Thursday 21 November 2019

Hurley suppliers facing disaster over ash disease


The supply of ash to make hurleys is under serious threat from a rampant disease which is sweeping across Europe.

The Government's decision to ban all imports into Ireland of young ash plants and seed from countries hit by the fungal infection known as Ash Dieback that has spread like wildfire may be just the start of tighter controls.

The biggest pathway for the disease is through live plants and seed but the authorities have not ruled out banning imports of partially processed or processed ash in the future if these measures, announced on Friday night, do not stem the rapid spread of the fungus Chalara fraxinea.

That would spell disaster for hurley-makers and Gaelic games. Eight out of ten hurleys used on Irish GAA pitches are made from imported timber, or from completed hurleys manufactured overseas.

"As well as living plants and seeds, wood is also seen as a pathway for the disease and this ban which comes into immediate effect only applies to plants and seed," a senior Government source told the Sunday Independent. "However, banning importation of wood from affected areas will also have to be looked at.

"Once you start moving away from plants, the risk of spreading the disease falls dramatically. Once you get down to wood then potential spread comes down to the degree that it has been processed," the source added.

At the moment Ireland is 90 per cent self-sufficient in plants and there is no problem sourcing saplings for planting. However, another worry is that growers and farmers considering growing a tree plantation may decide to move away from ash because of the disease potential, posing another long-term threat to the national game.

The big problem is that while Ireland has an abundance of young ash trees most are many years away from maturity and so are not suitable for hurley manufacture.

More than 34,000 young ash trees have already been destroyed here after Ash Dieback disease was discovered in a Co Leitrim forest earlier this month, raising new fears about the fungal disease that has already wiped out 90 per cent of Denmark's ash population. Demand for hurleys is growing and the country needs 350,000 hurleys a year.

The disease was found at a site in Leitrim where 5,000 imported ash saplings were planted in 2009. They were part of a consignment of 35,000 saplings imported at that time.

Following the discovery, officials have now tracked down the surviving saplings from that consignment planted at ten other Irish sites and in all 33,400 young trees from the imported batch have now been destroyed, regardless of whether they were symptomatic or not. The young trees were chopped down and burned.

On Friday, a department spokesman said: "Surveys are continuing and public reports are also being followed up on. To date there have been no further findings; however forest owners, forest nursery staff and members of the public are asked to be vigilant for the disease and report, with photographs if possible, any sites where there are concerns about unusual ill health in ash to the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine by email to or by phoning (01) 6072651."

Ash is a native broadleaf and is an important species in the Irish landscape. Currently around 10 per cent of the ash planted under the Department's afforestation scheme is from imported sources with the remaining 90 per cent home-produced. In all, three per cent of Irish forests are ash forests.

The Irish Guild of Ash Hurleymakers (IGAH) have already outlined their concerns regarding the threat to the hurley ash industry.

Even before the introduction of new controls in force from this weekend they had agreed to call on their members to ensure that ash wood for hurley-making is either imported from countries free of the disease or that any hurley ash being brought in from Continental Europe would be in plank form with the bark sawn off.

Minister of State Shane McEntee said: "This is a very aggressive disease in ash trees and we must do everything possible to keep it out and it is for these reasons that new legal measures are now in place."

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