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.