Forestry growers were recently invited by the Department of Agriculture to join a new stakeholder group tasked with addressing the fallout from ash dieback.

Stakeholder representation was a key recommendation of the independent review team, which examined the Department’s response to ash dieback last year.

Among those set to join the taskforce are Simon White of the Limerick Tipperary Woodland Owners and Derek McCabe of the Irish Forestry Owners (IFO) – two growers directly impacted by the disease.

We asked both farmers to outline their experiences of ash dieback, a disease which has destroyed more than 25,000ha of plantations and hit almost 6,000 growers.

Derek McCabe, Mountnugent, Co Cavan

Derek McCabe has always been a strong advocate for forestry.

He has planted a “couple of hundred acres” around his home place of Mountnugent on the Cavan/Meath border and was a strong advocate for the sector for many years.

But McCabe’s faith in forestry has been severely dented over the last decade as a consequence of his experience with ash dieback.

Although his 45ac of ash was planted in three different sites, each of these plantations was hit by the disease between 2012 and 2017.

“One by one, they got it,” McCabe recalls.

He estimates that the losses on the ash crop, which was yield class 20, will amount to around €7,000/ac or approximately €315,000 in total. This includes final harvest income, as well as that from thinnings and from the sale of hurley butts.

While these losses are a blow, McCabe says the manner in which the ash dieback crisis has been handled by the Department of Agriculture is even more frustrating.

“The leadership from the Department and Government on ash dieback has been shocking, absolutely shocking,” he says.

And these failings go right back to the early days of the disease.

He blames the Department for effectively bringing ash dieback into the Mountnugent locality, after a neighbour planted ash with saplings that were later found to be infected with the disease.

“The Department went in and took his saplings out. Now you could throw a stone from my forestry to where this guy was, yet the Department never informed me, never told me. I had no idea that was going on until long after the event,” McCabe explains.

“Now, if this was TB or anything similar to it, I’d have had a letter out the next day that my neighbour was gone down. That’s how slack the Department was back in 2013,” he maintains.

McCabe argues that a similar lack of urgency characterised the Department’s reaction when the disease emerged in semi-mature plantations.

However, he was fortunate to get two 10ac blocks into the early ash dieback support scheme or the Reconstitution and Underplanting Scheme (RUS).

“I’d say we were the last people to be approved under RUS in June 2018, before they shut down the programme,” he says.

‘Eaten alive’

“In one of the plantations, the trees were so small they were absolutely eaten alive with the disease.

“There wasn’t even chip value in the timber, no value. It was shockingly badly affected.

“We were paid €1,000/ha to take the trees out, but I would safely say it cost us double that. There was a lot of work to it. Most of it was taken out by hand with chainsaws.”

Derek McCabe.

The remaining 25ac block of ash is currently being removed under the revised RUS, or Reconstituted Ash Dieback Scheme, which was launched last year.

While this scheme increased the removal support payment to €2,000/ha, McCabe insists the process of clearing the plantations is far more expensive.

He explains that contractor charges for a harvester and forwarder are €280/hour and it takes 20 hours to clear a hectare. That comes to €5,600/ha.

Clearing the bramble that has grown between the dead trees, spraying to prevent ash regrowth and mounding for the next planting adds a further €1,700/ha.

This takes the overall cost of removing the diseased trees and preparing the ground for replanting to €7,200/ha.

Although McCabe’s plantation has delivered an average of €2,500/ha in firewood and chip income – and taking into account the €2,000/ha ash dieback support payment – the net cost of clearing the ash plantations is still €2,700/ha.

“All these costs and losses are on top of 20 to 22 years’ loss of growth in the plantations,” McCabe points out.

While the Cavan farmer accepts that, like other growers, he received planting grants and forestry premiums on his ash plantations, he does not agree that this gives the Department a free pass on compensating farmers for ash dieback.

“Those payments were to forego food production on that land. They should not be brought into the conversation on compensation for ash dieback,” McCabe says.

Looking forward to his role with the Department’s new ash dieback taskforce, McCabe insists that he will be lobbying for a quick and fair solution to the problem.

“There is a very simple solution. The Department was able to give €1,000 a few years ago [to clear affected plantations]. It was able to give €2,000 last year. If it doubled that to €4,000/ha, I don’t think there’s a farmer in the country who wouldn’t take it. They’d get on with taking out the trees,” he maintains.

Money well spent

McCabe believes such a move would represent money well spent in the long term.

The whole success of the new forestry programme depends on how the ash dieback issue is dealt with

“There are figures out there that ash dieback might cost between €800m and €1bn. But it could cost the country a lot more if it undermines the latest forestry programme,” the Cavan grower argues. “The whole success of the new forestry programme depends on how the ash dieback issue is dealt with. I’m convinced of that.”

Along with the financial fallout from ash dieback, the Department will also have to grapple with the reputational damage inflicted by the disease, McCabe contends.

“I have encouraged a lot of people to go into forestry over the years but could I honestly, at this moment in time, encourage a farmer to plant? I’d have to say no. And I say that very reluctantly because I have such a passion for trees and for the benefits of it [forestry],” he says.

“But the social contract that the Department has with foresters like myself is broken, absolutely broken.”

And this will also need to be addressed, McCabe insists.

Simon White, Askeaton, Co Limerick

Simon White hasn’t decided what he will do with the 20ac of ground that he planted with ash in 1999, but he is contemplating leaving the diseased trees in situ.

He is not convinced that he wants to replant the land to conifers, he can’t justify the cost of taking the plantation out, and now Limerick County Council is running a new road through a section of his diseased trees.

“The whole thing is a mess,” says White, who farms near the west Limerick town of Askeaton.

Close to half of White’s 212ac property is planted. Around 30ac is old mature forest, while a further 70ac block was planted in 1999. Fifty acres with conifers, with the remainder in ash.

White envisaged a healthy return on the ash plantations through firewood and hurley butts, but the trees contracted ash dieback in 2018 and were totally ravaged in the subsequent four years.

He estimates that the loss of the ash will set him back at least €120,000 – in addition to the cost of removing the trees.

White blames the Department of Agriculture for a significant proportion of his losses.

Simon White. \ Odhran Ducie

He maintains that the Department’s failure to fast-track felling licences for diseased plantations piled additional losses on to growers by preventing them taking trees out before the ash dieback got a chance to take hold.

“By 2020-21, I realised that I had trees that I should have been harvesting already for hurley butts but I needed a [felling] licence and I couldn’t get a licence,” White explains.

“I could see the timeframe that it was taking to get licences, but the disease was running through the plantations so fast that the trees would be useless by the time I got the licence,” he says.

‘Worth nothing’

“So, I was actually prevented from salvaging the worth of the trees that I had; and at that stage I estimated that my trees would be worth about €6,000/ac if I was harvesting them. Now they’re worth nothing.”

The trees are too brittle and dangerous to cut with chainsaws, White says.

“The centre of the ash is rotten. It’s gone like mush, its black and wet. And the tops of the trees are just brittle and useless. What I’ve got is a mess covered in brambles,” the Limerick farmer maintains.

Asked what he will do with his ash plantations, White is unsure.

He believes the revised Reconstituted Ash Dieback Scheme is not an option because he will only get €2,000/ha to take out the trees, but a contractor quoted him a price last year of €5,600/ha.

There is also the requirement that he will have to replant the land if he joins the scheme.

“If I take the [revised] RUS I will have to replant. What am I going to replant with? I am not going to plant with all conifers. I have spruce. Do I want to double up on that when I know that the bark beetle is knocking on our door?

“And if I get the bark beetle and it wipes out my spruce, I have to carry the cost of sorting that out and replanting again,” White explains.

“I am 70 years of age, I am not going to put my neck in that noose,” he adds.

“So, the best option I have is to leave the bloody trees there,” White says.

Best option

“It is ridiculous leaving the land like this, but for us, the landowners, it is the best option.”

Even though this option means accepting that 10% of his farm in now effectively “useless”.