“Once a new disease has been detected and the bureaucracy has clanked into action, it is too late … I put this point to an official speaker [at a conference in Ireland], who bleated that nothing could be done because of rules against restriction of trade. The World Trade Organisation will not let the stable door be shut until the plant pathologists are quite certain that the horse has been stolen” – Oliver Rackham, Woodlands (2006)
The point the late Oliver Rackham put to the Department official in 2004 was about protecting ash against the invasive ash dieback but he was even more concerned about the emerald ash borer. Ash dieback arrived with a vengeance eight years later and the destructive emerald ash borer is making its inexorable way in our direction from eastern Europe.
Rackham believed that trade restrictions should have been in place long before the deadly fungal pathogen Hymenoscyphus fraxineus arrived here in 2012.
Regardless of who is to blame for its introduction to Ireland, “one thing is certain, it was not the ash plantation owners’ fault”, said Jackie Cahill, chair of the Oireachtas committee, at a recent meeting between Department officials and members of the committee.
The loss of ash is incalculable from a commercial, heritage, social and sporting context. Just like elm, a few resistant trees will remain to remind us of what is lost and what may be restored if our researchers can develop ash tree genetic resources with resistance to dieback.
The restoration of ash as a major tree in the Irish landscape is now outside our control, dependent as it is on research progress by Irish and European geneticists.
The restoration of confidence in our afforestation programme – which coincided with ash dieback – is within our control. This dramatic fall in afforestation, particularly native species, will have long-term implications for Ireland’s forestry programme unless ash dieback is addressed to the satisfaction of the people who planted and nurtured it.
It is already resulting in a declining native woodland estate and it has exposed some ash woodland owners to financial ruin.
Declining native woodland resource
In the 2017 National Forestry Inventory, there were approximately 178,100ha of native species in Ireland. In the 10 years preceding the introduction of ash dieback, annual planting of native species was 2,500ha.
In the following years, annual native species afforestation fell from 1,492ha to an estimated 800ha this year.
If planting continued at pre-2012 levels, 25,000ha would have been added to the private forest estate instead of the expected 10,000ha by next year. When the 25,300ha of diseased ash is excluded from the inventory, it is likely that the native forest estate – public and private – will have reduced from a potential 30% of all species by the middle of this decade to 19%.
The area of native species depends on future afforestation programmes and what plantation owners do with their diseased ash plantations.
Most of these have not engaged with the Reconstitution and Underplanting Scheme (RUS), which provides no compensation. Those who wish to replant with conifers are forced to apply for planning permission to their local county councils.
There is a cohort emerging who may not replant but let the woodland back to pasture, in defiance of the replanting obligation.
The only way to rescue the native woodland estate is to provide an ash compensation scheme as outlined in the Oireachtas committee report and again stated by Jackie Cahill at last week’s meeting.
Department secretary general Brendan Gleeson was told by Deputy Cahill “it would only be natural justice if they again had access to the forestry premium”.
Deputy Cahill was referring to ash plantation owners, who have lost an income of up to €60,000/ha from hurley ash alone and a continuous income from sales to firewood, furniture and other markets. The restoration of premium payments “would give them a chance to replant and have confidence in forestry again”, said Deputy Cahill.
Gleeson did not rule out compensation but could “not make a commitment” at the meeting. He said: “There must always be a balance between what the taxpayer should pay in cases like this.”
The taxpayer would surely understand that owners of diseased woodlands, who are obliged to replant, should be compensated as they are unlikely to ever see a return on investment under the RUS. Their pension fund and lump sum at final harvest have been wiped out.
A 15-year premium payment would be small compensation for maintaining a native woodland resource and restoring confidence in forestry.
Those who are forced to replant this year with conifers will receive a pension, now delayed by 20 years, and a lump sum by mid-century.
It is tantamount to a civil servant being told at retirement age, that he/she will receive a pension in 20 years’ time and a lump sum after 30 years. The analogy is not misplaced as ash woodland owners too entered a partnership with the State. Their loss must be accepted by the State.
Build local at forestry conference
Apart from displacing fossil-based materials, building in wood has other advantages. It rates highly in embodied energy or the amount of energy needed to produce a unit of timber compared with other structural materials.
It can also be sourced locally, avoiding large transport costs and energy.
Sourcing timber locally was one of the conditions that Cygnum Building Offsite, Macroom, Co Cork, had to fulfil before winning the Burry Port Community School project in Wales.
The prominent new-build aspects include the first Passivhaus school building in Wales. This is one of the projects featured in the national forestry conference, “The right trees in the right places for the right reasons”, taking place as a webinar on 14 October.
John Desmond, managing director of Cygnum, in a presentation titled “Wood in the community – timber frame construction from local forests”, will discuss the building, which “focuses on health and wellbeing and sets the bar higher for the schools of the future”.
Finished in locally sourced Welsh-grown Japanese larch, the building is constructed using the Brettstapel method, which involves using short softwood lengths held together with hardwood dowels that swell and tighten with exchanging moisture content.
The conference has a wide range of speakers including Dr David Styles, University of Limerick, who will discuss “the role of forestry in achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050”, while Dr Elaine McGough, An Taisce, will present a paper on “the role of forestry in environmental conservation”.
Other speakers include Jo O’Hara, managing director at FutureArk Ltd and former CEO of Scottish Forestry and Marina Conway, CEO Western Forestry Co-op, while Minister Pippa Hackett will provide the keynote address.
Stuart Goodall, CEO, Confor, will discuss Scottish forestry where the afforestation programme has averaged 11,000ha over the past three years.
Matt Crowe, former director of the EPA, and Éanna Ní Lamhna will chair the event.
A full list of speakers and topics will be announced by Pat O’Sullivan shortly.
Further information is available from the Society of Irish Foresters by email (email@example.com) or on www.societyofirishforesters.ie.
More details on the conference will be announced shortly through Eventbrite. There is a €30 booking fee.
The conference is part-funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.