Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 29 Apr 2015

Vol. 239 No. 11

Ash Dieback Disease: Statements

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.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his comprehensive analysis of the ash dieback situation. His predecessor, the late Shane McEntee, initiated most of the Department's work in this regard. I remember him talking in this House about ash dieback in 2012 when it first hit the headlines. He had huge conviction in tackling it and I am glad to see the current Minister of State is following that good work by working in close collaboration with counterparts in Northern Ireland and the British authorities and at a European level and by looking at the research. It is obviously having a huge impact, not only in Ireland but right across Europe. We are not isolated and I understand that it is affecting many European countries.

In respect of our connection to ash, we might not have the skills of people in Tipperary. I read that about 350,000 hurleys are produced every year, predominantly from ash, so the issue is significantly linked to the GAA, particularly hurling. The ash tree population is not only important to the country today but it has been important down through generations and will be important in the future. It is, therefore, important to protect our traditional ash forestry.

I commend the Minster of State on the way he is dealing with this. He is going about it the right way. It is important for Opposition Senators and Deputies to commend a Minister when they think he or she is going about things in the right way.

It is easy for us to come in and criticise, but at the end of the day this problem is not of the Government's making. It is affecting many European countries, including our neighbours in England and up the road in the North.

The Minister of State outlined the cost. That was one of my questions today. He mentioned a figure of €2.3 million, which was the cost, I presume, to the Department and the taxpayer of replenishing and burying the 2 million trees. That is a lot of trees, and it is having a significant effect across the country. The counties most affected were Leitrim, Monaghan and Meath and some trees in Galway were also affected. The figures suggest that the Minister of State's Department is getting to grips with this situation. The figures he mentioned have fallen drastically, from 113 to the end of 2013 to 30 last year. He mentioned a figure of six this year. There were 21 cases of the disease on farm and agri-environmental sites in 2013 and only two last year, while there were four cases in garden centres and nurseries in 2013 and none last year. It is probably having an impact on the private sector in terms of business opportunities, etc., and on farmers as well. Farmers want to plan ash trees, but because of the risk they are prohibited from doing so.

Ideally a solution would be found, either in treatment, or, as the Minister of State has outlined, finding an ash tree that would be strong enough to resist the disease. UCD has an excellent department of agriculture. It works with the University of Cambridge in other areas, as the Minister of State mentioned. That is positive. This is also a European issue and it has affected other countries. Where has the European Union been on this problem? Why has it not regulated ash dieback as a disease? I know it has legislated for it generically - the Minister of State mentioned the European directive - but it has not specifically regulated for it. Would that be of benefit? He also mentioned control areas, for example, a control area of the island of Ireland. How far are we from that? Is the European Union receptive to that idea? On one side, the Government has done excellent work in getting the disease under control, but the other side, unfortunately, is that there are now many restrictions on the planting of ash. What impact will that have on the demand for ash - for hurling, for example - in five, ten or 15 years time? Has the Department analysed that in any way? Are there any projected implications into the future if these restrictions were to continue?

The Minister of State has answered many of the questions I may have had in the address he has given. I wish him well with his work. It is not an easy task, I am sure. I also commend his officials in the Department and the Forest Service on the work they are doing.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad this afternoon and thank him for coming to discuss this most important issue. Ash dieback disease is a relatively recently described fungal disease of ash, which was first named back as far as 2006, although ash dieback symptoms had been noticed in Poland back as far as the early 1990s. The harmful reproductive stage of the fungus, a new species, was later discovered in 2010. The disease has spread rapidly across much of Europe, with the majority of European countries where ash is present now reporting the disease.

Ireland's first case of ash dieback infection was confirmed in 2012, as the Minister of State has said, in a young forestry plantation in my own county, Leitrim, which had been planted with imported trees. The trees on this site, and on ten other sites planted with the same batch of trees, were subsequently destroyed under the Department's supervision. Following this first finding, the Department carried out a major survey of ash and continues to survey for this disease in forestry plantations, nurseries, roadsides and on farms. Common ash is susceptible to Chalara, ash dieback disease, as are several other species of ash. The disease can affect ash trees of any age and in any setting. Death of trees can occur, with younger trees less than ten years old succumbing more rapidly. It is likely that plants imported from other European countries are the highest risk pathway to spread the disease in Ireland. Wood, including firewood, is also likely to be a pathway. The wide range of symptoms associated with ash dieback disease includes necrotic lesions and cankers along the bark of branches or main stem; foliage wilt; foliage discolorations, namely, brown or black discoloration at the base and midrib of the leaves; dieback of shoots, twigs or main stem, resulting in crown dieback; epicormic branching or excessive side shoots along the main stem; and a brown-orange discoloration of the bark.

To date, approximately 693 ha of ash forestry plantations have been cleared and replanted with alternative species, according to figures released by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. A high proportion of the areas cleared are plantations which were associated with infected imported batches but which were not necessarily infected. These associated plantations were destroyed on a precautionary basis. This work involved the uprooting and deep burial of about 2 million ash trees since 2012, which is a huge number of trees to be destroyed. It is important that the Government takes action on this serious problem and some measures have already been put in place. The forestry planting programme 2014-2020 provides new opportunities for landowners, including attractive forestry establishment and support grants. One of the measures currently open to applications is the reconstitution scheme. This measure provides support for those affected by ash dieback. A site clearance grant of up to €1,500 per hectare and replanting grants of up to €5,000 per hectare are available.

The recent launch of the TreeCheck app by the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, and the Northern Ireland Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Ms Michelle O'Neill, is also to be welcomed. This web-based smartphone app enables the public to help safeguard tree and forest health across the island of Ireland. It is essential that we all play our part in protecting the economy and the environment. The positive contribution that engagement by the public can make towards safeguarding plant health is increasingly recognised. TreeCheck will enable members of the public throughout Ireland to use their smartphone to report details and send a photograph of suspected trees or evidence of insect damage to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, or to the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, for investigation. Using any GPS-enabled smartphone, the location of the suspected tree may also be captured by the app to allow inspection if required. Once received, the ill-health reports will be assessed by plant health officials and will be followed up if serious pest or disease is suspected. The app will also help with the early detection of new and existing harmful pests and diseases.

Research being carried out in UCD on modelling the airborne spread of ash dieback disease will assess the risk of ash dieback across Ireland. I also recommend that further research be carried out in Ballinamore in County Leitrim, because there were several cases around that area and there is a facility there that is run by Teagasc. It would be a great opportunity for it to do more research if more ash dieback were found.

All these measures are to be welcomed. It is extremely important that we all do what we can to control the spread of ash dieback and to eliminate the disease. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today to discuss this important issue and look forward to hearing more of the views from Senators.

The Minister of State is very welcome. He played a very active role in this House over some years a number of years ago. I am delighted to see he is now responsible for this area. He has given us some interesting information today. He mentioned that approximately "693 ha of infected and associated ash plantations have been cleared and replanted with alternative species". He told us that this work "has involved the uprooting and deep burial of approximately 2 million ash trees since October 2012". I think it is an amazing body of work. The Minister of State and the entire team behind him are to be congratulated on that work.

In the UK, a website, www.ashtag.org, and a smartphone app were introduced some years ago to encourage the public to report trees showing any of the symptoms about which we should worry. I am glad to see that a new app, TreeCheck, which will cover North and South of the Border, has been introduced this month. It has been suggested that we could also use satellite imagery to better tackle this issue. Could we give grants to community groups to plant alternative trees?

On a point of order, I am finding it difficult to hear Senator Quinn. Perhaps the volume could be increased.

It is not the Senator's fault.

Is there a noise somewhere? Perhaps I am not speaking loudly enough.

I can hear the Senator clearly. There must be some difficulty with the microphone.

I will get closer to the microphone. Could we give grants to community groups to plant alternative trees? I realise that Coillte is overseeing this area. If grant assistance were available, it might get local communities more interested in the problem and raise awareness of the issue even further.

This is an opportunity to consider an environmental issue. I mentioned the Brent goose when we debated another environmental issue in this House some years ago. I have mentioned the Brent goose on a few occasions since then because I have taken a real interest in it. The Brent goose arrives on 23 October and leaves on 23 April, which was just last week. After I mentioned the Brent goose during a debate in the Seanad some years ago, I was contacted by RTE as I was considered to be an expert on it. I would love to become an expert on the ash tree and on the problems in this area.

As we are having a debate on the environment and on what can happen here, I would like the Minister of State to comment on biodiversity. I could not get over it when I learned that 955 species, including the wood mouse, the squirrel, the bullfinch, the wren, the bat and the beetle, reportedly rely on ash trees. It seems that 45 of these species - certain beetles, moths and flies - rely solely on ash trees. Is it likely that such species will decline or even become extinct in Ireland due to the cutting of ash trees? What sort of measures are we taking to address this issue? We probably feel we could do without beetles, moths and flies, but we should remember what happened in China under Mao when he decided to get rid of the sparrow. It created havoc because it is all part of the environment, of nature and of what is needed.

I was interested to hear that scientists based in the UK are sequencing the genome of a resistant tree, known as tree 35, which was found in Denmark. Perhaps there is a future for ash trees. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

It is worth drawing attention appropriately to a book, The Ash Tree, by Mr. Oliver Rackham, that was published recently. I am sure the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has considered the book, which argues that forestry services should:

Plant fewer trees, more expensive trees, wider apart, and take proper care of them. Stop making tree-planting a default option. Revive the science [or study] of tree pathology [or disease].

While I have not read the entire book - I have seen a few quotes from it - I am sure it is a very interesting book to have a look at. The point made by Mr. Rackham is that we should move beyond forestry as a commercially planned and executed commodity and towards a consideration of the ecological constraints and risks that apply to it. One of the more interesting arguments in his book is that we should forget about thinking about winning the ash dieback disease fight as it is futile. According to Mr. Rackham, it would be much better to concentrate on the next wave of invader coming behind ash dieback, the emerald ash borer beetle, about which I had not heard before but which he calls "one of the most feared beetles on earth". Are we considering this potential new threat? What, if anything, can we do to protect ourselves from such threats? I would be interested to hear the Minister of State's views on this. Do we have any plan for this particular threat or similar threats?

I know that when the question of ash dieback first cropped up in 2012 - at least that was when we first heard of it - people immediately thought about hurling. It was interesting to hear Senator Ó Domhnaill speaking about the effect of this problem on hurling. In 2012, people were concerned that we would have to import ash from elsewhere in order to be able to play our national game. It seemed out of the question that timber from some other country would have to be used. It looks like that is something we are going to have to live with unless we manage to overcome this problem. I am delighted this debate is taking place today in the presence of the Minister of State and his team. I believe this matter is worthy of debate and of the action the Minister of State has promised to take.

I welcome Councillor John Paul Feeley, who is a member of the board of governors of UCD, to the Visitors Gallery.

I welcome my constituency colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, to the House. Perhaps he might tell us whether something wrong with John O'Dwyer's hurley caused the ball to go right of the post by two inches last year. Was it affected by ash dieback? The Minister of State might comment on that when he is bringing the debate to a conclusion.

On a more serious note, I commend the Minister of State and all his staff on all the work that is being done. In July of last year, when I raised this matter on the Adjournment, there was a great deal of panic about this issue because ash dieback was springing up all over the country and we did not know whether we could control it. There were fears for the future of the game of hurling. I accept that ash is used to make many other items, including furniture. A massive number of people - approximately 350 - are directly employed in the hurley-making industry. As others have said, more than 350,000 hurleys are made in this country each year. Strangely enough, we did not take much notice of where this timber came from until ash dieback appeared. We import 80% of the timber. Just 20% of it is produced in this country.

I am very pleased with the work of the Minister of State and with the approach the Department has taken. As a Tipperary man, I am proud that the Minister of State has led the way since he came into the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We need to tackle this head-on. I want to raise a couple of issues that need to be addressed. Perhaps the Minister of State can debate and discuss them. There are concerns about the policy of burying the trees rather than disposing of them by burning them. I would like the Minister of State to comment on the suggestion that it is possible for the spores to regenerate themselves and spread as a result of that.

Concern has been expressed about the decision to take ash out of all grant assistance supports, including the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme and the schemes involving the replanting of land and the planting of land for the first time. Such planting is being encouraged by the Minister of State. I commend him on the most recent initiative he introduced in recent months, which involves the planting of land. There are now some very good financial incentives for farmers to get involved. Ash would be ideal for land that would not be suitable for other agricultural purposes. However, we are not replanting ash and not providing grant assistance. Incidentally, the replenishment scheme does not allow for ash to go back in. A different species has to go in. While I welcome the provision of money and grant assistance to take out ash and deal with this issue, I note that ash cannot be put back in. I am concerned about the stocks for the future. The Minister of State might comment on how we are going to deal with that.

While I welcome the research that is going on, I wonder whether we should be doing much more of it on home soil. We are giving financial and other support to projects in England and elsewhere in the UK that are trying to deal with this problem. Perhaps we should consider dealing with it by building up resistance in plants in Ireland as opposed to supporting the concept in England. Will the Minister of State comment on that? Perhaps there is more expertise available in the UK - I do not know. I would like an answer in this regard.

The excellent co-operation with Northern Ireland has been alluded to.

The smartphone app launched recently by the Minister of State and the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development in the North, Ms Michelle O'Neill, is a fantastic idea. Senator Whelan and I were talking about it yesterday because ash trees planted in our areas have not come into leaf yet. I was able to show the Senator a photograph of a diseased tree depicting exactly what is involved. Everybody is interested in this matter not only because of the hurley, but also because we do not want to see the disease spreading across the country. As Senator Comiskey said, it is brilliant that one can take a photograph and send it off so any problem can be dealt with immediately.

Perhaps the Minister of State will comment on the company in Cork, Treemetrics, that claims it can identify the disease by way of satellite imagery and thus help to eliminate it. This was raised in the national media recently by a colleague of the Minister of State, Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP and former president of the GAA. He felt the company has a lot to offer. Has the Department taken up its offer? What are the Minister of State's views on the company's concept? Everything we can do to reduce the incidence of the disease should be done. If this technology can be employed, we should use it.

I am very much encouraged by the figures the Minister of State has outlined. If the current trend continues, there will have been in the order of only 25 cases in 2015, based on six in the first four months, as opposed to 120 in 2012, when the disease was first identified. This is an excellent outcome. I have no doubt it is as a result of the work done by the Department, led by the Minister of State. It is important that we keep on top of this and ensure that when we develop a resistant species, we provide grant incentives to address the issue of the 2 million trees that have been taken out. That is a massive number of hurleys. A mature tree provides in the order of six to eight hurleys, as the Minister of State knows. If 2 million trees are taken out, we must make provision to replant them when we have the disease under control. As a fellow Tipperaryman, I say well done to the Minister of State and ask him to get us a few good hurleys for Tipperary this year if he can.

As a Cavan man and half a Tipperary man, I am not going to comment on that. Maybe the Senator should take a look at the players.

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Aon uair a chloisim faoi ash dieback, ní féidir liom ach smaoineamh ar an iar-Aire Stáit, Shane McEntee, nach maireann, go ndéana Dia trócaire air, mar gurb é a thógadh na díospóireachtaí ar an ábhar sin sa Teach seo. Smaoinimid go háirithe inniu air.

Any time I hear of ash dieback, I recall the former Minister of State, the late Shane McEntee, taking the debates here in the House. It was a lovely gesture that we actually planted a tree in his honour in the back garden in Leinster House. It is important that we remember him during this debate.

I, too, welcome the comments on the co-operation with the North. It is very positive that there is such great co-operation. It is quite amusing that, at times, certain Senators try to intimate Sinn Féin is not fit to be in government anywhere at all, but it is quite obvious from the co-operation between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in particular, and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in the North that we are certainly well up for the game. Minister O'Neill is doing a very good job and works very well with all the Ministers here. We intend to do this across all Departments if we are in government.

I liked Senator Quinn's thoughts on community grants to help with the replanting of the trees. Certainly, we need to increase our biodiversity. I recommend a model used in Galway by Terryland Forest Park. We have seen that a tract of unused land that people regarded as unfit for anything could be turned into a wonderful education facility and city forest park.

As we have seen, ash dieback has been found at 120 locations nationwide and resulted in the felling of 1,300 acres of forest, according to media sources. The Minister might comment on that because his figures indicate 694 acres have been felled and replanted. Has the acreage mentioned by the media been felled but not replanted? Despite concerted official attempts to eradicate ash dieback, the number of cases has doubled in the past year. The disease has now been found in every county except Roscommon, Westmeath, Louth and Laois. The Native Woodland Trust warned that the disease has spread so widely for so long that it is now "unstoppable". According to the trust's chairman, Jim Lawlor, the first case of the disease was discovered in ash plants that had been imported three years earlier. This meant the disease had a long time to spread before its discovery prompted action to try and eradicate it.

Ash dieback disease spreads very rapidly and can infect trees within a 25-mile radius every year, which means the 149 cases the Minister of State mentioned could spread very quickly if we do not continue to be vigilant. The only hope for Irish ash trees is that some native varieties will have sufficient genetic resistance and not succumb to it. As the Minister of State knows, Teagasc's forestry expert has noted the only hopeful sign is that nearly all cases of ash dieback have been in young trees rather than more established ones. One of the negative consequences of the spread of ash dieback is that official restrictions on ash imports related to the disease have led to prices for ash wood rising from around €9.50 or €10 per plank to €12. This has the potential to have serious consequences for indigenous SMEs, especially those involved in the hurley-making business.

Ash has a very strong cultural place in Irish society as the wood for hurleys. The disease highlights the need for a scientific approach to tree breeding and genetics to make sure we are planting the right varieties in the future.

The extensive areas that have been cleared of trees comprise an obvious source of concern. The figures include areas cleared on a preventative basis where trees were found to be from the same batch as infected trees. Has there been an investigation into how the trees were brought to the country initially? We know it came from imported ash. Are there consequences for those who might have been involved in the importation? Were they even aware they were importing affected trees? The Minister of State might share information on this if he has any.

As the Minister of State said, there have been 59 confirmed cases in ash plantations, with 19 in horticultural nurseries. There have been cases concerning farm and roadside planting, with others in hedgerows, garden centres and private gardens.

Meanwhile, another tree-killer, Japanese larch disease, has now been detected in 30 locations. Gougane Barra forest park in County Cork has been laid to waste by the disease, as a major outbreak there has led to 16,000 trees being felled, with the park to remain closed until summer. It is now very clear that ash dieback has spread the length and breadth of the island. Across the water in Britain, in 2012, the disease was found in 291 sites. By January of this year, officials found the disease in 949 sites. Most experts now accept there is little chance of killing the disease, with all activity focused on simply slowing its spread. Scientific research and official reports from both Britain and Ireland suggest that Government efforts so far have had little impact. In the United Kingdom, more than £16.5 million has been spent tackling ash dieback and other tree diseases, including on trying to find a strain of ash resistant to the Chalara fungus. That search has so far been fruitless and scientists believe the ash problem will eventually spread into every woodland in the country. The problem is the biggest threat to Irish woodlands since Dutch elm disease killed off millions of mature trees in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ash dieback has considerable environmental implications and could have a devastating impact on other species. A total of 955 species rely on ash trees, including wood mice, squirrels, bullfinches, wrens, bats and beetles. Of these, 45 species rely solely on ash, including the large ash bark beetle, centre-barred sallow moth and scarce yellow pinter crane fly, which are all likely to become extinct in Ireland. The disease, which causes rapid leaf loss, works particularly quickly on young plants, killing them within a year. We are all in agreement that this is very serious. We support the Departments, North and South, in the eradication of this disease. We certainly cannot let our guard down.

I, too, welcome to the House and commend the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes. There is no better man on this issue. He not only has the capacity to deal with it but also has a personal interest in and grá for the topic. That is the kind of focus we require when it comes to a challenge of this nature. It would be wrong not to have regard to the work of his predecessor, our much-beloved late colleague and former Minister of State, Shane McEntee.

We are grateful for the prompt intervention on the part of the late Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Shane McEntee, and of the Department officials, which the current Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, and the officials have continued in an attempt to meet this challenge head on.

As others have said, the ash plant has an iconic position in Irish history, folklore, heritage, sport and culture. It always struck me as bizarre that even prior to the problem of ash dieback we imported such a volume of ash because it is so central to national games. It underscores and reminds us that, where possible. we should at all times endeavour to establish import substitution, a phrase that was popular in the 1980s, especially in the area of forestry and food. That has an economic, ecological and environmental advantage because it cuts down on air miles and the carbon footprint. We should have been more alert to this as a policy through the decades. I am not laying responsibility for this at the Minister of State’s door.

The Minister of State’s report and statement are as comprehensive and thorough an account as we have had on any topic over the past four years. I commend him and the officials on that. I am often first into the charge to wear an ash plant off a few lads if I think it necessary here but fair play is good sport. We are on top of it and are not operating in isolation. It is good to hear about the measures taken abroad and I hope there will be a breakthrough in developing a disease resistant strain to re-establish our ash plantations with vigour. Perhaps we could get in behind that in a robust way to support it through a policy platform and grant aid to restore the ash plantations and forests across the country.

As an aside, I defer to a man who is an expert in these matters, Senator Comiskey, who tells me that if one can see out through the branches of an ash tree whose leaves are not fully filled in, it is time enough to sow the potatoes. I was heartened by that at the weekend and I checked and managed to get a few spuds in and did not feel too bad that the ash tree had not come into full bloom.

I am glad that Senator Quinn broadened the debate to deal with biodiversity, habitat and the other connections within our forestry, and the delicate balance of nature. That is an important issue. This is not just a question of ash trees; it has implications for many other species of flora and fauna. In the spirit of that point, I take the opportunity to ask a question now rather than put it down for a Commencement debate. If I had raised it with the Leader of the House, he would have said the Minister of State with responsibility for forestry will be in the House in an hour and to take it up with him. I do not expect a comprehensive answer to the question today, which deals with access to our forests as amenity.

There is alarm and nothing short of consternation in my community in Portarlington that Coillte has put Rathleash-Tierhogar wood, near Killenard, up for sale. The consultation amounted to someone going around to people’s doors with a leaflet to state Coillte was putting the forest up for sale. That is not meaningful consultation. This is an ancient wood, with many of its trees aged between 50 and 80 years. The thought that these beech and sycamore trees would go up in smoke as firewood is abhorrent, particularly in the context of this debate about salvaging our forestry, our ash plantations and their value. I accept we must manage our forests and that many of them are commercial plantations sown for harvesting. This is a natural amenity, a nature reserve which is home to the red squirrel and to over 30 species of birds, not to mention the wild garlic and bluebells that carpet the forest floor at this time of year.

It is not correct procedure that Coillte, on behalf of the State or on the Minister of State’s behalf, who represents the citizen, can unilaterally put a piece of forestry up for sale by private treaty when we do not know who will buy it or for what purpose. Surely that is not the kind of accountable or transparent process we require. Where possible, we should always seek to work in tandem and co-operation with communities to vest such a reserve by a long-term lease in the community which could work to become its custodian, to preserve it, to ensure public access and to ensure it is retained as a community amenity.

There is a broader policy issue at stake that someone can buy State forestry without our knowing who the buyer is, or his or her intention, and the only consultation is a leaflet dropped through the letter box stating it is for sale. I do not expect the Minister of State to give an immediate response but there is a policy issue and protocol to be addressed not just in respect of the Portarlington woodland, but around the country.

I welcome the Minister of State. I thank the Leader for bringing this debate to the House today because I called for it some weeks ago, following the retirement of Henry Shefflin, when I said he was a mighty man on the field but left many broken bits of ash behind him. I know it is an issue close to the Minister of State’s heart because he comes from County Tipperary. There are as many hurley makers and ash growers in his county as in mine. I still play a bit of junior B hurling with my local club. Playing at that level there is quite a large turnover of ash, dishing it out and taking it.

Ash dieback has gone under the radar. We have seen how the Department has tackled livestock diseases such as foot and mouth. This has major implications not only for the ash growers, but for hurley makers, clubs and families. The hurley is often the first thing put into a child’s cradle, especially in the hurling counties, and is often the last thing left on a coffin when a good man is being put down. The symbol of the hurley is of great importance to Ireland. Hurley making is a craft that needs to be given special recognition and protection either by the European Union or the Government here because it is entering a period of crisis, especially with ash dieback. Coillte has maintained a supply of the native ash to the hurley makers. It has maintained the price at approximately €8.50 a plank, whereas private suppliers importing ash from all over Europe, from Holland to Slovakia, charge hurley makers €10.50 a plank. If ash dieback disease takes hold in our native plant, having shown itself in a couple of plantations, it will have diabolical consequences.

Only one tree out of 1,000 ash trees in a plantation shows a form of immunity to ash dieback. It is phenomenal that a whole plantation could be wiped out by the disease. Research by the scientist whose name escapes me shows that ash dieback does not proliferate through bark on the tree. Has the Department looked into a relaxation of the regulation that any imported ash must be barkless? It is not an issue that will be on the front pages but it has major implications for the GAA and the sustainability of our native ash suppliers and craftsmen. This has the potential to push the cost of ash sky high. I do not know if the Minister of State has thought about a subsidy for hurley makers so that they can offset the costs. The Minister of State is from Tipperary and my crowd are familiar with the Golden-Kilfeacle and we know about "The Combo" and Annacarty. We probably taught them how to use the ash over there. However, this is a serious issue.

Is there some recognition for the unique craft of hurley making, which is unique to Ireland? The hurley is a symbol pushed into the hands of every visiting dignitary after a pint of Guinness. Barack Obama was given one as was Prince Philip, when he visited Croke Park. In "Charlie", the television series about Mr. Haughey, he gave a camán to the Iraqi delegation to bring back to Saddam. It is a major symbol for our country. From speaking to hurley makers, the imported ash is not of the same quality and many of them will not go near it. Can we introduce a quality standard to separate native ash from imported ash? Maybe the Department should look at the issue. I thank the Minister of State for taking the debate, which has implications for ash growers, hurley makers and families the length and breadth of the country.

I invite the Minister of State to respond and I am sure there will be some hard pulling.

No, there will not be any hard pulling.

I sincerely thank Senators for their constructive contributions. Senator Ó Domhnaill referred to the shortage of ash, which was also raised by Senator Heffernan and almost all speakers. Everyone is concerned about the shortage of ash and the concern of the forestry service and the Department is to try to deal with this in the best way possible, with the best back-up and scientific knowledge available. At all times, the Department co-operated with the GAA, which we met on several occasions after it requested meetings. I thank the GAA for its input. It agreed to provide funding for research.

With regard to the question of hurley makers, it is an unusual and brilliant craft. Senator Denis Landy referred to the numbers in Limerick and Tipperary in Munster and beyond. We must try to protect the craft. We have had roundtable discussions with hurley makers on many occasions and we try to resolve the points they raise on an ongoing basis.

However, we face a crisis involving a disease with which we are trying to deal. It is an airborne disease and Senator Denis Landy questioned whether it should be burned or whether burying under clay was enough. That is enough because once it is covered with clay, it cannot be airborne.

One can import timber but it would be far better to have timber here and to cut down the trees. Last Saturday, I was in a plantation in Dundrum, a few miles from where I live. It is a fabulous young plantation which will be fit for harvesting. There is no disease in it and it will come on stream. The soil in Tipperary is suitable for growing ash, which is why there is so much of it there. Many trees are being thinned so that they will be ready for harvesting in a few years' time. They will be sawn up and used in hurley production.

Clubs, including the ones mentioned by Senator Heffernan in Tipperary, have asked me where the timber will come from. This is why the GAA, at central council level, has became involved with the Department. Without giving definite guarantees, which I cannot do, I assure Senators everything is being done to ensure there will be a supply of hurleys through what is available in Ireland. If not, we will be allowed to import. That great skill will keep going and I would encourage the production of hurleys here. Given the cost of hurleys for young players, they are moving to plastic hurleys. They are not as good and we should not encourage them because of the tradition and craft that goes with hurley making.

With regard to making available subsidies, this matter was raised but at this time, a subsidy is not the right way to do it. Maybe through Leader companies, something could be put in place in the future. It is a matter that can be discussed. If young people want to set up a business and make hurleys, the Government should not stand in their way.

Many Senators referred to the new forestry scheme introduced earlier this year, which is having a huge impact. We must encourage forestry and a change in attitude among farmers who traditionally had a few animals on the land. They should see forestry as a crop that can be harvested and sent to the mill. It can create rural employment. Over 10,000 people are employed in the forestry industry and more trucks are drawing timber to mills in Ireland than are drawing cattle to meat plants and factories. That is an amazing statistic which can be built on. The Government is fully committed to the forestry programme.

I am at pains at all times to encourage people to use their marginal land. I am not speaking in this regard about good land that can be used for dairy or beef production. There is a huge amount of marginal land throughout the country that could be made available for forestry. Like Senator Ó Domhnaill, I would encourage far more productive use of that land than is currently the case. There are many schemes in place to support this, through which substantial revenue can be gained. Many people who have inherited farms but live in Dublin, including in my own area, could ensure that land is put to good use. This would be of real value to the economy, not only in the context of jobs in rural areas but in the context of achievement of our carbon reductions. The new forestry programme has the support of all of the main farming organisations. It is a programme of which I, too, am fully supportive.

TreeMetrics was mentioned in the context of an app launched last year. The app we launched last week with the Northern Ireland Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O'Neill, was in relation to the disease. TreeMetrics is the organisation that developed the technology which allows a forest owner to measure the quantity of wood in his or her forest prior to selling it. This is of major advantage to private forestry owners, particularly those with no great knowledge in this area. It is a good idea, which I launched last year.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh spoke about co-operation with Northern Ireland and the Minister for Agriculture and rural Development, Michelle O'Neill. There is North-South co-operation on a huge range of issues across the agriculture industry. This morning, I visited the Teagasc centre in Ashtown in relation to its research on the future of food, on which issue there is North-South co-operation. I welcome the opportunity to work in co-operation with Northern Ireland and have no qualms in doing so.

Senator Quinn and others raised the issue of biodiversity. I am aware of the importance of further research to assess the impact of ash disease on the environment. In regard to the book from which the Senator read a passage, I would like to have a look at that book. FRAXBACK action, which I referred to earlier, is a collaboration of more than 100 scientists to address this issue. The Department will work with this group into the future.

Senator Quinn also made an important point on an issue close to my heart, namely, community involvement in the growth of trees. Agencies such as Coillte and private foresters grow trees for financial advantage. Grants are available under the new GLAS scheme for the plantation by people of groups of trees on the roadside, on farms and so on. Local authorities and councils also provide grants for the planting of trees. The greater the number of trees planted by tidy towns committees etc., the more points they get. We should try to ensure that into the future local authorities encourage the planting of more trees in our towns, villages, streets and schools. Last year, I planted a tree in the local school in my area. This created great conversation among the schoolchildren and had a great impact on the immediate environment. Forestry is a subject of interest to many people. There are so many different varieties of trees, some of which take a long time to grow while others are fast growing. It is an issue of huge environmental connect. I support the Senator's call for the payment of grants into the future in respect of tree planting. It may be possible to do so through tidy towns committees and so on.

Senator Whelan raised an issue relevant to his constituency. I have received correspondence on this matter, not only from the Senator but from many people in his constituency. I acknowledge this is an issue. I am due to visit the area next Saturday week and would be happy to meet then any group to discuss the issue. Since taking up my post as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine I have had a lot of dealings with Coillte. In my opinion, it is pro-development of walkways countrywide, including through forests. The Forest Service is encouraging community development and involvement in this regard. There is also a scheme in place through which financial aid is available to communities. Walkways are being opened up through the Galtee Mountains in Tipperary, in Kerry and many other areas. I commend Coillte on its work throughout the country in terms of the development of tourism from forestry. Rather than hammering Coillte, I would like to work with it on these issues. I have listened to and heard what the Senator had to say and I am happy to meet a deputation on the issue when I am in the area next Saturday week.

I thank Senators from all sides of the House for the opportunity to debate this issue. I also thank my officials who, as rightly pointed out by many Senators, have worked very hard on addressing this issue. It is not an easy problem to resolve. We do not know where we will be in this regard in six months time. I cannot give any guarantees as we do not know what will happen. During our discussions on this matter prior to coming to the Seanad for this debate, one of my officials pointed out to me that there is no way we can anticipate what might happen six or 12 months down the road. We are protecting the species. Reference was made to the European issue. We are ahead of what is being done in Europe because of the importance of this to our country. I again thank the officials from all sections of the Department for their commitment and dedicated work on this issue.

I take this opportunity to also thank my predecessor, the late Shane McEntee, to whom many Senators referred, for his great work and leadership on this issue.


Hear, hear.

Sitting suspended at 2.10 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.