The crash of the ash - farmers left in limbo after ash dieback disease

Ash dieback disease forced Derek McCabe to clear-fell 20ac of ash he planted in Co Cavan. He now intends to sell the timber as firewood. Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Ash dieback disease forced Derek McCabe to clear-fell 20ac of ash he planted in Co Cavan. He now intends to sell the timber as firewood. Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

A decade ago, suckler farmer and civil engineer Derek McCabe decided on planting ash in the hope that forestry would provide a pension pot for his family.

However, since the spread of ash dieback disease to his forests in south Cavan, any prospect of an income from his ash has been all but wiped out.

Mr McCabe, who has plantations in the Mountnugent, Kilnacrott and Moynalty areas, told the Farming Independent that he discovered ash dieback in the Mountnugent plantation in 2017.

It was a serious setback, but all was not lost as he was able to avail of ash dieback aid schemes which were then in place.

"I was given €1,500 h/a to clear the 20-acre plantation and 100pc grant aid to replace with other trees. But it was frustrating because I ultimately lost 10 years of growth on those plants," he says.

The disease has since appeared on his 15ac plantation in Kilnacrott and he says he is in now in limbo as there is no scheme to tackle the problem since the Department of Agriculture closed the Reconstitution Ash Dieback Scheme last year.

Mr McCabe is one of the hundreds of farmers and landowners who have seen their forestry plantations laid to waste by the disease which arrived in Ireland seven years ago.

They are now demanding urgent action from the Government on a commitment from Forestry Minister Andrew Doyle that a review of the scheme would deliver new options for farmers.

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"It is clear from the latest scientific advice that eradication here is no longer considered feasible," stated the Minister last April.

"Given this updated advice, our policy response must also change. The Reconstitution Ash Dieback Scheme will be reviewed to ensure its continued relevance and value for money, and to ensure that the forest owner is provided with a broader range of silvicultural and management options".

Farmers 'abandoned'

"For farmers, this new policy response will mean more options if their forests are affected with the disease and we will continue to inform and support them if they have ash dieback."

A year on, though, and there is still no sign of a new scheme to assist farmers grappling with the disease which has been confirmed on more than 560 plantations since 2012.

The IFA has claimed that farmers have been "abandoned by the Government" and has called for the immediate introduction of a new scheme to tackle the disease.

"We need some clarity on the review. It's been nearly a year since (the review) was announced and farmers are stressed and upset," says IFA forestry committee chairman Vincent Nally. "The response to the disease by the Department has been poor.

"Farmers planted ash encouraged and supported by the Department through higher grants and premiums. They feel very aggrieved at how they have been treated by the Department, particularly since it was the Department that did not have adequate controls in place to stop the importation of infected plants that has seriously damaged their investment.

"Farmers must have the option to clear fell and replant with a species of their choice under the any new scheme. All infected plantations must be eligible for a Reconstitution Scheme, which would grant aid to farmers to replant with tree species that satisfy their management objectives. The scheme should also provide a forest premium on the replanted land for 15 years."

Meanwhile, 200km down the country from Derek McCabe, Mary McCormack from Killenaule, Co Tipperary is also counting the cost of ash dieback.

She planted 30 hectares of hardwood in 1998, the majority of it ash. She says she planted the forestry as her husband, who had been a beef farmer, passed away and she wanted to secure an income there for her and her three children down the line.

"I had great hopes for the forest. I got the best advice at the time. I was delighted with the premiums and it was really sold to me," she says.

However last year, Mary discovered the wilting and brown discolouration symptoms of ash dieback in her trees. She feels that she can't take action when there is no scheme in place to allow her to deal with the issue.

"I can't do anything. There's nowhere to turn."

She adds that farmers in the region are "distraught and disillusioned" that nothing has been done since the review was announced last year.

"I feel this wouldn't happen in any other sector of farming. When there was a fodder crisis, livestock farmers were assisted but we have been pushed aside.

"Many here feel that you wouldn't be able to salvage 20pc of the ash in the region because it is so riddled with the disease. We can't see any light at the end of the tunnel."

Back in Cavan, Derek McCabe is equally frustrated.

He rears continental sucklers and Irish draught horses, but says that he was always pro-forestry and was hopeful it would provide a steady income to supplement the rest of the farm.

"I thought I would be moving wealth on to my three children and wife Yvonne. I thought it would have been ideal for the children as I don't see any of them interested in farming," he says.

"Many elderly farmers planted ash trees with the hope that they would have something to give back to their children. Even those tarring the road can see the disease on ash in the hedges now."

Stricter checks

Mr McCabe, who is chairman of All-Ireland social justice charity Extern, which hosted the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Co Fermanagh last week, adds that questions need to be asked about why there weren't stricter checks on the importation of ash from parts of Europe affected by the disease.

"The tree seeds label I used to plant in 2008 said origin unknown. I'm kicking myself that I didn't investigate that further.

"Importing ash from these regions was crazy stuff and was hugely remiss on the part of whoever allowed it to happen."

And Teagasc forestry advisor Steven Meyen warns that the future of the ash tree in Ireland hangs in the balance if a new strategy isn't put in place soon.

"It's probably not a question of eradicating ash dieback now, but a question of containment as it is spreading very rapidly.

"We need to learn as much as possible from other countries in order to form a better understanding of it. From research done, I don't think cutting all the trees down once the disease is identified is the answer as it's preventing us from finding out what trees are resistant."

Finalising review

A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture stated that it is "finalising its review of the policy response to ash dieback disease and that consideration is currently being given to the financial aspects of the associated support schemes and it is hoped that details on this will be available shortly."

It stated that the review "will reflect the latest scientific advice, namely that eradication of ash dieback disease is no longer feasible and the DAFM policy response should reflect this position".

The review will also "outline an enhanced suite of grant aid options, and other options, depending on the age of the ash plantation and degree of infection, the purpose of which is to encourage a management based focus to dealing with the disease, rather than simply clearing and replacing all infected ash forests".

The Department added that imported trees in which the first confirmed findings were made in October 2012 originated in countries where at the time of import the disease had not been declared and said that the use of 'Origin Unknown' on seeds labels "does not imply that the planting stock was imported". It also said that upon the first finding of the disease "contact was made immediately with stakeholders" and it introduced a Reconstitution Scheme to restore forests.

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