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File image of an ash tree sapling dying from ash dieback disease as its leaves wither. Alamy Stock Photo
Ash blowback

Forestry group says €80 million ash dieback scheme is of ‘no benefit to those in trouble’

Limerick and Tipperary Woodland Owners said a ‘catch-all’ scheme doesn’t work.

A FORESTRY GROUP has said that a new €80 million scheme to support those impacted by ash dieback disease is “of no benefit to those in trouble”.

Simon White, chair of the Limerick and Tipperary Woodland Owners (LTWO), told The Journal that an individual approach needs to be taken rather than a “catch-all” scheme.

This week, Cabinet approved a scheme that will offer a €2,000 per hectare clearance grant rate, as well a payment of €5,000 per hectare to owners who have fully engaged with the Agriculture Department’s reconstitution schemes.

But White said it’s not possible to get quotation from a contractor for clearance works for less than €5,500, and that works can cost up to €7,000.

“A €2,000 per hectare clearance grant leaves people who have already had massive loss needing to go to the bank and borrow up to €4,000 to take the trees out,” said White.

He added that that the €5,000 payment falls well short of the typical loss, which an independent forestry evaluation put at €40,000.

White also hit out at the scheme for “forcing farmers who have lost their entire crop of trees to stay in forestry”.

Ash dieback is a fungal disease that was most likely imported into Ireland and is spread by spores in the wind.

Once the fungus infects a tree, the dead or dying branches become brittle and fall.

Over time, the tree loses nutrition, water and the leaves which produce its food.

Trees have no natural defence to it, and it is usually fatal.

“It should have been prevented by the Government, but they failed to do so,” said White.

“Once the disease comes in, it runs rampant, and it doomed our most important tree, which was the ash tree.”

White noted that many growers in the 90s planted ash trees because a large portion of the ash used to make hurls for the game of hurling was it imported.

“So we decided we could do that ourselves and after 25 years, you’d start harvesting your trees and planting again and you’d have a nice little business,” said White.

“This was a surefire winner, but we weren’t protected when disease came in.”

He said the initial response of the government to the disease was to ban the importation of any more ash trees in late 2012, which he said was “bolting the stable door after the horse has gone”.

White then said the second plan was to ban the planting of any more ash “because it was money down the drain”.

He added that the third ploy was to introduce a scheme to try to control the spread of the disease by enticing people to take out impacted trees in the early stages of the disease.

“That just didn’t work because there’s no way of controlling the disease,” said White.

He told The Journal that “there was an idea that if you took out impacted trees and left other trees, they would have a vigorous growth but that couldn’t and didn’t work”.

An independent review was then commissioned last June and it returned with its recommendations in October.

However, White said many of these recommendations were “ignored”.

One in particular was a call for an “one-off ex-gratia payment as recognition of the absence of an effective scheme between 2018 and 2023”.

“It said there needs to be compensation for the losses the people incurred,” said White, “especially when they couldn’t salvage anything and that needs an ex gratia payment to do that.

“We are being told we’re very fortunate that the government is doing wonderful things in giving us €5,000 per hectare, which doesn’t even cover the cost of getting get rid of the trees.”

However, White described it as a “complex situation” because there is a tension between those who planted trees in the 90s and those who planted last decade.

“The people who planted before the ban, those trees are very young, and they are not expensive to take out,” said White.

“So a catch-all of €5,000 per hectare might suit them but you can’t have a catch-all for everybody when you have somebody who’s got 12-year-old plants, and others who have planted in the 90s.”

White also claimed that the issue is “never going to get solved” and described the Department of Agriculture’s forestry services as an “absolute mess”.

“Minister of State Hackett said they haven’t got an IT system capable of dealing with this for a good few months before they can even start dealing with applications,” said White.

Speaking to Today with Claire Byrne on RTÉ, Hackett said a specific IT system had not been examined yet and will take a “month or two” to build.

White also said that groups like his weren’t consulted in the scheme.

“The Department went ahead and designed this on their own, and now that people are seeing the devil in the detail, they realise it’s kicking the can further down the road and there’ll be no benefit to those who really are in trouble,” said White.

The LTWO plans to hold a protest outside Leinster House on 29 May to “demand the immediate implementation of the ash dieback review report recommendations in full”.

White also raised concerns about bark beetles, which attack conifer trees.

“We have the bark beetle knocking on our door and the government is doing absolutely nothing to protect us from the importation of saw log from Scotland where they have the bark beetle.

“If we import that, just like ash dieback, we’ll never get rid of it and it will wipe out all our commercial trees in Ireland.

“If it comes in and we’re treated the same way as we were with ash, we’re going to be left hung out to dry again, so we’re shaking in our boots.”

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