A day is coming when ash trees could face extinction in Ireland. That is the shocking prediction of Offaly farmer Tony Garahy, whose plantation became infected with ash dieback late last year.
Mr Garahy began planting trees on his drystock farm at Leabeg, just outside Tullamore, more than 30 years ago, building his plantation acre by acre until he had more than 100 acres under trees.
A lover of native species, he planted a section of his farm with a mixture of ash and rowan about ten years ago, and was devastated in November last when he discover the presence of ash dieback, a chronic fungus disease that has devastated ash plantations across Europe in the last 20 years.
"Last summer the trees went into leaf as usual and then started dying. I suspected what was wrong and I had a forester come look at them in November and that confirmed it," he told the Farming Independent.
The ash trees are part of a natural woodland mix along with rowan and birch on the farm.
Photo: Alf Harvey
"I had been expecting it. I have relatively young trees and they tend to show the infection quicker than mature trees, which can withstand it for a longer time.
"I think we will come to a point, and I don't know when, where we won't have any ash left in Ireland. I am fearful for the future. It seems to me that we will have the same situation with ash as we had with Dutch elm disease. Over a period of a few years, all ash trees in Ireland will suffer."
Ash dieback was first scientifically identified in 2006 but is understood to have been present in Europe since the late 1980s or early '90s. It is an easily spread fungus which causes ash trees to lose their leaves and eventually die.
In infected areas of mainland Europe, the disease has already killed up to 85pc of the ash growing in plantations and 69pc in the wild.
Stronger and larger trees are more resistant but there is no known treatment or effective way of containing the spread of the infection.
Mr Garahy claims the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service are struggling to come up with an effective way of handling the crisis.
"I will be guided by the advice of the Forest Service but they are not sure what they are doing themselves, it seems to me. They seem to be at sixes and sevens over this," he said.
"We are getting no information, no advice from anyone about this. As a forestry owner I haven't received any correspondence about how to deal with this at all.
"There is not a county in the country that doesn't have ash dieback at this stage. I think they [the Forest Service] are just overwhelmed."
Mr Garahy has a diverse plantation including spruce and a number of different native trees.
While his plantation will take a hit as a result of ash dieback, he says many other forestry owners will be devastated by the disease and are in need of increased support from the Department.
"The ash is thankfully a small part of our overall plantation, but there is absolutely no future for it," he said.
"It's not just the expense of replanting. If you have a ten-year-old plantation and that gets wiped out, your profit is ten years further away. If your plantation has been growing for 25 years, that is a really significant loss.
"The profit in growing trees is really in the clear felling at the end of its life cycle. Something like this [having to replant a plantation] would put any profit you ever hoped to generate into the future by however many years."
There is some hope for the future of ash in Ireland. Teagasc is undertaking research at its Oak Park campus in Carlow aimed at identifying strains of ash that may be resistant to the fungus.
"There is an argument to just leave them [the infected trees] there, to see if any of them develop a resistance and eventually you might discover a strain that you could regenerate ash plantations from," said Mr Garahy.
"But all of my trees came from the same seed stock so it is unlikely that they will have any real genetic difference between them and are unlikely to have any resistance."
Hopes of a cure lie with research on ash strains with natural resistance to the disease
While the origins of ash dieback are unclear, the first reports of ash trees affected by a wilting and dying of the leaves were recorded in Poland in 1992.
It took scientists 14 years to properly analyse and described the fungus, first classifying it as Chalara fraxinea and later Hymenoscyphus fraxineus.
By this time, symptoms of the disease were being seen in trees in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In 2008 ash dieback was identified in Scandinavia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It finally reached Ireland in 2012.
While the way the fungus was transmitted to Ireland is not clear, it is widely suspected that diseased root-stock imported from mainland Europe was the original source.
The fungus causes the foliage of ash trees to wilt and become brown or black. The bark also changes colour, becoming brown or orange, and eventually shoots, branches and the main trunk start to die.
Ash dieback spreads when spores from the fungus are carried in the air and land on healthy leaves over the summer months. The fungus grows into the leaves before spreading into twigs, branches and the stem.
Infected leaves then fall to the ground, where the fungus can survive over the winter and spread again the following year.
Teagasc researchers in Oak Park, Co Carlow are currently researching strains of ash which may have a natural resistance to ash dieback.
If this research, led by Dr Miguel Nemesio-Gorriz, is successful, it could allow for ash from this source to be replanted across Ireland.
"I am currently focusing on the identification and propagation of ash genotypes that are tolerant to ash dieback disease," said Dr Nemesio-Gorriz.
"The research objectives are to identify tolerant ash genotypes in Irish forests, to study the molecular mechanisms conferring tolerance to individual ash genotypes and to develop efficient propagation methods for tolerant ash material."
A similar study in Denmark found that substantial genetic variation between ash trees affected their level of susceptibility to the disease. This study also found that the proportion of trees with a high level of natural resistance is very low, thought to be less than 5pc.
A separate Lithuanian trial based on the planting of European ash trees found that 10pc of the trees survived to the age of eight.