June 6th, 2019
Forestry is poised to become a critical part of Ireland’s
response to the climate crisis. The simple mantra goes ‘Trees are good’ and so
planting more trees is a great idea.
However, like everything in life, the truth is a
little more nuanced than that. Trees do not grow in isolation. They form part
of an elaborate ecosystem.
Above the ground, the insects and birds and small
woodland mammals of a forest are easily observable. Below the ground, intricate
networks of roots, invertebrates and fungi are critical for supporting the
trees growing above.
Over thousands of years all the different organisms
have adapted to each other to form what we call a functioning ecosystem. In the
case of such a habitat being dominated by trees we call it a forest.
These forests by their very nature are biodiverse supporting
a myriad of different species. They also, very usefully, take carbon out of the
air and lock it away in the wood, insects, roots and soils of the forest.
Ireland’s forest cover had gone so low, (only Malta is
lower) that it was decided we needed state intervention. A forestry company was
established and a forestry program was rolled out, in order to get more trees
in the ground across the country.
The Irish Forestry strategy has not been to create
biodiverse forests of native species of broadleaves, however.
Instead it was decided to create vast industrial plantations of non-native conifers, creating large dark areas of evergreen “Christmas Trees” that we see covering the fields and hillsides of much of our landscape.
Because they are not native, they do not support the
wide range of insects, birds and fungi that thrive in native Irish forests.
Above the ground they appear as silent dark blocks of spikey green. Below the
ground the essential fungi for native trees begin to die off.
They grow quickly, producing poor quality timber, and
are designed to be one day cut down en
masse, a process called clearfelling.
It is all too common to see the scars left behind by
large swathes of land clear-felled in this manner, leaving large ruts in the
soil, and upturned tree stumps.
One day a dark tower of conifers, the next a denuded
landscape that appears shocking at first site, almost post-apocalyptic.
It is now recognized that this was never the right approach.
Policies now demand a 15 per cent area of biodiversity in these plantations.
Interestingly, if they were actual forests they would, by definition, be 100
per cent biodiverse.
Increased focus now on the need for forests as a tool
for combatting climate change means that we must address the historical
mistakes. It will be disastrous to perpetuate them.
The endless rows of closely planted non-native conifers,
the industrial plantations, don’t pass the test for being defined as forests.
They don’t support native species, neither above nor
below the ground. They don’t even lock away carbon the same way native forests
Worse still, if they are planted on peaty soils of
which we have plenty in Ireland, they actually can release more carbon than
On all levels they fail to deliver.
Socially, they block light, look out of place on our
amazing landscapes, and fail to provide a pleasant walking environment.
Environmentally they are dead zones compared to a
native forest. They don’t support native species, and they don’t do an
effective job of locking away carbon.
And even in terms of economics, the financial returns
from public money invested in forestry are paltry. The state owned Coillte has
returned a mere €40 million
euro to its shareholders (the Government) since its establishment 30 years ago
– not taking into account around €150
million dished out in grants and support.
Is this a good economic return for owning 7 per cent
of our landmass?
As we examine the role of forestry in addressing
climate change we need to have a serious re-think. It’s time to draw a line
under the practices of the past that, no matter how well intentioned, have
failed to deliver.
The industrial plantations will not be of use to us in
facing our climate targets. In sharp contrast to this, mixed forests of native
broadleaf trees are designed by nature, to work with nature.
The forestry industry is well placed to deliver on a
restructuring of the plantations, reforming our wooded landscapes. Strong
support is needed to ensure we get the right trees in the right place.
Jobs in tree nurseries can be secured by creating a
market for locally collected seeds of native trees. This working with nature
approach takes advantage of the fact that seeds collected locally produce
stronger, faster growing, and better quality trees.
The time is right to change the model. It’s not too late. We still have one of the lowest areas of trees in Europe. We have the best practice models from all other member states. Incentives need to force a restructuring of what we have, and the establishment of new native forests.
These native forests can deliver on all fronts, social, environmental and economically. Forestry is poised to play a critical role in combating climate change.
Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that industrial plantations can do the same.
By Cillian Lohan
Cillian is the CEO of Green Economy Foundation that works in the policy areas of the green economy, sustainable agriculture, educational and biodiversity activities.
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