WE'RE facing a catastrophe and people don't realise it. The recent arrival in Ireland of Chalara fraxinea, or ash dieback disease, is far more serious than many people know.
Reports have concentrated on the concerns of our hurley makers and threat to the supply of raw material for our national sport. However, should the outbreak become widespread, the loss of our stock of native ash would also affect the landscape, reduce biodiversity and kill off a valuable source of shelter and food for wildlife.
During the past 20 years or so, thousands of farmers planted ash under the government-sponsored afforestation schemes in a drive to increase diversity in Irish woodlands and increase tree cover nationally. This scheme succeeded in raising our tree cover from less than 2pc to the present 12pc.
We still have the lowest percentage of tree cover in Europe, but we are heading in the right direction. I have 100 acres of ash on my farm in Co Meath, most of it planted in 1995, and to lose a 17-year-old wood would be catastrophic.
Most of these trees are up to 20 metres tall and provide essential shelter for livestock along with two full-time jobs on my farm. They are also an important source of raw material for our wood fuel business.
To now see them die would be similar to losing a pedigree dairy herd to a disease like tuberculosis or foot and mouth, having carefully built it up over decades.
A huge amount of time and money has been invested in this woodland, and if it were lost – even if one were to receive a reconstitution grant – it would mean starting all over again without the valuable timber that is currently coming on stream.
As it grows towards maturity and is thinned to make space for the larger trees, most of the surplus ash is dried and processed into logs for sale as wood fuel, but we have also supplied a wide variety of businesses that require Irish ash.
IN addition to butts for hurley-making we have also sold ash to Dublin Zoo for climbing frames and perches. Recently I received a request for ash to make frames for hurdles for national hunt racing. In the past I have supplied owners of pizza ovens and even exported ash to Dubai for decorative fittings in hotels and shops.
We sell ash as wood fuel countrywide and if the ash goes the jobs will go. Many of these trees support ivy which supplies the last source of nectar for bees and other insects along with essential winter food and nesting sites for birds.
Ash dieback disease invades woodland as an airborne fungal spore. It can be spread by raindrops or by a leaf blowing in the wind, so it is surely only a matter of time before it advances further.
It is believed that Chalara arrived in the southeast of England having been blown across the English Channel from mainland Europe, so despite all the efforts it is hard to see how we can prevent its spread. Having destroyed most of their younger dying ash, the authorities in Denmark are leaving the older trees in the hope that they will develop immunity.
Much has already been written on the dangers of growing large areas of a single species, and each new disease that arrives – such as the various strains of Phytophthora that can be fatal to alder, beech, chestnut and oak – only further emphasises the urgent need to diversify.
Last year a lone Sitka spruce was discovered suffering from an attack of Phytophthora ramorum. This sent shivers through the entire forest industry, and since then many larch have died, leading to a suspension of planting of that species.
Being a timber grower is not easy. Apart from previously unheard of diseases, we have endured the spread of the non-native grey squirrel which strips the bark from sycamore, oak, maple and many other species including ash. It kills and maims trees and acts as a conveyor of disease and is just another pest we must try to eliminate from our woodlands.