FIGHTBACK AGAINST ASH DIEBACK

The GAA is at the forefront of the fight against ash dieback disease — the scourge that is threatening to wipe out up to 90 per cent of the ash tree population on the island of Ireland.

Ash has been used to make hurleys for thousands of years — far longer than the country or Ireland or the GAA have been in existence.

Other woods aren’t suitable for the job as they aren’t as supple so without ash the game of hurling could be changed irrevocably.

It’s reckoned that Chalara Fraxinea, to give the disease it’s latin name, existed for centuries in eastern Russia and parts of China.

Trees imported from those regions into Europe brought the problem to these shores and since 2012 it has spread through the country’s ash plantations like wildfire.

It’s thought that 90 per cent of the ash population in Denmark, one of the worst affected countries, was wiped out by dieback disease and there are fears that Ireland could go the same way.

This is, of course, a cause for concern for the GAA given upwards of 350,000 new hurls are required in Ireland every year. That’s a lot of ash.

Croke Park has thrown its weight behind research into ash dieback and alternatives to all-wooden hurlers should the supply run dry.

“We were to be self-sufficient in ash around 2018 or 2019 — there was enough ash planted 20 years ago for that to happen. Everyone was working to that scenario,” explained GAA Director of Games Development and Research Pat Daly, who is deeply involved in this problem-solving process.

“As it happens, 75 per cent of the ash used for hurleys is imported. You can continue to import, but the thinking was to have self-sufficiency.”

However, he warned: “The disease is spreading; there is no ash being planted. If it’s not imported, it’s not going to be here in this country.”

Ash dieback disease, a fungal infection, came to this country in infected saplings that were imported to boost Irish stocks.

“The wind can carry it a long way so it can spread from one plantation to the other — it’s highly contagious,” said former Cork footballer Noel O’Leary, who works for the family tree surgery and sawmill business.

“The wood essentially rots from the inside out. Ash bark is light in colour, but once it’s infected you notice it turn darker and brown and the leaves die.

“The policy at the moment is to take out all the trees in a population if one infected tree is found. It’s terrible because it changes landscapes. This is very serious.”

Hurleys at various stages of manufacture

There are currently 15,000 acres of ash being grown in Ireland, which doesn’t take into account trees that grow wild or outside of plantations and forestry projects.

It’s this country’s most successful broadleaf tree, growing quickly all over the island, with the main centres for cultivation based in Tipperary, Kilkenny, Cork, Limerick, Clare, Laois Carlow and Wicklow.

Around 50,000 trees per year are needed to keep the hurley making business going.

The primary use of ash in Ireland is the manufacture of hurleys, the rest going for firewood as it burns well without having to be dried out.

The problem with making hurleys is that only the bottom part of the tree is used, with the turn in the grain where the roots begin to spread out naturally forming the bas, or head, of the hurl.

Much of the GAA’s research is around trying to use the whole of the tree to make camáns while fibreglass and hybrid hurls have also been considered and put through very early testing processes.

Croke Park are represented on the Ash Society alongside the likes of Coillte, Teagasc and the Irish Guild of Ash Hurley Makers.

Coillte are the state sponsored body that manages much of the forested land in Ireland and they are heavily invested in saving Irish ash — and by extension the hurley making industry.

The experience of other countries struck by ash dieback is that around ten per cent of native trees are resistant to the disease.

They are waiting to find those Irish trees that are immune and when they do they’ll start breeding from them. It’s along process, though one which may ultimately work.

Hurley maker Martin Dunne with an old-style camán

“There are between 250 and 300 hurley manufacturers, either full or part-time,” explained Michael Power, Coillte’s National Estate Risk Manager.

“There are about 300 full-time jobs attached to this business. If there were 300 jobs in a factory under threat in a town in his country everyone would be falling over themselves to save them.

“This is our culture, our heritage and our national game that we are talking about. This is what we are.

“This is arguably Ireland’s last remaining indigenous cottage industry,” said Power, who is a member of the John Locke’s club in Kilkenny and a brother of Cats’ All-Ireland winner John Power.

“There is a lot happening in the background on this and the GAA are very invested in the process. They are trying whatever they can.”

Video and photographs shot on iPhone 5/6+

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