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Country on red alert as Ash Dieback is identified in a Co Leitrim plantation

As an island nation we have a distinct advantage over other European countries. As a direct result of being cut off from our nearest neighbour by sea, coupled with prevailing southwesterly winds, we enjoy the highest plant health status in Europe.

But these advantages were of little use this week when Ash Dieback was confirmed in plantations in Co Leitrim.The arrival of the disease in Ireland is bad news for Irish forestry growers and could be potentially disastrous for the sector if the fungus takes hold in plantations.

Ash Dieback disease is caused by the Chalara fraxinea fungus and the incidence is on the increase across Europe. The disease causes leaf loss and crown dieback in affected trees, and it can lead to tree death. It is believed to spread from both nursery transplants and ash wood, consequently imports of nursery stock, firewood and wood for hurley manufacture in particular all pose a threat.

In Europe, ash trees suffering from symptoms likely to be caused by C. fraxinea have included trees in forests, in urban areas such as parks and gardens, and also tree nurseries.

First confirmed in eastern Europe in 1992 it has spread inexorably westwards and in Britain it was first found in February 2012 in a consignment of infected trees sent from a nursery in the Netherlands to a nursery in Buckinghamshire. Since then there have been further findings in Britain, both in nursery stock and at four recently planted sites.

Regrettably the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Forest Service confirmed just last week the first recorded instance of the disease at a site in Co Leitrim.

Over the last 20 years or so, thousands of Irish farmers have planted millions of ash trees on their land, and with good reason.

When planted on the right site, it is one of the few broadleaves that can show a reasonable return on investment during the owner's lifetime.

Suitable butts for hurley making command a very high price and it's a native species to boot. Ash is one of our most important forest and landscape species and amounted to 10pc of all planting in 2011. While not wishing to sound alarmist, the prospect of a devastating disease and the ensuing economic and environmental loss don't bear thinking about.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been monitoring the disease since 2008 and is taking the threat seriously. Following the Leitrim finding, the Department is working with the owner involved to destroy the material and remove the risk of the disease spreading.

The Department is also investigating a number of other sites planted with imported ash trees from the same consignment which originated from continental Europe.

Secondly, emergency measures under the Plant Health Directive are being introduced. These will require any ash plants imported into the country to come from an area known to be free of the disease and will be regulated under the EU Plant Passport system.

Hurley manufacturers and other forestry importers have been urged to stop all importation of ash timber and trees immediately.

Over 70pc of the 350,000 hurleys used annually in Ireland are made from imported ashwood, while around 10pc of the ash planted under the Department's afforestation scheme is from imported sources.

The Department is calling on the forest nursery trade and contractors to introduce a voluntary moratorium on imported stock from Continental Europe with immediate effect.

Department officials have already been in contact with all the relevant parties and will continue active consultation with these groups in order to brief them on the disease and the measures being taken.

Officials at the Department have also recently met with their counterparts in Northern Ireland in order to co-ordinate an all-island approach to tackling the disease.

While this disease is considerable cause for concern, one can only hope it will not be as devastating as Dutch elm disease. Elm reproduces mostly vegetatively, resulting in much less genetic variation, and consequently has less resistance to disease.

Forest owners and members of the public are asked to be vigilant for the disease and report any sites where there are concerns about unusual ill health in ash to Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine by email or by phoning 01 6072651.

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Symptoms to look for include necrotic lesions on stems and branches leading to foliage wilt, dieback of branches and death of the top of the crown.

William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email:

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