are unaccompanied from third countries must come with a Phytosanitary Certificate issued by the plant health authority of the exporting country.

For accompanied imports in passenger baggage, the rules for bringing in plants from outside of the EU will depend upon the species, and what country the plant originated in, any plant you wish to bring in must meet the following criteria:

  • Not covered by CITES (see below)
  • Intended for household use and not business use
  • Free from signs of pest and disease

For non-EU European countries and those bordering the Mediterranean the regulations allow five plants, up to 2kg (4lb) of bulbs and five retail packets of seed. Cuttings are considered to be the same as plants. Potatoes, citrus and grape vines may not, however, be brought in.

From the rest of the world, you are allowed five retail packets of seed (true seed, so excluding seed potatoes and similar). No plants, cuttings or bulbs may be brought back without a Phytosanitary Certificate. You should contact the relevant plant health authority for the area of the UK where you will land the plants to find out what conditions are required to be detailed on the Phytosanitary Certificate to permit import.

When travelling overseas with the intention of collecting plants, see our page on collecting plants from abroad.

Exporting plants

It is advisable to always contact the plant health authority of the country you wish to export the plants to, in order to find out if there are any regulations in place. Across the EU, uncontrolled plants will be able to be moved without restrictions – but individual countries may have measures in place on controlled plants.

To send plants to countries outside of the EU, a Phytosanitary Certificate is likely to be required. You should first contact the plant health authority of the country you are exporting to, and find out what the restrictions are on exporting that plant. Next, contact the plant health authority where the plant has been grown with this information, and they will ascertain if the can issue a Phytosanitary Certificate. Please note that you will be charged for this service.

CITES

If you wish to bring back wild plants, you will need to be sure that the plants are not endangered. Here the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) applies. These regulations are detailed and offer different levels of protection to species. Details are available from the Wildlife Licensing and Registration Service.

You can bring back CITES controlled plants which have been grown on a nursery, but you need to be able to produce documentation obtained from the supplier at the time of purchase. Orchids can be imported without permits only as cut flowers or where grown in flasks.

Wild plants, even if not covered by CITES, are often protected from collection in many countries. Increasingly the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which recognises a country's property rights over its native plants, will also come into force.

There are strict penalties for smuggling prohibited and restricted items. This can include unlimited fines, the possibility of imprisonment, or both.


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