ULSTER revellers have just finished ushering in a fresh new year, filled with possibilities and promise, but for a large chunk of the Province’s natural world, there is little cause for celebration.
The last year saw the arrival of a ghastly spectre for Northern Ireland’s woods – chalara fraxinea, a deadly tree fungus.
It causes a disease called ash dieback that has all but wiped out the species in parts of Europe, and the News Letter has charted its spread carefully ever since it arrived in the Irish Republic in October.
But although it is perhaps the most threatening blight facing trees, it follows a number of other diseases which have arrived in recent years, meaning 2013 could turn out to be an annus horribilis for the Ulster countryside.
Patrick Cregg, director of the Northern Irish branch of charity the Woodland Trust, has spoken to the News Letter a number of times in recent months to warn of the dangers posed by chalara fraxinea.
Now he said: “From our point of view, 2013 is a make-or-break year for the woodlands of Northern Ireland.
“We need to set a course and redouble our efforts to ensure we’ve got new trees in the landscape, and that we make sure that what we have, we protect.”
He believes the Province is off course for hitting its goal of doubling Ulster’s forest cover by 2050, set by Stormont a few years ago.
And with ash disease now in the spotlight, his fear is it could put some landowners off planting trees altogether – and called for more lucrative subsidies to help pick up the pace of reforestation.
“We are sitting at the bottom of the pile in terms of the European league [of forest cover],” he said.
“Yes, there is an issue with ash. Hopefully we’ll overcome that issue. But there are other important native trees you can grow in the countryside.
“If we can’t plant ash, perhaps we can plant alder or birch or what would be regarded as the king of the forest – oak.
“The danger is that as we progress into 2013, people might think they’ll just put it on hold. We do need a concerted effort to get those trees into the landscape.”
He estimates that to double woodland cover, Ulster would need to plant around 2,000 hectares of trees annually – a hectare being roughly the size of a rugby pitch.
“We’re not anywhere near that,” said Mr Cregg. “We weren’t doing well to begin with, and our fear is we’ll do even worse as we move forward. We recognise that farmers and landowners need to make a living. They can only do something in the end if it’s financially viable. We would say to the minister if you want to do something to double the woodland coverage, they should double the incentives.”
Currently he said the Woodland Grant Scheme offers £2,400 per hectare planted, which should be upped to about £5,000.
Meanwhile, ash dieback disease continues its march across the Province.
It was identified in a handful of Ulster sites in November. But according to the website for the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), it has now been found in 20 places.
Mr Cregg says the full picture will only become known when the weather warms.
“Ash trees are among the last to come into leaf in the year, usually doing so in May.
“To be perfectly honest, nobody knows the extent of what’s out there lying dormant in the winter. It’s got the potential to lay bare the countryside if our worst fears are realised in spring.”
But while this is going on, other new diseases continue to pose a threat to popular trees such as the larch and horse chestnut (see sidebars).
One man who knows this all too well is Lord Rathcavan. Larch was being grown commercially at his family estate near Broughshane, Co Antrim.
But he was ordered to destroy about seven hectares of the trees in 2010 – valued at an estimated £80,000 – due to an infection of phytophthora ramorum. Since then, he has had to destroy around another five hectares afflicted by the disease.
He said: “It was planted in 1945 by my grandfather. It was a very fine plantation. It’s been beautifully managed.”
Then, he said, the infection took hold.
He branded the disease an “epidemic” and was highly critical of the authorities, whom he accuses of failing in their “duty” to stop diseased trees coming into the Province.
Asked about the arrival of ash dieback disease too, he said: “Obviously it’s a concern. We’ve got tens of thousands of ash trees in the place... If it does catch on it’ll be very serious for the environment and woodlands. We don’t know yet.”
Dr Keith Kirby is a woodland expert attached to the University of Oxford’s Plant Sciences Department.
He said there has been an increase in the number of diseases and pests showing up across the UK generally, which could possibly be down to householders’ growing taste for exotic garden plants from far-flung parts of the world.
Asked if there has ever been a worse time to be a tree in Northern Ireland, he said: “I don’t know, to be honest whether that’s necessarily the case. I’ve got a strong feeling of saying ‘yes’.
“For some species of trees it’s clearly a very bad time. But it could be there are things waiting in the wings that will have their place in the sun – literally.”
He added that trees had always managed to bounce back after massive devastation in the past – suggesting that species like the small-leaved lime could be one possible replacement for ash if its population is decimated.
“We have to accept that the composition of our woods is changing, and we need to manage that change.” He concluded: “It’ll be an interesting year, I think is the best way of putting it.”
A number of questions were put to DARD, as well as criticisms contained in this report, but the department said it was unable to answer by the time of going to press.