Fears for hurley industry over ash tree disease

THERE are fears for the local hurl-crafting industry in Kilkenny following the spread of a lethal disease that has wiped out a vast portion of Europe’s ash trees and has now spread to Ireland.

THERE are fears for the local hurl-crafting industry in Kilkenny following the spread of a lethal disease that has wiped out a vast portion of Europe’s ash trees and has now spread to Ireland.

Ash dieback is a serious disease of ash trees, caused by a fungal pathogen. It affects trees of any age and is often fatal in the timber that is needed to make over 350,000 hurls each year for the Irish market.

Brian Dowling of Star Hurleys on Patrick Street has said that the disease is already having significant ramifications at home in Kilkenny. Renowned nationally for the quality of its hurls, the company imports much of its raw material from European countries, and now they are facing problems.

“At the minute, it is getting a bit awkward,” he said.

“All avenues are closed insofar as getting timber in from the UK. They say we can bring it in from disease-free areas with a special passport, but that’s hard to get hold of. In mainland Europe, there is no disease-free area.

“The alternative is that you have to have it planked and debarked or kiln-dried. But that’s going to make the raw materials more expensive. Unfortunately, that’s going to affect the customer because we simply couldn’t absorb the cost.”

Star’s main raw material sources are the UK and mainland Europe, which has been badly hit. Denmark’s ash population is reported as being 90% diseased.

Lasty week, Mr Dowling was part of a delegation, including several tree nurseries, which met with Minister for Horticulture Shane McEntee.

“We were briefed on the new legislation, so that is positive,” he said.

“We are such a small organisation, we have to do what we are told. But we gave our point of view and hopefully it will be taken on board.”

There are now hopes within the industry that the relevant Irish bodies will take steps to secure a supply of ash trees to bridge the gap.

“Unless Coillte can crank up the supply... but that needs to happen now,” said Mr Dowling.
“The [hurling] season starts in late January and we would need to have stock soon. Or kiln-dried from the continent – at least we would still have stock. This is going to affect us in a big way.”

A move toward Irish self-sufficiency has also some support from local politicians. Following a Dail debate, Labour TD Ann Phelan has called for a DNA Database to be established to protect Ireland’s native ash trees.

“If we can slow the spread of this disease and minimise its impact, we will gain valuable time to find and isolate our native trees that have a genetic resistance to the disease, and restructure our valuable woodlands accordingly,” said Deputy Phelan.

The Kilkenny TD says that a DNA database, made up from information gathered from the harvesting of native ash plants, could provide the knowledge needed to contain the blight. It is hoped that by 2020, the Irish market would be entirely self-sufficient and there would be no need to import any ash.

“Being from Kilkenny, it is not lost on me, the importance of protecting the ash trees and the role they have in the manufacture of hurleys,” said Deputy Phelan.

“There is currently a demand for over 350,000 hurleys to be made every year – this is a thriving industry, serving a thriving sport and it is fundamentally important to protect the ash from this dreadful disease.”

Forest and land owners have been asked to be vigilant about the disease and to report any suspected occurences to the Department of Agriculture on 01-6072651.