I thank Senators for the invitation to the House to discuss this very important issue for the forestry industry in Ireland and to give them an update. It is now two and a half years since chalara, ash dieback, was first confirmed in Ireland. These statements give us all the opportunity to take stock of where we stand in terms of our current approach, the latest developments and, more importantly, our future policy in dealing with the disease. I will begin by informing the House of the current situation with regard to the number of occurrences of chalara.
I will then describe the actions taken by the Department since October 2012 to control the spread of the disease, including work that has taken place with our colleagues in Northern Ireland. It is important also that we look at our plans for the future in terms of our ongoing strategy for tackling this disease.
The situation, as it stands, is as follows: there have been a total of 149 confirmed findings of the disease, 59 in plantation forests and the remaining 90 in non-forest locations, such as horticultural nurseries, roadside plantings, garden centres, private gardens and rural environment protection scheme, REPS, and agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, plantings. A total of 113 cases were identified in 2012 and 2013, 30 cases were identified during 2014 and to date in 2015, there have been six new findings. The vast majority of these sites have now been cleared of infected material. It is important to note that in four areas the spread of the disease from sites with infected imported plants into the associated hedgerows has been observed.
It is vital that we have accurate and up to date information on the true extent of the problem. Surveying information is critical not only for establishing the scale of the problem but also for informing debate on how resources can best be used to contain the disease. Systematic and targeted surveys of ash were undertaken in 2012 and 2013 in accordance with internationally recognised survey methodology. The targeted surveys focused on plantations which were planted with imported ash between 2000 and 2012 and hedgerows where previously infected ash plantations had been identified. In addition, a systematic survey following a 2 km by 2 km grid was undertaken in forest plantations and hedgerows throughout the entire country. In 2014 systematic and targeted surveys for the disease were again carried out in forest plantations and hedgerows throughout the country.
The non-forest locations focused on sampling ash species in all horticultural nurseries and adjacent hedgerows, especially nurseries where positive samples were previously found; motorways and roadways that were planted within the last 15 years, especially motorways or roadways that had previous positives; all other areas where positive samples were found during previous chalara surveys; plantings under farm agri-environment planting schemes, including REPS and AEOS; and other areas identified by the general public, particularly in respect of parks, golf courses and larger planting areas.
The Department has also taken measures to reduce the risk of the disease spreading, which includes dealing effectively with sites where chalara has been confirmed. As a first step national legislative measures were introduced in November 2012 under the Destructive Insects and Pest Acts 1958 and 1991 which listed chalara as a pest and which also regulated the import of ash seed, plants and wood. Similar legislation was introduced at the same time by the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. In December 2012, ash was delisted from the list of tree species approved under the afforestation grant schemes. In recent years, ash made up 10% of the forest planting programme.
During 2013, the European Commission approved the Department's application to allow farmers participating in current agri-environment schemes, who had concerns regarding ash plants planted under these schemes showing symptoms of ash dieback, to apply to remove the ash plants under force majeure. Ash was subsequently delisted from the list of tree species approved under the agri-environment options scheme. The National Roads Authority also agreed in 2013 to suspend the use of ash in any roadside plantings and is using alternative species.
A total of 22 public information meetings were organised nationally by the Department and Teagasc in May 2013. More than 800 people attended and information was provided on what to look out for and the implications in terms of clearance of a forest plantation. There was a large media pick-up on these events, including print, radio and television. Those who attended found them extremely useful. Guidance on the symptoms of chalara was also provided on the Department's website. The GAA featured a full page awareness advertisement in their All-Ireland hurling final programmes in 2013 and in 2014. Training was provided by the forest service of the Department to foresters in the public and private sectors on the biology of the disease and recognition of symptoms. The Department continues to provide information and assistance to concerned stakeholders through e-mail and telephone support and via its website.
As with plant health generally on the island of Ireland, an all-Ireland approach has been maintained under the North-South Ministerial Council between authorities in Ireland and Northern Ireland with ongoing close co-operation in all areas. This included the publication in July 2013 of an all-Ireland chalara control strategy. In May 2014 an all-Ireland conference on the disease was jointly organised by the Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland in conjunction with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, Northern Ireland and the Society of Irish Plant Pathologists. This very well attended and publicised event brought together presentations and discussions on the latest scientific knowledge on the disease and input from stakeholders and other interested parties. This event underlined the commitment from both Administrations to share the latest information available and to find a long-term solution which can deliver the best possible outcome.
Earlier this month I jointly launched a smartphone app called TreeCheck with my colleague, the Northern Ireland Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Ms Michelle O'Neill, MLA. This allows members of the public to send in photos of suspected cases of disease infection or insect attack of any tree species. Using any GPS-enabled smartphone the location of the suspect tree may also be recorded by the app to allow inspection if required. This will help with regard to the early detection of diseases and insect outbreaks. This is a very good and useful development for many people with forestry who are concerned about disease.
The forest service of the Department, in consultation with industry stakeholders, introduced a scheme to restore forests affected by chalara, ash dieback, by supporting the removal and destruction of trees and leaf litter affected by the disease and the replanting of the forest with an alternative species. To date a total of approximately 693 ha of infected and associated ash plantations have been cleared and replanted with alternative species. This has involved the uprooting and deep burial of approximately 2 million ash trees since October 2012, which is a significant figure. The cost of clearing and replanting forestry sites affected by the disease is €2.3 million to date.
In taking action to control plant diseases, Ireland and other member states must comply with EU plant health legislation even when the organism is not specifically regulated. Over the past three and a half years, Ireland has kept the EU Commission and other member states informed of our actions. In January 2015, Ireland and the UK gave a detailed presentation on actions taken to date and future plans relating to ash dieback. Ireland will be invited to provide an update at the end of the year. The key issue that will be of consideration is whether our actions on the island have been sufficiently successful to justify applying for protected zone status within the EU. Protected zone is an area within the EU where a pest or disease is not deemed to be established and where special protective measures can be legally applied. If this protected zone status was granted to us, it would allow us to retain control measures regarding imports of ash.
As further survey results come in during 2015, the situation will be kept under review and my Department will continue to carry out the following actions. As the disease remains unregulated under the EU plant health directive, my Department will continue to implement national measures to reduce the risk of the disease becoming established. My Department will continue targeted and systematic surveys for the disease. The policy of eradication will continue where infected trees are identified. The reconstitution grant scheme to facilitate the clearance and replanting of infected forest plantations will remain in place. Ash will continue to be de-listed from the afforestation scheme and will not be an approved species in the new GLAS. A spore trapping project to detect, quantify and establish dispersal patterns around known positive locations is planned for summer 2015. My Department will continue close collaboration with Northern Ireland under the all-Ireland chalara control strategy to ensure a common approach across the island. The Department will continue to participate in the FRAXBACK COST action and support research projects into the control and management of the disease.
I am aware of the particular difficulties facing horticultural nurseries and my staff will continue to meet with representatives of the industry to discuss with them how we can continue to co-operate in the control and eradication of the disease whilst minimising the effect of our controls on the nurseries themselves. With regard to scientific research on the disease, a key long-term research focus is to develop an ash tree breeding programme to develop trees showing strong tolerance to the disease. In this regard, a four-year project began in 2013, the aim of which has been to produce individual trees of ash which show resistance or tolerance to chalara and use them to bulk up stocks of resistant trees as well as to establish seed-producing orchards with resistant parent trees. The research, which is part funded by the Department, is being carried out by Forest Research, an agency of the Forestry Commission in the UK. As part of this project, Irish ash plants have been planted out over a range of sites in the south east of England to test for resistance. In Denmark, I understand this work is further advanced and approximately 100 ash trees have already been selected which are tolerant to chalara and whose progeny also display high levels of tolerance. Teagasc is also carrying out work in this area. The GAA has been extremely positive and supportive in respect of trying to identify that type of plant for which I commend it. Obviously, it has a very good reason, particularly many of the clubs across the country. The GAA is particularly supportive of Teagasc and the Department in respect of this issue.
My Department is also providing research funding to a UCD-led team to model the airborne spread of the ash dieback disease. Together with the University of Cambridge and the Department's forest service, this applied project will assess the risk of ash dieback spread into and across Ireland. Airborne dispersal of fungal spores is an important mechanism for the spread of this disease. This modelling research will predict the extent and spread of fungal spore plumes from known infected sites by combining climate data from Met Éireann and the latest information on the disease. This information will be fed into the UK Met Office's atmospheric dispersion model, a model originally developed in response to the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Today, the model has been developed into a sophisticated tool for simulating atmospheric dispersion events.
I will finish by reassuring the House that my Department will continue to apply all necessary measures to control the spread of this disease. We remain vigilant in terms of monitoring future occurrences and we will not delay in taking effective action to deal with infected sites. My Department will continue to scrutinise the latest survey results and research that becomes available on this disease. The situation will of course be kept under constant review. I thank Senators for giving me the opportunity to come to the House as this is a very useful way for me to explain to people exactly what is happening. I look forward to hearing the contributions and questions of Senators, so that we can provide more information to people because there is much concern about this.