A highly contagious disease called fireblight is currently wreaking havoc among Irish hedgerows. The disease causes significant damage to whitethorn, which Ireland’s hedgerows are predominantly made.

Last year, the Department of Agriculture investigated 21 potential outbreaks of the disease and 17 confirmed cases were identified.

Imports of whitethorn whips from the UK are believed to be a large cause of the increased outbreak and a ban on imports has been sought by Tipperary-based group Hedgerows Ireland.

The majority of these whitethorn whips have been imported as part of farmers’ obligations under ACRES to plant hedges.

However, initially, there was a ban on non-provenance whitethorn plants but because of the huge demand from farmers for this option in the scheme, the Department of Agriculture relaxed its ban on non-Irish plants in late November 2023 when Irish-grown plants ran out.

Farmers originally had until 31 March 2024 to have their hedgerows planted.

ACRES extension

Last Thursday, however, a one-year extension was announced by the Department of Agriculture for farmers planting hedgerows under ACRES. Farmers have until 31 March 2025 to plant hedges under the scheme.

The Department told ACRES advisers that the decision was taken due to “current market restraints and limited supplies of suitable hedgerow and tree plants”.

Commenting on the annoncement, Alan Moore from Hedgerows Ireland maintained that the extension still doesn’t address the core concerns about the risks of fireblight.

“It will allow for a catch up in the shortage of imported whitethorn, but it doesn’t allow enough time for our Irish nurseries to grow Irish provenance plants to meet demand. So the risk of imported disease continues.

“Also, there will be a requirement for all imported whitethorn plants to be checked for disease prior to planting which is a very significant undertaking given the large numbers of plants involved and the lack of resources within the Department,” he said.


Other alternatives should be actively considered when planting hedgerows without whitethorn, Moore maintained.

The wide range of native Irish plants such as blackthorn, hazel, holly, spindle, field maple, willow, birch, aspen and oak should be utilised, and if there are gaps, these can be filled with whitethorn at a later stage when stocks replenish.

“Hedges nowadays don’t need to be stock-proof as they are supplemented with fencing,” Moore added.

Department resources

Hedgerows Ireland has claimed that the plant disease section within the Department of Agriculture is not resourced well enough to address the scale of the challenges presented not just by fireblight but all other plant pathogens.

“We have concerns that the staffing and resourcing of this Department is inadequate to deal with the many imported diseases which face this country and we would argue strongly that the principle of prevention being better than cure applies.

“Ash dieback is a perfect example of how failure to invest in preventing the imported of diseased ash has led to a massive economic burden in subsequent years.

“We think that there is a serious failure in the Department to respond appropriately to the scale and severity of the issues of preventing, diagnosing and dealing with these wider problems,” Moore said.

Moore also said that training should be provided for hedge cutting contractors as part of an educational campaign to tackle the spread.

The disease is partly spread via cutting equipment and some cutting techniques may increase the risk of spread, Moore explained.

Symptoms include the withering of shoots and leaves (‘Shepherd’s Stick’), cankers, and bacterial ooze.

Fireblight is known to enter through latent infections on imported plants and is suited to our temperate climate, being widespread in Northern Ireland and confirmed by the Department of Agriculture. Hedgerows Ireland also says that imported plants are genetically different to Irish provenance plants and as a result are less suited to Irish conditions and support less biodiversity.