Ruth Mitchell

Image of Ruth mitchell
Plant Soil Ecologist
The James Hutton Institute

Ruth is a plant/soil research scientist at the James Hutton Institute with 20 years’ experience of working on a wide range of applied ecological research projects.  Her research focuses the impact of pressures such as grazing, pollution, land management and plant diseases on above and below ground biodiversity. Over the last five years Ruth and her team have developed expertise in assessing the wider ecological impacts of declines in plant health (notably ash dieback and oak decline) on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.  In particular the team identify which other species only or primarily use the plant species impacted by the disease and if the plant species which may replace the diseased species provide suitable ecological niches for the same suite of biodiversity.  Ultimately the aim has been to provide practical advice to mitigate, as far as possible, the adverse impacts of plant diseases on the wider environment.


Project Lead: Ruth Mitchell
The natural environment is at risk from a range of plant pests and pathogens that could have cascading effects on wider biodiversity. Outside of woodlands, these risks are rarely considered but are relevant across all habitats. Activities such as habitat restoration and creation as well as day to day land management could risk accidently introducing plant pests and pathogens through movement of dirty machinery, soil or plants. Biosecurity risk assessments are rarely conducted when doing such work. This work builds on two previous Plant Health Centre projects: one looking at plant heath risks to the natural environment and a second that developed a general framework for exploring leverage points to improve plant health. This project will produce a detailed map of stakeholders around existing and emerging natural environment work (e.g. including biodiversity credits, carbon credits, rewilding, community transfers). In discussion with stakeholders the project will develop a systems view of where their activities intersect with a need for plant health awareness and action and identify key leverage points for better biosecurity in the natural environment, that can rapidly achieve practical gains.

Image by Rudy & Peter Skitterians from Pixabay
Project Lead: David Cooke
Species of the genus Phytophthora are of particular concern to the health of Scotland’s plants due to their destructive potential and ability to spread via cryptic infection on traded plants. The genus Phytophthora currently comprises over 200 species and there is a current gap in the evidence in estimating and acting on these threats in a proportional and measured manner to both prevent further imports of Phytophthora and to objectively assess the risk of any new findings.

This project will (i) review and collate the contemporary data and evidence on Phytophthora discovery, species description and traits; (ii) use the collated data to horizon-scan and predict disease threats in Scotland and (iii) model and map the greatest threats to plants in specific key habitats. The findings will be compiled into a report on the updated risks with recommendations for enhancing preparedness through risk-based prioritisation of hosts and habitats for targeted surveillance to promote earlier detection of Phytophthora species. Although the project will consider plants in agriculture, forestry, horticulture and natural ecosystems across Scotland, the principal focus will be on the risks to relatively under-studied plant hosts in the natural environment.

This project was selected for funding from the Project Call: “Enhancing preparedness against pests and diseases: plugging evidence gaps for Scotland”.

Image credit: Glensaugh ©The James Hutton Institute
Project Lead: Ruth Mitchell
The Natural Environment sector underpins Scotland’s landscapes, biodiversity, rural industries and recreational activities, but the growing number of plant pest and diseases pose a significant threat to this sector and the rural economy. This Fellowship aims to further our understanding of the challenges posed by plant health threats to the natural environment in Scotland in order to protect this valuable resource. The Fellow will lead on an evidence-based review of the threats to this sector to inform future policies aimed at mitigating these risks. This fellowship is based at NatureScot and supported by Scotland’s Plant Health Centre. The fellowship involves significant engagement with stakeholders other than NatureScot in the natural environment sector to promote a sector-wide understanding of plant health threats and best practice and contributing to relevant meetings as the Fellowship progresses.

Impact: This fellowship will generate an increased understanding of current and future plant health threats to the natural environment in Scotland and identify key knowledge gaps, and deliver practical steps and actions to minimise risks and negative and provide evidence-based advice to inform future policies to help safeguard this sector.
Project Lead: Katherine Hayden
Pests and diseases represent a major emerging threat to biodiversity, in part due to increased global trade, climate change, and wider habitat degradation. The potential impacts include direct threats based on pest/pathogen impacts on focal species, as well as wider secondary effects for other interacting species and communities.
Compared to threats such as climate change and habitat fragmentation, plant health issues are poorly represented in international and national biodiversity strategies such as the Aichi Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, and the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy. Work is thus required to provide strategic guidance on the inclusion of plant health threats into the next iteration of the biodiversity strategies.

Impact: Direct guidance and input for plant health issues into the new Scottish Biodiversity Strategy; best-practice example of plant health integration into national biodiversity planning (model for other countries).


Forestry, Environment | Final Report and Policy Document

Integration of Plant Health Planning Into the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy

March 2024

The impacts of introduced plant pests and diseases have been substantial in recent times. With a changing climate and many known pests on the horizon, plant health impacts on biodiversity are expected to grow further in the years ahead. Thus, considering the nature of plant health threats to the natural environment and embedding mitigating actions into biodiversity strategies is of increasing importance.

Environment | Final Report and Policy Document

Plant Health and the Natural Environment Fellowship

Authors: Ruth Mitchell
August 2023

The Natural Environment sector underpins Scotland’s landscapes, biodiversity, rural industries and recreational activities, but plant health awareness is less well developed than in the forestry, horticulture and agriculture sectors. The PHC funded a fellowship with NatureScot, to address this gap.