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Spread of dieback could reduce our €2.2bn forestry industry to ash

The €2.2bn forestry industry got bad news this week. A new disease called ash dieback has spread beyond the original sites of infection. The hope when this fungus was first discovered 12 months ago was that it could be corralled into the 97 sites where it has been identified.

But that aspiration was dashed with the confirmation from the Department of Agriculture that the disease has made the leap into the hedgerows around a Leitrim site.

An immediate programme of removal of all ash trees within an 8km radius is already under way. But is it too little, too late?

"Most of Europe's repository of native ash is actually grown in Britain and Ireland. So this disease has the potential to have a devastating effect," said forestry consultant Donal Whelan.

Mr Whelan's comments are partly based on the experience of the Danes, who have watched 90pc of their ash trees succumb to the disease.

"If the disease gets in on the tree before it gets to the thinning stage at 15 or 16 years of age, it's basically worthless. And even then, it is only salvageable for firewood," he explained.

That's not good news for the thousands of landowners that planted an estimated 600ha of ash annually over the last 10 years.

It is believed that there is now over 25,000ha of ash plantations in Ireland, making up almost 7pc of the national area.

But it is not only landowners who invested in the crop by committing thousands of hectares and man-hours. The State also has a big stake, having paid out over €30m in planting grants and annual premia during the last decade.

The loss to the wider timber sector will be even greater.

The demand for hurleys here had grown to the extent that up to 80pc of the ash required to churn out the 350,000 hurleys we go through every year is being imported.

Replacing these imports was going to be just one part of the massive doubling in output that is projected for the forestry sector over the next 15 years.

But if we can't protect our trees from a disease like ash dieback, what hope have we of protecting the rest of the sector's sales, currently valued at €2.2bn?

"The Department of Agriculture's Forest Service missed this disease, despite an EU-wide alert about the disease back in 2007," said the Irish Farmers' Association's (IFA) forestry chairman, Michael Fleming.

The department has since embarked on a removal and replanting programme on the 535ha of ash that was linked with the source of the disease. They are covering the cost of this, which amounts to €3,300/ha for the planting alone.

However, they have refused to bow to the IFA demand for effected growers to be paid extra annual premia over the next 20 years.

"Their job was to monitor imports and they missed this. That has exposed landowners to losses," said Mr Fleming.

The IFA has also been critical of the fact that, one year on, the department still hasn't removed all the ash trees from the 97 sites where infection has been confirmed.

"This is very, very disappointing. We pushed hard to get this work done by May before the disease began to generate spores again. Now we're faced with a situation where the spores could have spread 15km on the wind from any of the sites of infection," said Mr Fleming.

The IFA man did acknowledge that no other country had put in place a programme like the Forest Service's to try to contain the disease.

And timber experts such as Donal Whelan point to the fact that every government department's resources are stretched.

"I don't know if faster removal would really have stopped this disease making the leap to native trees. But we really need to throw the kitchen sink at it now if we are to have any hope of limiting the damage that dieback does over the next decade," he said.

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