Ash trees are one of the most common and beloved trees in Ireland, but they are facing a serious threat from a fungal disease called ash dieback. This disease has the potential to wipe out most of the ash trees in the country, with devastating consequences for biodiversity, culture, and economy.
What is ash dieback and how does it spread?
Ash dieback is caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, which originated in Asia and was introduced to Europe in the early 1990s through imported saplings. The fungus infects the leaves and branches of ash trees, causing them to wilt, die, and fall off. The fungus also produces spores that can travel long distances by wind or rain and infect other ash trees. The disease can affect ash trees of any age and in any setting, but it is more severe in wet sites, where it can cause collar infections that kill the tree from the base.
What are the impacts of ash dieback?
Ash dieback is a serious threat to the survival of ash trees in Ireland, as it has already spread to most parts of the island and is likely to cause the death of the majority of the ash trees over the next two decades. This will have a huge impact on the environment, as ash trees are a key component of the Irish landscape and provide habitats and food sources for many wildlife species. According to Teagasc, there are almost one thousand associated species that use the ash tree in some way or other, and some of them are dependent on ash as their sole foodplant. Losing ash trees will also affect the ecosystem services they provide, such as carbon sequestration, water regulation, and soil protection.
Ash dieback will also have a negative impact on the Irish culture and economy, as ash trees have a long and rich history in the country. Ash trees are one of the few native trees in Ireland and have been associated with many legends, myths, and folklore. They were considered sacred and noble by the ancient Brehon Laws and were used to mark important places and events. They also gave many Irish townlands and landscapes their names. Ash trees are also valued for their timber, which is used for furniture, firewood, and most notably, hurleys. The Irish sport of hurling is known as “the clash of the ash” because of the traditional use of ash wood for making the sticks. The demand for ash timber is high and the industry supports many jobs and businesses in rural areas.
What can be done to save the ash trees?
There is no cure or effective treatment for ash dieback, so the main focus is on preventing the spread of the disease and finding ways to mitigate its impacts. Some of the measures that have been taken or proposed include:
Banning the import and movement of ash plants and wood from infected areas4.
Monitoring and reporting the presence and symptoms of ash dieback in forests, woodlands, and hedgerows.
Removing and destroying infected ash trees and debris to reduce the source of spores.
Promoting the planting of alternative native tree species to enhance the diversity and resilience of the woodlands and hedgerows.
Supporting the research and breeding of ash trees that are tolerant or resistant to the disease.
Raising awareness and educating the public about the importance and value of ash trees and the threat of ash dieback.