Ash dieback disease devastates native trees in Northern Ireland

The disease causes the death of trees in the upper part of the foliage

“I’m going to ruin every country walk you take from now on,” Mark Feather told me as we walked the trail through Carnmoney Hill Wood.

The Woodland Trust’s tree safety consultant was not wrong – ever since he pointed out the clear signs of ash dieback on so many trees around us, it has become pretty much all I can see wherever I go.

And I’m not alone. Many readers have reached out to BBC News NI to express concern about trees from South Armagh to North Antrim and County Down to County Fermanagh.

It has been 10 years since tree disease was detected in Northern Ireland and has since silently ravaged our native ash trees.

Marco Piuma

Mark Feather states that more mature trees can withstand the effects of ash dieback better than saplings

Years of slow progress mean its effects are becoming evident.

“It’s the treetops or the canopies of trees that are dying and you can see the dead wood forming, but it’s a pretty contrasting picture,” said Mr. Feather.

“Generally, it is the younger trees that show more advanced signs.

The ash settles on the bark

Ash death spreads through infected tree spores that land on the leaves and travel up the trunk

“But as we can see, we have some of the more mature who are also suffering. So sadly it’s mixed.”

Ash dieback is believed to have arrived on imported saplings and was first detected in November 2012.

Over 90% of ash trees in Northern Ireland are believed to be affected by the disease, which spreads through the spores of infected trees that settle on the leaves and travel up the trunk.

More mature trees can withstand its effects longer, Feather said.

“Even though they may be infected, they will actually still be around, so they’re a little stronger than the younger ones – they die faster,” he said.

Hurling and health at risk

The native ash trees are culturally significant: they were named in the ancient Brehon law on the island of Ireland as one of the “Airig Fedo” – nobles of the wood – due to their economic importance.

John Hetherington

There will be no native ash available to make furniture – or flakes – within a decade, John Hetherington predicts

They are climate friendly, fast growing, and provide flexible wood that has a wide range of uses.

Those in the forest sector are worried.

“Within the next 5-10 years there will be no native ash available for the furniture industry, hurley stick manufacturers, boat oars and other specialized uses for which ash wood is very suitable,” he said. stated John Hetherington.

Mr. Hetherington, who runs a forestry business in County Tyrone, also has safety concerns.

Death of ash

Large dry branches can be a safety hazard during thunderstorms

“There are a lot of ash trees on the roadsides,” he said.

“The sad reality is that every storm from now on for the next 5-10 years, we will have bigger and bigger branches of ash trees breaking off from the main tree and unfortunately there is a health hazard there.

“And it would be helpful if the forest service helped grant aid to remove dangerous trees in particular.”

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) said it has advised landowners on managing the affected trees, which a spokesperson said is “especially important when the affected ash trees are in close proximity to areas. used by the public “.

A forest protection scheme has been introduced, the spokesperson added, through which forest owners are encouraged to create greater resilience to disease through species choice and diversity in their woodlands.

More details about the currently active program can be accessed through the Daera Grants and Funding Hub.

Beetles and flies

But wasting isn’t the only disease keeping insect expert Florentine Spaans busy.

Flor Spaans with the twig stripped from the saw

Florentine Spaans fears that Ash Dieback may make trees more susceptible to pests like the saw, which plucks leaves from twigs

“Also on the horizon is the emerald borer, which is an extremely serious pest,” he said.

“It is a blue crested beetle native to East Asia that jumped in the United States where it caused the deaths of tens of millions of ash trees.

“Since then, he has actually moved to Russia and moved to Eastern Europe.

“So in reality, it is only a matter of time before it naturally spreads to the rest of Europe and will most likely arrive here as well.”

The Agri-Food & Bio-Sciences Institute, of which Flor is a researcher, is conducting a project funded by Daera to investigate whether ash dieback predisposes the tree to other pests such as the saw, which was first detected. time in 2016.

“It hasn’t spread beyond Belfast,” he said. “In itself, it is of little importance.”

“It defoliates the trees every year, forcing them to rinse and that takes an energy toll.

“But alone, we wouldn’t be so worried.”

Hopes for genetic resilience

Northern Ireland is one of the least wooded parts of Europe, with only 8.7% forest cover.

Only a miniscule 0.04% of this is made up of ancient woodlands, areas that have been consistently forested for four centuries or more.

As for the decay of the ashes, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

“If there are a lot of affected trees around and there’s one that looks really healthy, it’s worth keeping an eye on those because they could be the trees of the future,” said Mark Feather.

“Each ash tree generates thousands of seeds and the hope is that some of these will have genetic resilience.

“So the more ash around, the more seedlings we have and potentially those will come up and regenerate the ash population.”

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