A legal challenge to recoup forestry growers’ losses as a result of ash dieback is being actively explored.

A recent meeting of Limerick-Tipperary Woodland Owners (LTWO) gave the green light for the body to assess the viability of taking legal action.

Over 70 growers have already committed to joining what the LTWO described as a “fighting fund”.

It is envisaged that this fund will ultimately finance a test case, where an individual farmer will seek compensation for costs incurred as well as projected income losses arising out of his/her plantations being infected with ash dieback.

Ash dieback was first detected in Ireland in October 2012 on plants imported from continental Europe. The disease is now prevalent throughout the country and is likely to cause the death of the majority of Irish ash trees over the next two decades.

LTWO chair Simon White said a definite target for any legal action had not been identified, but he claimed that inadequate enforcement of plant health regulations by the Department of Agriculture contributed to the spread of the disease to Ireland.

The LTWO has rejected the Department’s existing scheme for assisting forestry owners impacted by ash dieback.

White said the €1,000/ha offered under the Reconstitution and Underplanting Scheme (RUS) for clearing infected ash plantations was totally inadequate. He said the actual cost of clearing such plantations was as high as €6,000/ha.

“RUS is not fit for purpose; that’s why growers have been left with no other choice but to explore our options legally,” he said.

“At the moment, the average forestry owner with 8ha is facing costs of €6,000/ha to clear diseased woodlands. In addition, these growers had a legitimate expectation of making around €12,000/ha in ash sales, but that income will not now be realised. These are serious losses to incur; some growers have lost their shirts. And, in our view, the losses were not the fault of the growers,” White said.

Around 2,500 forestry owners are understood to have planted close to 20,000ha of ash.

Scientific view

White pointed out that the expert scientific view is that ash dieback cannot be spread more than 30km on the wind.

“Therefore, Ireland as an island should have been able to keep ash dieback out,” he said.

White rejected comments by Department of Agriculture officials that EU rules on the free movement of goods precluded tighter import controls being enforced pre-2012.

White pointed out that a statutory ban on the importation of all ash plants was introduced in 2012 by the then Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney after the disease was identified in Ireland.

“This shows the Department had the power to stop imports sooner,” the LTWO chair said.