Bacterial disease puts hedge network at risk

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has been urged to ban the import of hawthorn plants to prevent the bacterial disease fireblight from destroying the country’s hedgerow network.

The call has been made by Hedgerows Ireland and An Taisce, who warn that the damage caused by fireblight could be similar to the destruction caused by dieback, which is on course to wipe out up to 90 per cent of the country’s ash trees after entering on imported plants.

There were 17 confirmed outbreaks of fireblight in 11 counties last year, including Laois and Dublin.

In an open letter to the minister, Hedgerows Ireland said that if preventative measures aren’t taken by the government, Westmeath’s and the rest of the country’s hedgerow network, much of which is composed of hawthorn, could be at risk.

“ACRES Circular 27 removed the Irish Provenance/Irish Origin requirement for Hawthorn (which may compose up to 85% of ACRES hedgerow planting). The high demand for imports therefore increases the disease risk for fireblight’s common hosts, hawthorn, cotoneaster, apple, pear, and Rowan – spread through multiple pathways such as pollination, wind, rain, and mechanical equipment.

“Importing trees also reduces Ireland’s ability to safeguard the genetic diversity of native tree species, which it committed to under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“Any failure to arrest the spread will result in significant impacts on Ireland’s natural and cultural heritage due to the loss of Hawthorn hedgerows, a refuge for wildlife and a distinctive feature of our landscape.

“For example, this species composed 88% of hedgerows in the County Kildare Hedgerow Survey 2022. The rapid spread of Fireblight will be devastating to our hedgerow network, as both the infected plant and all nearby host plants must be burnt or buried.

“Evidence can be seen in Germany, where outbreaks between 1972 to 2000 resulted in the removal of 812km of hawthorn hedgerows. In recent decades, Irish farmers have planted approximately 1400km, 600km, and 1300km in REPS, AEOS, and GLAS, respectively. An additional 2000km are estimated to be planted in ACRES.

With a payment of €5/metre/year (five-year schemes), this would equal roughly €132.5m paid to plant farm hedgerows, mostly Hawthorn, which may be wasted if these are lost to Fireblight.

“Similar to roadside trees with ash dieback, there will be costs associated with the removal and disposal of affected hawthorn hedgerows, plus their replacement with new trees and fences to maintain a stock-proof barrier on farms.”

Hedgerows Ireland want the minister to reinstate the Irish Provenance/Irish Origin requirements for hawthorn in ACRES hedgerow planting and delay planting actions until the demand-supply gap is filled.

They also want him to suspend imports of Hawthorn plants due to the potential risk of importing disease.