“Ash is gone. Ash is dead,” said vice-chair of Limerick Tipperary Woodland Owners Ltd (LTWO), John O’Connell recently at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

It was a straight answer to a straight question put to him by Senator Paul Daly: “As a species, where is ash? Is ash gone?”

Dead and gone, the committee heard.

Ash dieback, caused by a fungal pathogen – Hymenoscyphus fraxineus – is a “serious disease”, according to Teagasc, which, it says, is prevalent throughout most of the island of Ireland now, and is “likely to cause the death of the majority of the ash trees over the next two decades”.

“Maybe 5% of the trees may be resistant,” O’Connell said.

“But it is going to take a long time to prove, and to get the seeds to regenerate the ash – the seeds that may be resistant. That will take years, generations maybe,” he added.

Source of disease

A sad consequence of the disease that has existed here since 2012, when it arrived on plants imported from continental Europe, is the demise of our beautiful native Irish ash tree – Fraxinus excelsior.

Did you know?
There are about 65 species of ash. Only one is native to Ireland, the common ash – Fraxinus excelsior. This is mostly found in lowlands and is common among our hedgerows. As a strong but flexible timber, it has been an ideal material for the manufacture of hurleys for many, many years.

Dáil records from November 2012, one month after the disease had been discovered in Ireland, reveal the source of the disease.

Minister of State at the DAFM at the time, Deputy Shane McEntee, explained that a suspect case had been identified in Co. Leitrim which, following molecular testing, was confirmed on October 12, 2012, as the first known instance of the disease in Ireland.

“The site was established in 2009 and was planted using material from a consignment of saplings imported from continental Europe.

“Some 30,000 individual ash trees made up the consignment, which was used in 11 separate sites throughout the country.

“Ash trees planted on the 11 sites in question have been destroyed. This involved the destruction by cutting and burning of some 30,000 trees from the imported consignment and several thousand adjoining trees, which was carried out rapidly with the cooperation of forest owners and contractors,” he said.

Results from laboratory analysis at the time confirmed that, while most of this consignment had no symptoms, in four of the other sites planted with the material, the disease was present on a very small number of trees.

One site was in Galway, two were in Tipperary, and one was in Meath.

The Dáil records show that the planting of ash was supported by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) under the afforestation scheme and the native woodlands scheme.

The establishment grant available at the time was up to €4,700 per hectare, and an annual premium was also available each year for 20 years at a rate of €481 per hectare for both schemes.

“Forest cover has grown significantly since the introduction of grant aid support for private afforestation in 1982,” the minister told the Dáil.

To put that in context, the total forest cover during that period increased from 400,000 hectares to 745,000 hectares – just under 11% of the total land area.

Ownership and species composition of the national estate had also changed in the past number of years, he said.

Planting was a popular choice for landowners who were attracted by the guaranteed financial returns.

“In 1982, 75% of Ireland’s forests were in public ownership,” the minister said.

Fast-forward to 2012 and that stood at just over half, or 53%.

Broadleaf cover also increased during that period to comprise over a quarter of the national estate, 20,000 hectares of which was ash.

What use are my awards now?

John O’Connell started his five-hectare plantation 27 years ago, in 1995, he told the committee last week.

It “looked OK last year” but not so much this year.

“My daughter and granddaughter visited at the weekend and we went through it,” he said.

“My granddaughter asked me ‘what’s wrong with the trees?’

“I said ‘they are sick’. And she asked, ‘what will happen?’ ‘They will die’. And is anyone doing anything?'”

Continuing, he told the committee:

“I can’t even cut them. I can’t even salvage whatever may be there for hurley butts, because I need a felling licence, and if I apply for a licence, it could take a year, two, three, or five,” he said.

“It is ridiculous the way we cannot manage our own plantations without this imposed regulation that isn’t applied in other parts of Europe, ” he said.

“My granddaughter asked ‘is anyone helping you?’

“And I said ‘nobody cares’.”

O’Connell told the committee that he had won numerous awards for his plantation, including the RDS/Forest Service Irish Forestry Awards on two occasions.

“What use are my awards now?” he said.

“I was used as an example of best practice, I’ve had people visit from all over the world, including 30 Swedes six weeks ago. I told them I was embarrassed to show them these ash trees.

“And, again, they asked what is being done about this, is there any support from the government? This is a disease that we have not introduced into our plantations,” he said.

He explained that he did a lot of research before he planted his land with ash, which he said was the “only viable commercial crop”.

Reading to the committee from a 1988 promotional document issued by the Department of Energy and Forest Service, he said: “Grow ash for profit, it all adds up.”

But, he said, they are now left with nothing.

He recalled a very recent conversation that he had with a landowner who has 20 acres that he wants to plant, but based on what has occurred over the last number of years, he is not going to do so.

“Forestry, he said, is in a mess,” the LTWO vice-chair told the committee.

“Last week, I got a call from a man who had borrowed money to buy a farm from his aunt, he has 100 acres in ash, and he is at his wits’ end.

“He has the bank on his back, he was hoping to repay the loan, or help to repay the loan out of his hurley butts, but his ash is gone.

“And in another case in west Cork, a man died by suicide because of his ash plantation,” he claimed.

“The mental health of all of this is horrific. People do not know what to do and we are not getting any help.”


During the Oireachtas committee meeting the Reconstitution and Underplanting Scheme (RUS) was discussed.

This scheme was established in June 2020 to offer financial support to landowners whose ash plantations have been impacted by ash dieback. It replaced an original scheme that was introduced in 2013.

Financial support offered under RUS aims to cover: site clearance or partial clearance; replacement of ash trees with alternative species following clearance; and underplanting – partial replanting of an ash plantation following partial clearance.

But the LWTO representatives were highly critical of it with the organisation’s chair, Simon White stating at the meeting that it as a ”failed initiative that was badly designed”.

He said a number of vital elements still needed to be addressed by that scheme for it to work for impacted landowners.

White said that while they were not there to apportion blame, he questioned why the DAFM had not carried out due diligence when the threat to Irish trees was discovered more than 10 years ago.

“We are not here to apportion blame. We are here to get a fair resolution to the problem, however for this to happen, it would be helpful if the pretense that everyone was powerless to prevent this catastrophe from happening was dropped.”