Chalara outbreak is a 'wake-up' call and needs an innovative response
The call from the IFA for the full 20-year premium payment to be paid to farmers who must replant ash woodland that has been infected by Chalara fraxinea was predictable but not really practical.
Those individuals who have to wait a further 20 years or more before their fresh crop can begin to earn an income are undeniably at a loss.
However, it cannot be made an attractive option to have one's woodland cleared and replanted.
An unscrupulous person might be tempted to deliberately introduce the disease, which would then spread more rapidly. There have been situations in the past where it was profitable to have livestock purchased by the Department of Agriculture during an eradication scheme.
This led to cases of people introducing a disease deliberately or faking its symptoms in order to gain compensation. The vast majority of landowners would not dream of acting in such a manner but, human nature being what it is, there will always be a few who have little regard for the greater good of their local community and the nation.
Similarly, if a landowner has a crop of ash that is not thriving for reasons such as the unsuitability of the site or whatever, that person would also profit from either a restart of premiums or the right to bring the land back into mainstream agricultural production.
It is imperative, however, that the Forest Service come up with a practical scheme that is both fair to the landowner and ensures full compliance with the efforts to stamp out any disease outbreak.
Retaining the original broadleaf premium levels whenever Sitka spruce is used for replanting could be one option. The cost would not be prohibitive and it would compensate partially for the loss of, say, five or more years of growth of an ash crop.
This disease outbreak is a wake-up call which we must respond to. Perhaps subsidising trials on farms of alternative forestry systems such as using natural regeneration could be initiated. Agro forestry, where individual trees are grown at wide spacings and where crops can also be grown or livestock grazed in between, is another option.
Most importantly of all, we urgently need a ready supply of healthy planting stock rather than the rubbish many of us used in the past in the mistaken belief that we were purchasing trees of good provenance. We want plants propagated and grown in Ireland rather than material produced in Holland or elsewhere, even if it originates from Irish seed.
Our nurseries are well capable of delivering healthy Irish trees. Growing them here rather than abroad would create employment and eliminate the risk of importing further diseases.
It is nonsense to import the raw material that is the basis of our future forests for the sake of saving a few cents per tree.
These topics were very much to the fore when a group of Wexford farm foresters visited my woodland here in Meath recently. It is always beneficial to take a walk through the woods in the company of like-minded forest owners for, as the saying goes, "every day is a school day".
I find I learn far more from the observations of other woodland owners than I do from reading and attending lectures. Every decision we ourselves make regarding thinning, replanting and species selection affects our future income and therefore we tend to be ultra-careful in how we approach the business of forestry.
The Forest Service, Teagasc and forestry consultants provide an invaluable service in helping us manage the intricacies of the various schemes and I for one could not get the best out of these often complex schemes without their help. But when it comes to making hard decisions, the best advisor will always be the person who has invested his or her own money. Anyone actively involved in forestry and who will suffer personally if mistakes are made is the best judge.
We all agreed that there are still too many farmers who show little interest in their own woodland and, as a result, miss out on the many great financial opportunities available. Most counties have now organised groups that provide trips, events and discussion evenings for forest owners.
Donegal, Laois and Wexford are already providing excellent support and advice for their members. Teagasc has kick-started the majority of these groups but it is up to the woodland owners themselves to make them work.
Producer groups have served other farm activities well.
Let's do the same for forestry.