Dieback Disease Continues To Spread Through Our Ash Trees

The tree is important economically and culturally — from furniture to biomass to an Irish national symbol, the hurley.

If you have lived in Ireland for any reasonable length of time, you are likely to be familiar with the ‘clash of the ash’.

This is a term used in hurling circles to describe some of the more intense encounters that happen in the game of hurling.


It is also likely that you are familiar with the ash tree, which we have all taken for granted until recently, when an unknown fungal disease began to attack the ash tree in Ireland.

Ash has been traditionally chosen as the unique timber used for making hurlies. Hurling is deeply rooted in Irish sporting culture, and a plentiful supply of ash for hurley-making is considered crucial in Ireland.

As a nation, we have been busy planting thousands of hectares of fast-growing ash trees over the past few decades.

Unfortunately, an outbreak of a disease called ash dieback in 2012 is now considered so serious in Ireland that it’s sending shock waves among ash forestry growers, the GAA, hurling players and supporters alike.

It is also distressing to those with a natural attachment to the ash tree growing in hedgerows, parks, in native woodlands, and throughout the countryside.

According to Teagasc, ash dieback is caused by the fungal pathogen Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (previously known as Chalara fraxinea). It spread rapidly across much of Europe before it was first noted in Ireland.

The disease can affect ash trees of any age and in any setting and can be fatal, particularly among younger trees.

According to Dr Gerry Douglas, a principal research officer at Teagasc in Kinsealy, “ash dieback was first confirmed in Europe in 2005, but the disease had been known for some years before”.

A wide range of symptoms are associated with ash dieback disease, including lesions and cankers along the bark and branches or the main stem; foliage wilt; discolouration — brown/black at the base and midrib of leaves, and brown/orange bark.

To fully appreciate the importance of ash for hurley-making, you would need to be a player or committed supporter of the game which attracts a full house of 80,000 people to CrokePark on the All-Ireland final day each year.

According to the GAA, approximately 350,000 new hurlies are needed every year to cope with hurling and camogie demand across all ages.

While hurley sticks can be made from imported ash, there is general agreement amongst players that Irish ash is lighter and much more flexible to use to play the game.

Unfortunately, the ash dieback outbreak in Ireland will make it much more difficult for hurley manufactures to source sufficient ash timber in Ireland in the future.

This concern was recently highlighted by former GAA president and MEP, Sean Kelly, when he hosted a special seminar on ash dieback disease and the future of the hurley.

Mr Kelly called for more research and a greater focus on measures to deal with ash dieback disease.

Ash dieback has hit commercial forestry growers financially, as it has robbed them of the opportunity to plant the most viable broadleaf species of forestry, especially considering ash for hurley manufacturing is one of the more valuable timbers.

Quality ash butts for hurley making from a well-managed plantation are worth €500 to €700 per cubic metre, reaching a saleable size at around year 20.

In addition, there is a market for ash timber for furniture manufacturing, and an increasing demand for ash biomass material in the form of wood chip, as a fuel for heating.

In fact, ash trees are unique as a forestry option, where all of the tree, including branches and tree crowns can be fully utilised.

Ash is also much admired as a decorative tree when planted around lawns, in hedgerows, parks and recreational areas

The first confirmed ash dieback finding in Ireland was made in October, 2012, at a forestry plantation in Co Leitrim which had been started in 2009 with plants imported from continental Europe. Shortly afterwards, all the recently-planted ash trees on that site were destroyed, under Department of Agriculture (DAFM) supervision.

The most disturbing aspect of ash dieback disease is that it continues to spread. According to the Department, between January 25 and March 31 this year, findings of the disease were confirmed in a further 17 commercial plantations.

Department figures for 2015 confirmed findings of the disease in 115 commercial forest plantations distributed over 19 counties; in native hedgerows in 12 counties; and in roadside/motorway landscaping plantings in 13 counties. By the end of 2015, ash dieback disease was confirmed in 24 of the 26 counties.

Most experts now agree that imported plant stock from mainland Europe was responsible for the dieback outbreak in Ireland. In addition, it is now accepted that ash dieback existed and remained unreported for a number of years in some European countries.

(Source – Irish Examiner – Diarmuid Cohalan – 11/08/2016)


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 ReadingUniversity 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.

(Source – Irish Examiner – Diarmuid Cohalan – 11/08/2016)


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