A crash of the ash?

THE evocative sound created by the “clash of the ash” has been heard across Ireland for over 2,000 years.
A crash of the ash?

It is part of the country’s national identity with a history embedded in the psyche of the people, especially those who play and follow hurling.

Passions rise and pulses race as ash meets ash on club and country GAA grounds and in the iconic cathedral that is Croke Park itself.

The sound of the clashing ash was also heard around small haggards in rural parishes back in the days when children learned to play the game, often with seasoned home-cut hurleys and horsehair sliothars.

But now potentially serious threats are looming to the supply of the quality timber that is shaped into camáns by Irish artisan craftspeople.

That’s because a fungus which causes a disease known as Ash Dieback (Chalara fraxinea) has been confirmed here and in other lands.

It has swept across 22 countries in Europe, causing widespread damage to plantations, and forcing governments to introduce emergency control measures.

Between 60% and 90% of ash trees in Denmark are estimated to have been affected while 80m trees are under threat in Britain.

Ireland’s first case of Ash Dieback was confirmed last October in a forestry plantation in Co Leitrim which had been planted with saplings imported from Continental Europe. It has also been found in the north.

Figures available up to last month showed a total of 85 confirmed findings in 11 counties across the Republic.

The findings were at 36 forestry plantations, 15 horticultural nurseries, 14 roadside landscaping projects, four garden centres, two private gardens and 14 farms. All were associated with the imported plants, More than 30,000 trees have been destroyed by the Department of Agriculture with the co-operation of forest owners and contractors.

Official policy is that ash should be removed from plantations where the disease has been confirmed. Some 500 hectares of ash woodlands have been identified for removal so far.

A range of other measures have also been put in place to prevent the spread of the disease including import restrictions and the adoption of an all island strategy.

Coillte, which supplies most of the home-grown ash for hurley making, brought forward tree harvesting last winter in an effort to supply over 40,000 planks to help alleviate any issues that might arise from a disruption in the supply line.

A series of 22 information meetings held in June by Teagasc and the department were attended by large numbers of forest owners, farmers and landowners.

More than 800 people attended one meeting alone to learn more about the disease and the strategy in place to avert any potential “crash of the ash”.

Minister of State Tom Hayes told a recent Croke Park conference that a constant supply of good quality ash is needed to meet the growing demand for hurleys. But not enough of it is yet grown in Ireland.

Research had been carried out into alternative materials, but ash remains synonymous with hurley making.

“In the same manner that cricket bats are made from willow, the qualities of ash have been found to be particularly suitable for making hurls,” he said.

Most of the country’s 20,000 hectares of ash is less than 20 years old and, while it is deemed to be sufficient for a sustainable long-term supply, it is not yet ready for hurley production.

Some 70% of the hurleys produced each year in Ireland by some 100 manufacturers is made from imported wood.

That supply deficit is not expected to change in the short term, although 10% of the 2011 planting programme was of the species.

Self sufficiency in ash wood is not projected until around 2020 with the result that the importation of ash will remain a feature of the industry for some time to come.

Hurley makers are co-operating fully with the department to ensure raw materials are sourced in compliance with the new requirements.

The Irish Guild of Ash Hurley Makers has called on its members to ensure that ash wood is either imported from countries free of the disease or that any hurley ash being brought in from Continental Europe would be in plank form with the bark sawn off.

Whatever about the future, sourcing suitable ash at the moment is not difficult, according to guild president William McAuliffe, Charleville, Co Cork. “There is no immediate risk to supplies,” he said. As to fears that the “clash of the ash” might eventually vanish due to a shortage of supplies, Mr McAuliffe was positive. “Ash hurleys will be made,” he said, “as long as hurling is played”.

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