Farm Ireland

Wednesday 12 December 2018

We can all do our bit to contain the impact of ash dieback disease

WORRY: Such is the speed of the spread of ash dieback, experts believe it may already have infected most regions of Ireland
WORRY: Such is the speed of the spread of ash dieback, experts believe it may already have infected most regions of Ireland
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Three skills in particular are often associated with farmer's wives: cooking, needlework and gardening. Nobody in our house goes hungry (even if the fire alarm often goes off when I cook steak); nor am I totally unskilled with a sewing machine.

But when it comes to the garden, my dear husband suggests that, instead of green fingers, I have gramoxone paws.

Having said that, the one thing I can do is grow trees from seed. I have been growing horse chestnuts from conkers for many years, but precipitated by the arrival of the deadly dieback disease Chalara fraxinea, have now switched my attention to ash.

This is giving me a greater sense of satisfaction. Perhaps it's that we Irish have a deep-seated love of the ash. Even in a perfectly manicured hedge, farmers will often let an ash tree grow on. Of course, this could be a reflection of just how readily the ash grows, but while it doesn't have the grandeur of the oak, perhaps the durability and flexibility of ash epitomises more than any other tree the soul of rural and traditional Ireland.

Hurleys are the best known use of ash, but as can still be witnessed in any mart in the country, the ash plant is the first choice for driving cattle. Going back over the years, the cattle drover had a great eye for spotting a suitable ash plant as they travelled the highways and byways. However, he would wait until the time was right. It wasn't just a case of going out and pulling any old plant; they were accorded time and respect. Even today, real stockmen would nearly be more protective of their ash plant that they would be of their missus.

Ash dieback or Chalara fraxinea was first noted in Poland in the early 1990s and has spread rapidly throughout Europe. In Denmark, it is estimated that there may only be 200 ash trees left, just enough to cover a football pitch.

Ireland's first outbreak, in Leitrim, was recorded just over a year ago and 100 cases have since been confirmed in counties as far apart as Cavan, Galway, Waterford and Longford. Given its ability to travel 25km per year and the fact that it takes up to three years to show signs, it's possible – if not probable – that the disease has spread across most of Ireland.

The Department of Agriculture's approach is to try and contain the disease so all infected plantations are being destroyed. However, as Jim Lawlor of the Native Woodland Trust points out, some trees which are resistant to the disease may also be lost in this process.

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As individuals, there are a few things we can do to contain the disease. Avoid moving trees, don't buy or plant ash trees and don't go into an infected area. We can also avoid buying firewood from unknown sources. Very often, ash cuttings are the kindling of choice because they can be burned fresh.

However, the speed of the disease spread suggests that destruction may not be the option of choice for much longer, especially given the news that the native ash tree population has become infected.

But, rather than just waiting for this tragedy to roll out across the country in the coming years, Jim Lawlor wholeheartedly agrees that every farmer should be going out collecting ash seeds and planting them.

"Somewhere in those seeds will probably be the silver bullets that will have resistance to this disease and will provide the seed stock of the future."

Too often we farmers are accused of sitting back and waiting for things to happen. This is a real opportunity to do something that is extremely worthwhile and pretty much free. It doesn't have to be a big expensive national campaign, rather something that we can do for ourselves, in our own time. Perhaps it's time to switch our focus from 'ash dieback' to 'ash fightback'.

Indeed, this is not just something that farmers can do; it's arguably something that farmers can do best. Farmers own most of the land, with the majority of the ash trees and thus access to the most biological diversity. Every farmer has a chance to be a hero to all our descendants. How about that for an opportunity?

To grow ash from seed, Jim Lawlor offers the following advice:

* Don't let ash 'keys' (seeds) dry out;

* Collect seed from as many trees as possible and from as many parts of the farm as possible;

* Plant in potting compost mixed, if possible, with soil from which they were growing, perhaps with some lime added, as ash grows best on neutral to base-rich fertile soils.

* No special treatment is required, just leave outside. If they don't emerge in the first year don't panic as they may take a year longer to appear.

* If all this fails or seems like too much hard work, go out and identify some seedlings growing where they are unlikely to survive, dig them up and grow them on.

Irish Independent