Crash Of The Ash – The Disease That Could End Hurley Making

With Teagasc estimating that up to 90% of ash trees will succumb to ash dieback, there is a sense of urgency around a review of the Ash Dieback Scheme, but also a sense of hope at signs of ash trees showing natural tolerance to the disease.

HURLERS from Ballygiblin, a rural crossroads tucked away in a corner of north Cork, near Mitchelstown, will play Easkey, a small village on the Sligo coast, in the AIB All-Ireland junior final at Croke Park this month. Both teams will bring to the decider the inherited and acquired skills of an ancient game that features strongly in Irish mythology and goes back 2,000 years.

Traditionally carved from mighty ash trees, hurleys often become tools of sporting artistry in the hands of talented players. The natural strength, flexibility, lightness and shock absorption qualities of the timber make them ideal for playing the game.

Hurling and camogie enjoy UNESCO status as an intangible cultural heritage activity. Pic. Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Yet, there are real fears that the “clash of the ash” might in time disappear from the sport that enjoys, with camogie, UNESCO status, as an intangible cultural heritage activity. That’s because ash plantations across Ireland and in most European countries have been ravaged over the past decade by a deadly tree disease.

It is already having an impact on potential timber supplies for hurley-making, construction, furniture, and other enterprises. Ash Dieback, which originated in Asia, was brought to Europe in the early 1990s and has since spread to plantations across the continent.

It was first detected in the Republic of Ireland in October 2012 on imported plants and is now prevalent across most of the island, north and south. Experts fear “the crash of the ash” will cause the death of most of these trees over the next two decades.

That would result in a major change to landscapes and woodlands and has already led to ongoing searches for alternative hurley-making timber, with bamboo emerging as a favourite among some players.

Owners whose plantations have been impacted by the disease have so far received over €7 million in supports from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine. Minister Charlie McConalogue recently told the Dáil it is intended to continue to offer the Ash Dieback Scheme through the Government’s new €1.3 billion forestry programme (2023-2027).

“I have, of course, met with landowners whose forests have ash dieback and I am more than aware of their concerns, and I will continue to work to address them,” he said.

Irish Farmers Association Farm Forestry chair, Jason Fleming, has meanwhile welcomed a commitment by Minister of State Pippa Hackett to review the Ash Dieback scheme in the new year. He said affected farmers have been waiting long enough and need to know when the review will be completed.

“Ash dieback has had a devastating impact on ash plantations and therefore has had a significant effect on the commercial value of the timber crop. The current scheme is wholly inadequate and does not compensate farmers for the financial loss incurred by the disease,” he said.

Stressing that the review must be completed as a matter of urgency, he said the IFA is going ahead with plans to host a national conference shortly on ash dieback.

Teagasc, meanwhile, estimates that up to 90% of ash trees will succumb to the disease, with serious implications not only for timber production but also for amenity, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, landscape and culture.

Disease Resistance

But it also notes that a number of ash trees are showing natural tolerance to the disease and presenting minor symptoms with no noticeable impact to their growth or health. It has developed two projects to identify these trees and is also carrying out research to establish a gene bank composed of genotypes of ash that are tolerant to dieback with the aim of producing planting stock for forests and hedgerows in Ireland.

Coillte Forest managing director, Mark Carlin, told a meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine last month that it has also been working with Teagasc and the Department on identifying ash dieback-resistant provenances.

“We have 200 clones that are planted out. It is looking promising at the moment. We planted them deliberately in areas of high infection. Some of those are from Europe. Some are Irish from Donaghadee, Curragh Chase and Fermanagh. We have identified trees that look resistant. We need to continue monitoring that.

“The next step will be to create seed orchards from those clones, to harvest the seed, and to start propagating those to get ash back into our forests.

Teagasc estimates that up to 90% of ash trees will succumb to ash dieback, with serious implications not only for timber production but also for amenity, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, landscape and culture.

“However, we need to step through those processes first. We are unfortunately still some years away from that, but we are working as quickly as we can to identify hardy provenances,” he said.

Deputy Martin Browne, who raised the issue, asked if there was any indication at this this stage if these plants will be of the quality of the trees that have been lost.

Mr Carlin replied: “From the point of view of the quality of an ash plant, I think it should be. That will be part of the assessment in terms of provenance.

“It will be looking for resistance to ash dieback, but it will also be looking for good quality so that when we create seed orchards it will be effective not only in terms of ash dieback but also in terms of meeting the need for ash, particularly from a social point of view,” he said.

Scientists in Britain have meanwhile warned that 70 million ash trees there could be lost to the disease over the next few years.

Ways to tackle the deadly fungus are being investigated at the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens in London.

Professor Richard Buggs, Senior Research Leader (Plant Health) said its new findings of natural resistance in a small minority of British ash trees will help them to predict how ash populations will evolve under the threat of ash dieback.

“While many ash trees will die, our findings are encouraging from a long‐term perspective and reassure us that ash woodlands will one day flourish again,” he said.

(Source – Irish Examiner – Farming – Ray Ryan – 16/01/2023)

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