Seanad debates

Friday, 26 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Forestry Sector

10:30 am

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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It is great to be able to raise this issue in the House this morning. It is nice to have one of our own Senators, Senator Hackett, here in the role of Minister of State. I know the Minister of State has a keen interest in this area. I studied horticulture in my college days so I take a keen interest in the area. In the middle of a pandemic and with so many problems out there, it is an issue people might not take much heed of. However, as the Minister of State will know, many people are affected by this horrible fungal disease called ash dieback.

Going back to my college days, there was not much talk about ash dieback, but people have become more and more aware of the problems that exist because of it. It was about 2011 or 2012 when it was first established that we had ash dieback in this country. Some of the people I spoke to in the sector tell me we could have lost almost 90% or even 90%-plus of our ash tree population inside ten years.

This disease is a major source of concern in the forestry sector. We have many forestry owners who invested heavily and planted substantial areas of ash. As the Minister of State knows, the reconstitution scheme was suspended in 2018. We have this new scheme up and running now and many people tell me they are not happy with the scheme as it operates.

Many farmers as they got older put some of their land into forestry, particularly into an ash plantation. In many cases, it was to create a little nest egg when they came to pension age. Many of those people were of modest means and it was an investment for later in life. That little nest egg would have given them no major financial concerns as they moved into their later years.They have now been left with what is probably a worthless product. It is useless. It is worth nothing financially.

The individuals affected have a bigger problem, however. They have large sections of land that have been badly affected by the fungal disease. This is a danger because, as the Minister of State knows, mature trees that become infected rot. In many areas with really small plantations, particularly along roadsides, farmers are living in terrible fear that the trees will fall. As people, including the Chairperson will know, a tree growing on one's land is one's responsibility, not that of the local authority, Transport Infrastructure Ireland or any other body.

I want an update on the current position regarding this major problem of ash dieback. Is there anything else we can do for the people affected to take them out of the misery they are in? I hope that we can in some way be of assistance to the many thousands of people affected. A person in the industry told me yesterday that up to 20,000 people could be affected. While there are probably 30,000 ha of ash plantation in the country and 20,000 may seem like a very big number, many of the individuals have very small plantations. There is a significant number of people affected.

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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I thank Senator Murphy for the welcome and for raising this matter. Ash dieback has had a devastating effect on ash plantations throughout the country and I am well aware of its impact on landowners and farmers. As the Senator highlighted, the effects on native trees across the countryside, whether they are in hedges or standing alone, will be apparent very soon.

When the disease first presented, almost ten years ago, it was thought that eradication was an option. My Department introduced an Exchequer-funded reconstitution scheme in 2013 to restore affected forests and it has paid out some €7 million to forest owners since. While the scheme was a reasonable response at the time, it became evident, given the progression and reach of the disease and based on the scientific knowledge available, that a review of the scheme was needed. The original aim of the scheme, namely, eradication of the disease from Ireland, was no longer achievable and the disease is now considered endemic here.

Given that the scientific outlook had changed, a new approach was clearly needed. A review was undertaken to decide on the best approach. This included stakeholder and public consultation and detailed field consideration of damage-level evaluation, together with an examination of a broader range of silviculture and management options available to forest owners. Advice from Teagasc and international experts was also received. Current support schemes were examined to ensure their continued relevance and value for money, and to ensure that the forest owner was provided with a broad range of silvicultural and management measures.

On foot of the review, a new ash dieback scheme, known as the reconstitution and underplanting scheme, was launched in June 2020. This approach aims to encourage the active management of ash plantations in the context of the control and spread of ash dieback disease. It categorises plantations into three groups based on plantation age and tree size. Various support options are available depending on the category into which an ash plantation may fall. The scheme aims to promote the vigorous growth of ash through thinning to realise as much of the potential value of the crop as possible. It allows landowners who wish to continue growing their ash forest where the presence of the disease is low to continue to get paid their ash premiums. Since its launch in June, over 268 applications have been submitted. We have begun to issue approvals and this will continue as applications are assessed. This, of course, is a demand-led scheme and, because ash was normally a small part of a bigger plantation, many landowners may not opt to engage with the scheme.

Ash has major cultural significance in Ireland, most notably in hurling, so we are very interested in exploring whether a resistant strain could be developed. The Department has invested heavily since 2013 in breeding ash for resistance. I understand there are many projects at an advanced stage. A very small proportion of ash trees, amounting to about 1% or 2%, show natural tolerance to the pathogen. This means they show minor symptoms and that the disease does not have the noticeable impact on their growth or health that is has on other trees. Teagasc is working to identify such trees and to build up a gene bank with the ultimate goal of producing tolerant ash seeds that we will be able to use to restore ash trees to Irish forests and hedgerows. Furthermore, there is a National Council for Forest Research and Development, COFORD, working group that specifically addresses genetics and the important role that plays in adaptation, tolerance and resistance, which has recently released a note entitled, Breeding for Tolerance to Ash Dieback Disease.

In summary, we will continue to support those landowners who wish to manage their ash plantations affected by the disease through the reconstitution and under-planting scheme. I believe that this is a proportionate and innovative response that offers support to affected landowners.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for her reply and update on the 2020 scheme. The number is still small in terms of the amount of people who have sought assistance but I do accept that quite a number of them might not engage at all.

I am delighted that the Minister of State mentioned the traditional making of the hurley stick from ash. I do not know what the phrase the clash of the ash will mean any more but we will have to make something about bamboo because it is now being imported from China to make hurley sticks. The importation of bamboo and the danger of outside pests being brought into the country that could do more damage to our horticultural industry concerns me as well.

I again ask the Minister of State to see if there is any more tweaking she can do to the scheme to help these people because they have told me that for a lot of them engaging in the scheme as it is, or seeking assistance from it, does not make much sense. The tree family of ash is a beautiful horticultural thing and very much part of our countryside. We all hope that we will reach a situation, and it was great to hear about research, where the ash will come back to take its rightful place in the Irish countryside.

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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I thank the Senator. The scheme is quite new. It has only been running for six or eight months so I suggest that we give it time and there is no reason we cannot look at things further down the line.

The other day I saw the television programme on bamboo now being used to make hurleys and the Senator raised important points about the importation of wood, trees or, indeed, other plants into this country. Ireland as an island has a very high status in terms of plant health and, indeed, one of the highest in Europe and the world. We want to retain our status so we have to be very careful about what we bring into our country. I thank the Senator for raising the point. I hope that we end up being able to develop or pick out the varieties tolerant to ash dieback. I concur that ash plays an important role in our country and it would be really sad to see it gone.

Sharon Keogan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State and I thank the Senator for raising such an important matter.