Ash dieback disease, which looks likely to wipe out 90 per cent of one of Ireland’s most celebrated native trees, should be treated as a “national emergency”, an expert group has concluded in a stark review.
The group says that such is the urgency of the problem that a State-led national and rapid-coordinated response is required, including a task force to ensure the safe and comprehensive clearance and re-establishment of diseased plantation.
The three-person review group was commissioned by Minister of State for Forestry Pippa Hackett to examine the support for farmers impacted by ash dieback. The disease is caused by a fungus-like pathogen that is airborne. It has decimated ash forests and plantations throughout Europe. Timber from the root of ash trees is used to make hurleys.
The review is also critical of the response of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry. It concludes that once it realised in 2018 that its policy of containment could no longer work to stem the spread of the disease, its subsequent actions to address the challenges were “inadequate”.
“The suspension of the scheme [set up to promote ash plantations in Ireland so that the State could move towards self-sufficiency in hurley-production] in 2018 with no replacement until 2020 reflected neither the emergency nature of the situation nor the plight of landowners watching crops deteriorate and die, without recourse to Government advice or support. This hiatus also resulted in the loss of contractor capacity,” it stated.
The group is also critical of a plan introduced in 2020 and operated until this year, describing it as “silviculturally flawed” and based on an out-of-date premise that ash trees in infected plantations could be saved.
“This left inspectors and owners without the means to deal with the problem. What can now be appreciated is that active clearance of ash in this period would probably have protected the salvage value and mitigated costs as conditions have worsened since. Without an approval (including felling licenses), farmers were legally prevented from clearing the woodlands.”
The review recommends that the cost of site clearance and regeneration should be borne by the State. Any value from the timber remaining should remain with the landowner. It also recommends a bespoke ash dieback re-establishment annual payment with rates comparable to other species in the new Forestry Programme.
In another key recommendation, the review group finds that an ex gratia payment to farmers be considered, reflecting the losses suffered between 2018 and 2023, when an effective hiatus on felling resulted in them being unable to extract value from their trees “through no fault of their own”.
The members of the review group were Jo O’Hara, a former chief executive of Scottish Forestry, Dr Matthew Crowe, a former director of the Environmental Protection Agency and current chair of An Foram Uisce, and Gerry Grant, former managing director of Irish Water.
Ms Hackett said she was working to implement the report’s recommendations but noted some might have to be examined in the context of EU state aid rules. She gave no indication of how much compensation would cost but the Department has said €10 million has been spent so far on dealing with the crisis. “I have committed to publishing a full implementation plan in response to the review group’s report once this work is complete.”
IFA President Tim Cullinan said “the Government must urgently deliver a workable scheme that supports and compensates farmers as per the recommendations set out in the report”.