The devastating effects of ash dieback are well known. But in Ireland, the disease is having an unexpected impact on one of the country’s favourite pastimes. 

GENERALLY speaking, you’ve either heard of hurling or you’ve not (or possibly you’ve gotten it mixed up with Gaelic football). That’s easy enough to do until you spend time in Ireland; there, that feels a little like comparing apples and oranges. For starters, hurling is a lot more like shinty or field hockey, given it is played at a ferocious pace, with players going at one another like wild dogs. 

The main difference is, unlike Gaelic football, they are doing so with sticks – and this is where trees and timber come in. For as long as anyone can remember, hurley sticks (also known as hurls and camán in Irish) have been made from ash wood. More often than not, they are bought from local craftsmen, who take the base of the tree near the root and – with the same eye for detail as a Renaissance painter – transform it into the distinctive tool over the course of a year. The sport is known locally as the ‘clash of the ash’ due to the sticks’ origins. 

But these are worrying times for ash in Ireland. Just as Dutch elm disease all but eliminated elm trees in the country (as it has done in the UK), there are similar fears about what dieback may do to this most crucial of species. First appearing on Irish soil in 2012, the fungal pathogen  Hymenoscyphus fraxineus has had such a devastating impact that a government committee was told last year: “Ash is gone. Ash is dead.” 

This is not good news for the nation’s craftsmen, such as Albert Nevin. A third-generation hurley maker, he’s honed his trade over recent decades, supplying sticks across the country from his small warehouse in County Offaly, and even to British royalty; it was one of his creations that was gifted to the late Her Majesty The Queen during a visit in 2011.

“This is a real cottage industry in Ireland,” the owner of Nevin Hurleys said. “I produce a couple of thousand hurls a year. Is it in danger? Yes, if you just depend on ash.” 

Given this, he is increasingly turning to other types of timber. Sometimes by accident. 

“Ash is the most suitable timber and had the biggest supply in the country,” he said. “I had a different sort of hurley made for my own daughter by accident, after a forester felled a maple tree instead of an ash one. I’ve been trying to find the source of the maple since, but the forester has since retired. My daughter loves it. 

Forestry Journal:  Albert Nevin, Nevin Hurleys. Albert Nevin, Nevin Hurleys. (Image: FJ)

“I have maple offcuts. It is a little bit heavier than ash, but ash does vary in weight. The grains are closer. It finishes off a little bit smoother than ash. 

“There’s not a whole lot in it when it comes to the colour. Sometimes it can be a little bit more wavy. She’s had it for three years, playing up in college, and been very happy with it.

“I am playing around with maple, trying to use other sources than just our own native source. 

“We are trying to see if timber can be grown in Western Europe to meet our needs, too.

“There’s a possibility that red oak could be used. I’ve not looked into it too closely, but it is being talked about as a possibility. 

“With the way breeding is done now, there’s a chance something will come up.” 

That need appears likely to become more stark in the coming years. While ash trees remain by far the most abundant species in Ireland – with the common ash, Fraxinus excelsior, native to the island – it’s estimated dieback could claim 90 per cent of them. In the last year or so, this threat is now having a visible effect on its countryside.

Forestry Journal: A plank of ash with the result of ash dieback and the beginning of butt rot.A plank of ash with the result of ash dieback and the beginning of butt rot. (Image: FJ)

Writing recently in Rte, researchers Dr Marion McGarry and Sean Garvey outlined: “One of our most beloved tree species in Ireland, the ash, is under grave threat of elimination. 

“The disease has been in the country for the past decade, but its impact only really became noticeable last summer through the distressed-looking, leafless extremities of ash trees poking up from hedgerows across the country. 

“Most did not come into full leaf on all their branches and the tips of the trees were instead leafless and skeletal, offering evidence of their gradual zombification.” 

For now, it’s generally assumed there is enough useable ash timber – both Irish and British grown – to meet demand for the next two years. After that, the picture is less clear. Throw emerald ash borer – currently making its way across the continent – and a secondary infection known as butt rot into the mix, and the need for alternative materials becomes clear. 

“On the other side, we have the emerald ash borer,” Albert added. “Another problem down the line. I don’t know how far across Europe it is, but it will be here before we know it.

“But you don’t want to see a kneejerk reaction once the horse has bolted. When they are in, that’s it.

“The real problem only started in the last year or two. Ash dieback is one problem. But secondary infection – called butt rot – is possibly worse. Eventually the tree will die quicker from that than from dieback.” 

In a cruel twist of fate, the ash trees more likely to be infected with the disease are also the ones most suitable for hurls. 

“If you clear up five trees, you might get one,” Albert continued. “Younger trees are more susceptible to it – and more suitable for hurls. Older trees seem to be able to withstand it to an extent. 

“There seems to be a two-year supply of ash timber in the country, but beyond that it is uncertain. 

Forestry Journal:  Finished hurl on the left, machined hurl in the centre, and a hurl marked and bandsawed ready for machine. Finished hurl on the left, machined hurl in the centre, and a hurl marked and bandsawed ready for machine. (Image: FJ)

“I get them from all over, and the UK. But the market I was getting them from has dried up.” 

Mid-interview, Albert stopped for a moment, dashed to the far side of his warehouse, and brought back an unfinished hurley stick with a crescent moon-shaped mark. 

“Some trees might only have that much,” he said, gesturing to a sign of dieback. “But when you go to the other side, there’s so much more. That can take you from the size of a senior hurl to a junior one. There’s a big difference in the value of the price that way. When you buy ash, you don’t know until it has been split. 

“I might see it and think there’s only a small amount. Then it turns out to be more when the tree has been felled.”  

All may not be lost, though. Some ash trees have shown some natural resistance, and organisations like Teagasc – responsible for research in the agri-food sector – continue to probe the disease, mitigation management and the building of a gene bank where ash trees can hopefully be returned to the Irish landscape, bred from trees that show genetic resistance. One such project, taking place over five years at the Woodland Trust’s Drumnaph Wood, Co. Derry/Londonderry site, has tried to promote the vigour of ash stands through thinning. Closer to home, the Future Trees Trust’s Living Ash Project has identified some tolerance in British trees. 

Whether or not these trials bear fruit remains to be seen, but what is certain is the longing for ash isn’t going away anytime soon. Despite bamboo and fibreglass hurls also in the mix – and some being widely used by clubs – there is hope yet the ‘clash of the ash’ will remain just that. 

READ MORE: Simon Bowes examines the ongoing crisis of ash dieback in the UK

“Even though there are other materials out there, people will still want ash,” said Albert.

“It’s not that other materials can’t compete with it, but there’s nothing else like ash. With tradition, people want ash.

“If they get the resistance going and sowed in the right way, there’s a big possibility we could have ash in the very near future. Although in timber time, that’s 20–25 years. 

“If it weren’t for the disease, the industry would be sustainable. That’s very unusual.”