Increasing prospects of countryside becoming denuded of ash trees

The daunting prospect of Ireland becoming a country without ash trees looms closer, with devastating effects for our native woodlands and the countryside, similar but far more catastrophic than the demise of the elm tree in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nowadays, planting ash for commercial purposes is no longer an option for forestry growers, due to dieback disease, which is why the Forestry Service no longer pays planting grants or annual premiums for ash plantations.

For most landowners, this eliminates an attractive broad- leaf option that grows as fast as conifers, with an income stream beginning by 16 years. According to the Forestry Service, commercial ash was planted on 13,500 hectares since 1990, with Coillte growing a further 2,700 hectares.

This would have made us self-sufficient in hurley-making ash by 2019. The current ‘uproot and destroy’ policy in plantations affected by dieback in Ireland, being implemented by Forestry Service, is only a containment measure.

It is therefore important that Ireland liaises with and participate with other European countries, in research that might eventually prevent the disease affecting existing plantations.

A recent research study in the UK undertaken by Bartley Tree Research Laboratory in conjunction with Reading University found that a number of trees growing in land treated with an enriched biochar substance were not affected by the dieback disease, while other trees growing in the same plantation in untreated ground were affected.

Former GAA president Sean Kelly has highlighted the need for increased measures to deal with ash dieback disease. It’s also significant that the MEP called for more research, given the EU’s lack of involvement to date in providing resources for ash dieback research.

Ideally, such measures should be funded by the EU to advance and complement the limited research being done in Ireland by Teagasc and UCD.

To date, the limited involvement of the EU is through the Fraxback/Cost program, which attempts to monitor and co-ordinate research being done by member states. Apart from Greece, ash dieback is rampant in all European countries, which should make it an EU problem that requires direct EU intervention. This is especially relevant to Ireland as an island country that became inadvertently contaminated by ash dieback disease directly through ash- plant trading with other EU countries where, in some instances, the disease remained unreported for an unacceptable period of time.

In this regard, Ireland has a particularly strong case to make for adequate EU resources to finance dieback research programmes in Ireland. This argument is strengthened by the negative effect that ash dieback disease may have on our traditional hurling game, part of our sporting culture.

If successful, such an approach would provide additional EU resources to Teagasc, UCD, and other research agencies in Ireland. That could lead to the discovery of new methods of containing the disease in growing plantations, and to identifying ash strains that will be resistant to dieback in new plantations.

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