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Breeding Fraxinus excelsior (Common or European ash) for dieback disease tolerance to conserve and re-establish ash on the island of Ireland and beyond for the benefit of the public, agriculture and forestry sectors.

For more than a decade, ash dieback has been observed in Ireland, caused by the invasive fungal species Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. This disease currently represents the greatest threat to the survival of ash (Fraxinus excelsior) in Europe. The disease is widely distributed in Ireland and is present in all regions where ash is growing.

Project overview

Research suggests that approximately 1–3 % of ash trees exhibit a higher level of tolerance to the dieback disease. To study ash dieback on the island of Ireland, and to help ensure the conservation and re-establishment of ash as a commercial and biodiversity resource, a concerted, interdisciplinary all-island strategic approach was initiated through the AshForFuture research project.

This project aims to identify, monitor, select, and breed disease-tolerant ash through four well-defined work packages:

AshComm aims to conceptualise a comprehensive communication strategy targeting the public, forestry practitioners, hurley manufacturers, policy makers, and the scientific community. This strategy will facilitate effective dissemination of information and engagement with various stakeholders. As part of this strategy, an AshforFuture project webpage is developed and will be maintained to support effective knowledge transfer. This platform will serve as a central hub for project updates, research findings, and collaborative efforts among stakeholders.

AshGen focuses on identifying ash trees that exhibit suitable tolerance to ash dieback disease. These tolerant trees will be selected and propagated through grafting to allow further disease screening. Seeds from healthy ash trees will serve as the basis for progeny trials, which will help in assessing the heritability of disease tolerance traits. Additionally, AshGen aims to develop genetic investigation tools to validate and ensure durable tolerance. This will include the identification and utilisation of molecular markers and the quantification of coumarin levels, a compound associated with disease resistance. These efforts will contribute to the establishment of a resilient ash population capable of withstanding the challenges posed by Hymenoscyphus fraxineus.

AshPath investigates the interactions between the pathogen Hymenoscyphus fraxineus and its host, the ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior). This research focuses on understanding the variability of H. fraxineus across the island of Ireland and assessing the virulence of different strains of the pathogen. Additionally, AshPath aims to evaluate the pathogen's impact on ash trees that have been identified as potentially tolerant. By studying these interactions, the project seeks to develop strategies for future-proofing ash trees against dieback disease, helping ensure the long-term survival and health of this important species.

AshSilva evaluates different silvicultural systems, particularly focusing on the natural regeneration of ash populations and the impact of species mixtures on ash dieback. This work package will establish field trials to study the influence of admixed tree species on ash health and resilience, as opposed to monoculture systems. By examining different tree species combinations and their interactions with ash, AshSilva aims to develop sustainable forest management practices that enhance the resilience of ash trees to dieback disease and promote resilience and biodiversity in future planting strategies.

Together, this overall project will bring multidisciplinary teams to implement a comprehensive, whole-system approach aimed at ensuring the survival and sustainability of ash trees in the Irish landscape. By integrating expertise from various fields, including genetics, pathology, silviculture, and communication, the project aims to develop and apply effective strategies for combating ash dieback including establishing a seed-producing orchard consisting entirely of ash dieback resistant or tolerant trees which could be used commercially to regenerate the ash sector in Ireland and beyond. 

Project partners

AshforFuture project adopts a multi-actor approach, involving Teagasc researchers, University College Dublin and Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute in Northern Ireland.

AshforFuture will also benefit from the stakeholder involvement of DAFM's Forest Service and Plant Science divisions, None-So-Hardy Nurseries, Coillte, Woodlands of Ireland, Forest Genetic Resource Trust, and County Councils. The project is strengthened by its linkages to world-leading expertise at University of Gottingen - Germany, Wageningen University & Research - The Netherlands, University of Copenhagen - Denmark, Skogforsk - Sweden, LAMMC - Lithuania, John Innes Centre - UK.

This collaborative effort will not only enhance our understanding of the disease and its impact, but also promote the conservation and restoration of ash trees, ensuring their continued presence and ecological function in Ireland.

Funding

The project encompasses an all-island approach dedicated to conserving and reviving ash populations. It is supported by grant number 2023RP1030 from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) in Ireland and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in Northern Ireland.

Further information