Landowners and foresters have been asked to be vigilant to keep out a disease which is affecting ash trees in Europe. It has been discovering in neighbouring Co. Leitrim.

Fermanagh has a large percentage of its tree cover in the form of ash trees.

This week the Agriculture and Rural Development Minister,Michelle O'Neill called on the local horticulture and forestry industries to support a voluntary moratorium on planting ash trees imported from Europe.

The Minister made the call after the confirmed discovery of the destructive tree disease Ash Dieback (Chalara fraxinea) in County Leitrim. Ash die-back causes leaf loss and crown die-back in affected trees and has already killed trees in England, Scotland and parts of mainland Europe.

In a bid to prevent the disease becoming established in Ireland the Minister indicated that she intends to introduce legislation restricting the import and movement of ash plants and untreated wood from areas where the disease might be present, consistent with her obligations under EU plant health legislation.

Minister O'Neill said: "In view of the serious situation that is now becoming clear, I believe that we now need to protect our vital interests by introducing emergency legislation banning the movement of ash plants and untreated timber into Ireland from areas where the disease may be present." Appealing for a responsible approach over the forthcoming planting season, Minister O'Neill said: "Ash is one of the commonest native species on this island so we must do what we can to minimise the risk of Ash Dieback becoming established here. It will take a little while to draft the necessary legislation and in the meantime, I would encourage people not to import ash trees for planting this year, or to import untreated wood which might be carrying the disease. This would give a useful degree of protection while legislation is being prepared.

"My Department is currently carrying out monitoring of ash plants at nursery and retail premises and at sites of recent planting in both amenity and woodland areas for any signs of this damaging disease, and so far we have not found any evidence of the disease"." She continued: "I welcome the call from the Horticultural Trade Association for its members to introduce a voluntary moratorium on importing ash from countries where the disease is present.

"We are co-operating closely with authorities in the south of Ireland on a 'Fortress Ireland' type approach and authorities in Britain in the relation to our response to this disease. I also plan to speak to Minister Simon Coveney as soon as possible about actions we can take together on this disease, and to raise this important issue at the next North South Ministerial Council in Agriculture Sectoral Format, at the end of the month." "The Food and Environment Research Agency are consulting on a Pest Risk Analysis on this issue and I would encourage stakeholders to respond to ensure their views are considered" It is a potentially very serious threat and has caused widespread damage to ash populations in continental Europe. Experience in the Continent indicates that it kills young ash trees very quickly, while older trees tend to resist it for some time until prolonged exposure causes them to succumb as well. Local spread may be via rain or even transmission by insects, and movement of diseased ash plants. Movement of logs or untreated wood from infected trees might also be a pathway for the disease.