Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 9 July 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Ash Dieback: Discussion
The next matter is a discussion of ash dieback affecting woodland areas, in particular in Limerick and Tipperary. I welcome representatives from the Limerick and Tipperary Woodland Owners group: Mr. Colum Walsh, chairman, Ms Mary McCormack, forest owner, and Mr. John O'Connell, committee member. I thank them for coming before the committee today.
Before we begin, I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses, or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite Mr. Walsh to make his opening statement.
Mr. Colum Walsh:
I thank the Chairman for allowing us the opportunity to make a presentation to the committee today. I apologise on behalf of Ms Ann McIntyre who is an affected forest owner and who was expected to attend but, unfortunately, she is unable to attend today.
I will provide a brief outline to the timeline of ash dieback and how the situation has progressed to date. Ash dieback was first identified in Poland in 1992, and was scientifically named Chalara fraxinea in 2006. During this 14-year period ash dieback spread across Europe from east to west.
What does ash dieback do? Ash dieback spores land on the leaf of the ash tree and start to germinate and to invade the tree's tissue. The disease starts at the leaf, it works its way into the stalk and then into the trunk of the tree. It chokes all waterways as it progresses. Ash dieback results in the withering of tree tissue, and eventually in the death of the ash tree.
Due to increased interest in the planting of hardwoods under the previous afforestation grant and premia scheme, additional ash plants were required in 2003 and 2004 to meet planters' demands. The additional plants were sourced from mainland Europe with no regard to the obvious threat to biosecurity in this country.
An ash plantation planted in County Leitrim in 2009 became the first confirmed site of ash dieback in Ireland in 2012. Soon after, the State enacted an eradication strategy to deal with the issue. It involved, first, tracing the imported ash plants to source and, second, the destruction of the contaminated plants and leaf litter via burning or burial on site. Unfortunately, it was all too late as the fungus had been imported and had already begun to spread. A reconstitution scheme was put in place by the forest service in 2013 to cover the cost of removal, destruction and the replanting of infected ash plantations with an alternative species. The scheme was used, under duress, by some forest owners, most of whom would agree that they were given no other option by the forest service. The scheme required all forest owners found to have ash dieback present on their site to notify the forest service, after which the owner had one month to name a registered forester who would work on behalf of the owner. If action was not taken within six months to remove infected trees and replant, all premiums would be stopped and repayment would be sought by the forest service. The reconstitution scheme set out compulsory disease control measures by which the forest owner had to abide and act on. Had the forest service enacted proper disease control measures for the importation of ash plants in 2003 and 2004 and subsequently in 2009, these being the plants that were used in County Leitrim, forest owners would not have faced this huge financial loss.
At the annual general meeting of the Limerick and Tipperary Woodland Owners in March 2018 forest owners voiced their concerns about the way they had been treated by the forest service in the ash dieback infestation. A committee was formed from the floor to address the issue and it went on to hold several meetings to discuss solutions to the ash dieback problem and how it had been handled to date. On 20 April 2018, a consultation period was opened by the forest service to review its ash dieback policy, with a deadline of 18 May for the receipt of submissions. The LTWO made a submission which set out clear proposals and options - I stress the word "options" - that should be made available to forest owners affected by ash dieback. We recommended that there be full compensation for loss of earnings due to ash dieback disease. Suggested solutions included allowing affected forests to be changed to continuous cover, Sitka spruce, agriforestry or any other grant and premium categories, GPC, option that might suit with 15-year premiums. We suggested owners be allowed to put their land back into grassland. As ash was typically planted on very good soils, this might suit landowners more than replanting trees. Another option we proposed was allowing forest owners to continue on with an infected plantation and paying them to remove infected trees, thereby enabling a possible genetic pool of resistant ash trees to be created for future use in combating ash dieback. We proposed the introduction of a targeted agricultural modernisation scheme measure for the grant aiding of small-scale forestry machinery in order that forest owners could actively manage and mobilise hardwood timber from their forests. We recommended that forest owners who availed of a new scheme to replace ash plantations not be subject to bundling of contract numbers, which appears to have happened in a number of cases in the reconstituted scheme, thereby bringing them above the threshold of 10 ha and making them subject to environmental impact assessment and local authority planning issues. The replanting of forests does not change the land use in situ. We noted in our submission that hardwood plantations were the least valued, with the only markets available being for hurley butts which are now disappearing and firewood. The forest service needs to develop a hardwood market and industry that is for more than just firewood and hurley butts. The benefit would be twofold - it would serve to create rural economic activity and employment and, in addition, encourage respect for and a tradition of forestry in the countryside.
The LTWO received a confirmation email stating the forest service had received our submission. We were subsequently informed that a review would be completed by September 2018. Fourteen months later, we are still awaiting a review and consultation with stakeholders.
Committing land to forestry is not a decision taken lightly by any farmer. In most instances, the land has been farmed for generations before, for whatever reason, a decision is taken to plant forestry. These farmers are pioneers in a new industry which is still in its infancy in Ireland and made the brave and bold decision to plant ash on their land. They had no responsibility for the importation of the known disease that is ash dieback but, somehow, they have ended up bearing the brunt of the responsibility through financial loss, mental distress and the possibility of having a non-viable forest and devalued land. Meanwhile, those involved in the initial planting of forests, namely, the foresters, contractors and nurseries, received a second payment for the removal of infected trees and the replanting of the same sites. Farmers were advised and encouraged by the State to plant their land with ash, with the incentive of higher premium rates, the promise of a valuable crop of hurley butts and firewood and the potential to have a small furniture and flooring market. They were pioneers, but they have been overlooked and mistreated by the forest service. Ash dieback is an agricultural, heritage, national sport, rural and climate change issue that thus far has not been addressed by the State.
I thank Mr. Walsh for his presentation which was concise and to the point. I have visited several plantations infected by ash dieback and seen the problems it causes. We made most of the same points as Mr. Walsh to the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, when he was in attendance earlier. I have a few questions for the delegates.
Have Mr. Walsh and his colleagues had the opportunity to put their solutions for ash forest owners to the Minister? Do they have precise figures for the amounts of land affected? What figure do they have in mind for compensation for losses? Mr. Walsh referred to different measures of compensation, including allowing an owner to put the afforestation back into grassland and schemes that would allow them to replant and be eligible again for the 15-year premium. If we were to obtain departmental consent to address the issue, about what amount of land are we talking countrywide? Does Mr. Walsh have a figure in his head for the moneys required to do it?
The merit of the delegates' case is undeniable. It is putting it mildly to say it was an oversight by the Department not to check the biosecurity of the plants coming into the State. It was known for a generation that this disease was an issue on the Continent. It defies comprehension that plants were imported without taking into account the disease threat that was being introduced. I am particularly interested in the delegates' estimate of what it will cost to fix the issue in terms of compensation. The disease will still be present, of course, and its eradication will take a long time.
I thank Mr. Walsh for his presentation which was concise and straightforward. Coming from County Donegal, I do not know a great deal about how ash dieback is affecting forest owners in counties Limerick and Tipperary. Unfortunately, we do not have much need for hurleys in my county. It is disappointing that the forest service has not responded to the submission made by Limerick and Tipperary Woodland Owners. That is something the committee should take up because it is the very least the group should expect. The reply might not be what we want to hear, but, even so, we could work from there and look to deal with the issues involved.
What Mr. Walsh is talking about makes perfect sense to me. We must do what we can to ensure he receives the reply.
On the proposal to allow some forest owners keep their forests and try to build an immunity crop or whatever, how feasible is that? It seems to make perfect sense and is the way we should be heading. They would have to be rewarded for that because it would be providing a greater service to the wider community. It is a proposal that should be considered.
I thank Mr. Walsh for his concise presentation. It was more valuable because it was concise. On the reconstitution scheme, I understood the Minister to say that 1,600 ha have been restored at a cost of €4.4 million. I asked him this question and I thought he said there was another 16,000 ha. That would mean another €44 million or €45 million in compensation would be required. That is just basic compensation. Can I extract from Mr. Walsh's presentation that this scheme was a failure insofar as the money did not reach the people for whom it was intended and that various intermediaries captured money from it along the way?
Once the disease becomes notifiable, forest owners have a very limited time to address the problem. It is similar to TB. The scheme had all the qualities of a TB scheme but at least under the TB scheme there was a compensation system that was tried and tested and agreed by the stakeholders. Was this scheme imposed on forest owners? Did they have any input into it? I tried to find out from the Minister about the stakeholders in the industry and I am still none the wiser. I admit I could be stupid and might not have understood what he was saying but as far as I could hear, everyone in the place was involved other than somebody representing the people who were affected. That was my gist of it. The witnesses might give a view as to whether they had any input at stakeholder or committee level into the way this debacle was handled because it was a massive failure of bureaucracy. The bureaucrats are very sharp. If one wanted to do something with one's house, they would be out like a shot but in this case they failed at a fundamental level. The problem is that the consequences are being visited on forest owners and there are implications for the individuals involved. If there are 1,600 ha to 1,700 ha, how many individuals are involved?
I suggested to the Minister that a proper forestry stakeholder committee be set up, which would involve the people who the witnesses represent, among others. Let us call them the small people because it is like everything in Ireland. There are many advocates for the big shots. I know that from my own area. I have a good record of speaking up for the smaller farmers. I am not too worried about the big ones. They have many advocates and can find ways to make their voices heard. Would the witnesses be prepared to serve on a stakeholder committee of that nature?
I am interested in the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, aid. I have a question down to the Minister, which may not be answered until October. Only 37% or 38% of TAMS money is allocated. Could the witnesses elaborate on the TAMS measure for grant aid for small forestry machinery? I do not regard them as huge machines. One would hardly see some machines costing €500,000. I do not like the idea of TAMS money going to prop up an unviable project. The witnesses might elaborate on that.
My final question is on the environmental impact assessment, the planning authorities and the contribution of funding. The implication of that is that forest owners would end up being over the 10 ha and would have to prepare for that and have significant funding outlays as a result.
I refer to the possibility of ash dieback disease not being eradicated. I recall saying to somebody here that the TB scheme - I am using that analogy again - started in the 1950s. A famous leader of Deputy Cahill's, who later became President of Ireland, spoke about draining the Shannon. There is a better chance of the Shannon being drained than TB being eradicated in cattle. What worries me is that if this disease cannot be eradicated, what will happen then? Is that the reason the alternative of forest owners going back into grassland is being advocated? Why would they go back to that if they always have that fear? Is there something we do not know that might lead to ultimate eradication and allow them go back in, commence a new scheme and allow the 15-year process to start again? Is that what they are advocating? The witnesses might respond to those questions. I thank them for a very worthwhile presentation.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. I have a few queries. In their submission they state that they were forced to bring in a person and inform the Department. If they had the ash dieback, and this is by way of educating me, was it not important that they got to the root of it quickly and took out the trees affected? If an area was being taken out, were they told to plant spruce or what was being put back in when the disease was present in trees?
In talking about solutions, the witnesses said to leave some of the trees in place for a while. Is that not dangerous because if there is a disease in trees it could destroy the entire farm? I want to be clear about one aspect. Are the witnesses saying that if they were drawing premiums for five or ten years and then discovered ash dieback disease they would enter a new scheme over 15 years because they would have to opt for spruce? Were they compensated for taking out the existing trees, replanting and carrying out whatever works were associated with that? Will the witnesses explain those to me?
I have a final question. Mr. Walsh talked about an appropriate assessment or an environmental impact assessment, EIA. Is he saying that if an area was found to have the disease, to replace it that would have to be done later?
Mr. Colum Walsh:
In regard to the area affected, the all-Ireland ash dieback synopsis on the Teagasc website states that 20,000 ha are affected by ash dieback. There are 500,000 km of hedgerows, with ash being the second most important species in hedgerows, affected also.
On a figure for compensation, I am not a forester but some of the figures on compensation were handed to me. The issue is that some plantations were at different levels of growth. On the typical 40-year or 45-year clear-fell of ash, figures given to me indicated that one should be clearing €40,000 per hectare. If 20,000 ha are affected, that is €800 million.
Mr. Colum Walsh:
If, as set out in our second point, we were to allow the forest owners to enter into a new scheme over 15 years of forest premiums - this relates to Deputy Fitzmaurice's question - there would be a financial loss to owners. Some owners might have taken up the reconstitution scheme having had 20 years of growth and received no compensation for the loss of growth with respect to the volume of timber. The timber is not suitable for hurley butts, as it is stained and withering. It is suitable for firewood, which varies from €20 to €60 per cubic metre at the roadside. If such compensation provision was to revert to allowing a forest owner to enter into a new 15-year scheme of forest premiums, the figures I have vary from €440 per hectare per year for planting Sitka spruce up to €665 per hectare per year for 15 years. At the higher scale for the 20,000 ha involved that would cost the State €13,300,000 per year for 15 years, a grand total after 15 years of €200,000.
Mr. Colum Walsh:
If 20,000 ha was allowed to be replanted under a 15-year scheme of forest premiums - ash cannot be replanted as it has been taken off the planting list - and if, for example, Sitka spruce was planted at €440 per ha, which is the annual premium paid per year at the lower scale, or native woodland was planted at the higher premium scale of €665 per ha per year, it would cost €13.3 million per year to repay a premium for each of those 20,000 ha.
Mr. Colum Walsh:
No cost should be incurred for the person who would want to put their land back into grassland. Some of the ash trees were planted on good land. That land could be valuable for leasing to dairy farmers. Also, the timber could be cleared, the stumps removed and the land reseeded, which would be costly but some people might want to do that because many forestry owners have been left with a very bad taste in their mouths after the spread of ash dieback disease. They had no hand, act or part in the importation of this disease but they are the largest group who have suffered the most.
Mr. Colum Walsh:
From speaking to one of two people at the National Ploughing Championships of all places, I understand that the cost of removing the stumps with heavy machinery would be approximately €1,000 per acre. Lime would have to be spread on the ground after that and grass seed would have to be sown. It would cost between €1,500 to €2,00 per acre.
Mr. Colum Walsh:
Deputy Pringle asked if it feasible for forest owners to retain their forests? A committee was established following our annual general meeting during which 45 minutes to an hour was spent dealing with the ash dieback issue and 12 volunteers from the floor discussed it. Many of those people gave much of their time to attend meetings and some of them were willing to hang on to their ash plantations, remove the infected trees and to try to identify the genetic resistant strain they could possibly have. Some people wanted to do that because they were committed to forestry and the ash tree species. As to whether it is feasible for them to retain their forests, the forestry service has started to move towards the idea that the slash and burn protocol was not working because potential resistant ash trees were being removed. On the question of the feasibility of retention, yes, it is possible.
Moving on to Deputy Penrose’s questions, there was no compensation paid to forest owners through the reconstitution scheme. It covered the removal and replanting of the trees but it did not cover the compensation for loss of earnings due to growth and sale of product for potential hurley butts or for firewood. Some people with plantations that may have been 20 years old took up the reconstitution scheme but they did not receive anything other than having their trees removed and they found themselves back at day zero instead of being at year 20.
A farmer would be in an awful state over the detection of brucellosis in his herd, but this is the equivalent of that for those owners. As bad as the other schemes are, these owners have ended up with nothing.
Mr. Colum Walsh:
A question was raised about the targeted agricultural modernisation, TAM scheme. Tending and thinning grants are available for forest owners to claim. They are €750 per hectare. These are management tools. However, if one takes forestry on board, it is a labour intensive scheme. We felt that the TAM scheme should encompass small-scale forestry machinery, not large-scale machinery costing hundreds of thousands of euro. There should be some form of a TAM scheme for forest owners. Health and safety is a big issue currently. There would potential for personal protective equipment, PPE, to be covered similar to the TAM schemes that are in place. Also, small-scale timber forwarding trailers could come under that. Forestry involves considerable manual work and areas of health and safety and manual handling could be covered. That would encourage forest owners to take on some of the work themselves and to create a tradition. It is fine for people to get in contractors, everybody in farming does that. I am farming myself and I get contractors in whenever I can. It would be nice to start a tradition of forestry by encouraging a father to do some thinning and his son might get involved and interested, and people will start to learn. That is the way the forestry service will grow and encourage more forestry. Currently, farmers know a great deal about the price of a 1 l of milk and the price of a weanling but when it comes to a cubic of metre of timber they do not know what is inside their farmgate, and that is the biggest problem we are seeing. When one talks to people at different meetings about the potential worth of their Sitka spruce plantation at clearfell, all of a sudden their ears prick up and they say they did not realise their 10 acres would be worth €100,000 at clearfell or potentially more depending on the species planted and its yield class. Forestry is at a crossroads and it needs to get through that but we need to make sure that those who commit their lands to forestry are the main beneficiaries of the sale of their product.
There was also a question about planning permission and environmental impact assessments. Ms McCormack will speak about them.
Ms Mary McCormack:
I will give an example. I have approximately 50 acres of hardwoods, most of which are ash trees. I could take out less than 10 ha without planning permission, but if I was to take out the lot - approximately 20 ha - I would have to conduct an environmental study. Because there is a grey area the forest service told me to hang on in. I did so and rang the planners who told me that because it involved a disease, they could not see how it would be a problem. I told them that I had been told that perhaps it might be. It was written into the Local Government Reform Act 2014 that anyone changing forestry or putting back in half Sitka spruce and half hardwoods had to seek approval. They said they would take advice on the matter. When I got back on to the planning office, I was told that I might as well apply for planning permission to clear it. Of late we know what happens when planning permission is applied for.
Ms Mary McCormack:
Yes. The people in it were unsure at the start. They did not think it would be necessary, but after they had taken advice on the local government Act, they said that because there was a tall, high forest and various other categories were involved, that perhaps it might be as well to apply for planning permission. I got on to the executive planner in Clonmel who was very sympathetic and suggested the best thing to do was to apply for planning permission. It would involve an environmental impact assessment and ecological-----
Ms Mary McCormack:
Yes and I would pay for it. I would be at the loss of 21 years of growth and have to turn around and pay an amount that could vary from €6,000 to €50,000, depending on whether anything was found. My point is that the day I received approval was the day I was told that I had approval. At one stage we had a big beef farm with feedlots, barns and silage pits and no one was ever going to come back to us if we were reroofing or doing anything to them to say we had to apply for planning permission. It is so different in forestry. If it is not needed on the day approval is given at the start, why, 20 years down the road, would people be told that they must have a survey carried out and go through the planning office? I call it anti-forestry or an antiquated idea. We do not really know.
I have Sitka spruce. I must say I would not want it to be close to anybody's back door or near a school blocking out the light, but it is a wonderful crop of trees. People try to tell us that there is no biodiversity, but when we walk through the trees, we see eggs falling down from the branches. I do not know what species of birds are nesting in them, but they are laying eggs and the shells fall down onto the ground. There is a lot of nonsense spoken about people who are anti-forestry and we all have to get on together. We all have to support dairy farmers who have to support us. Nobody has a monopoly of anything. I came across somebody who told me that I should never have planted all of those trees. It was hard to keep my cool, but I did. I am so used to listening to it now.
We should receive more clarification. It is fine for those who are starting off now. They should go the planning office to ask whether there is any reason they cannot plant and what they need to do. They can then make an informed decision. I was sold a package which included everything Mr. Walsh quoted. At the time I had a 20-year premium, following which I would have an income from the production of hurley butts and this, that and the other. There would also be thinnings. I went for it because it was a scheme that had been drawn up by the forest service and it was a Government scheme.
I did not go into partnership with anybody. I did it privately because if the worst came to the worst, I was told that I would be able to sell it on the open market based on its value and the value of the trees, but I was in for a sad disappointment, even though I had looked after it well. The biodiversity is fantastic. Teagasc is great in running open days for us. It has been a great help, but those who need to go to the open days in the future are the ecologists, planners and legal people. It is very hard to find a solicitor who knows anything about forestry and even to have a valuation made of a forestry plantation. We have to go to a forester and there is a big variety in what we are told. I just want to have my land replanted and do not want all of this hassle. I want to have it replanted and enjoy it. I only want compensation, but people cannot be compensated for the stress they have endured. We are in limbo.
In school in learning history we were told about an arboreal holocaust in the 16th and 17th centuries. That is is what has happened to ash. It is like a holocaust. The entire species has been wiped out. It is hoped disease resistant species can be bred, but it could take 20 years. Dr. Gerry Douglas has been on my farm for two summers. Cuttings are taken and sent to eastern Europe. He is working on a project. However, it will take time to receive approved, go through all of the tests and for the root stock to be available. We will not replant ash if there is a question mark over it. That is where we stand, but I do not know where we will go. Young college students on holidays used to ask me to walk through the plantation with them. When I did so, I praised this, that and the other and said forestry was wonderful. I pointed to different things. The red squirrel was getting stronger, but do not ask me to do it now as I could not do it. I do not know what is the right thing to do. I do not know whether it is to try to put as much of it back into grassland.
That my story. The Minister of State spoke about the right tree in the right place. People make decisions on their own behalf and sum up their own situation, but it is some mess. We go here, there and everywhere in the hope we will get an answer. It was May 2017 when I received the diagnosis and the results came back from the laboratory that it was ash dieback and that it was endemic.
We thought we could just do a thinning, but when the results came in we were told it was everywhere and that not even 20% or 30% of the trees could be salvaged.
It is probably replicated in other situations. That is why I felt it important that she come before the committee to highlight her situation. She has done so very clearly today. Does anyone have any other questions before I wrap up? No. As I have said, Ms McCormack has given us a very clear picture. We will follow up on her presentation, which was very concise and which hit the nail right on the head. We will follow up as quickly as possible. There are a few issues we would like Ms McCormack to clarify for us over the coming weeks. We addressed them earlier.
Mr. John O'Connell:
One of the primary reasons afforestation has dropped way back is the way in which forest owners as a group have been treated, for example, with regard to ash dieback. We are the primary stakeholders yet one only hears mention of the processors and everything else that surrounds the industry. Without us, these other jobs would not exist. We have been dealt a very unfair hand.
Absolutely. The delegation has made its case very well. We will follow up. I ask the witnesses to clarify the few points we have raised in due course. Is that all right? I thank them very much for their presentations here today. As members will know, we will be moving on to the third part of our meeting in the next few minutes. I propose that we take a break of 15 minutes to allow ourselves and the broadcasting people to get a bit of fresh air.