March 21st, 2018
Today marks International Day of Forests to celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of all types of forests.
While we are supposed to use this day to celebrate the benefits that forests and trees can bring, it is difficult not to look to the negative, in particular, Ireland’s poor forestry policy.
Examining the State’s latest forestry report released earlier this month, it is clear that we need a root and branch reform of our failing forestry policy.
While the report points out that forest land cover is at its highest level in over 350 years at 10.5 per cent, in reality, Ireland’s overall forest cover has barely moved in recent years and we still pale in comparison to our EU neighbours (33.5 per cent average).
The State has set-out a budget of 482 million euros under the latest Forestry Programme 2014-2020 in an aim to boost the forest cover area.
Yet, despite huge taxpayer-funded incentives, afforestation rates have fallen from over 20,000 hectares (ha) in the late 1990s to around 6,000ha in recent years, the lowest figures in decades.
COFORD recently found that we need to plant a minimum of 15,000ha per year up to 2030 to sustain our forest estate’s climate change benefits, among other uses in energy and construction.
This failure to hit targets is nothing new, with the Government failing for decades to hit ambitious targets.
In 1996, the Government’s strategic plan for forestry – Growing for the Future – set a planting target of 25,000ha in its first four years and 20,000ha a year thereafter until 2030. Still a long way to go it would appear.
While there is clearly a critical need to increase tree cover in Ireland, in doing so we must also shift away from non-native commercial plantations and back to native broadleaf species.
The solution to improving our low forest cover should not be to increase plantations of alien conifers designed for clear fell, yet Sitka spruce remains the dominant species planted in Ireland.
Need for Native Species
While it is true that broadleaf afforestation rates have increased over the past decade, numbers have also been seriously hit by Ash dieback, a disease brought in by importing ash trees from Europe, poor planting and an overall lack of management.
A recent EPA study highlighted a high level of deforestation in natural and semi-natural woodlands. Indeed, 52 deforestation events between 2000 and 2012 took place in long-established or ancient woodland, extremely rare features of the Irish landscape.
This is a shocking indictment of our commitment to protecting and growing our native tree species and woodlands, the bedrock of our land-based biodiversity on this Island.
It is high time to put our focus on planting native trees that do not require fertilisers or pesticide, unlike commercial non-native tree plantations.
This approach would have the immediate benefit of improving water quality, protecting soils, mitigating flooding and storing carbon.
A recent letter from 190 international scientists told the EU to make this very move, stating a clear preference for mixed species, native planting over pulp, fibreboard, and paper oriented products.
Whatever move the State makes, it must ensure that ecological assessments are carried out on a case-by-case basis to ensure sensitive species and sensitive habitats are not impacted upon by any planting.
At present, there are currently no guidelines on Annex I bird species aside from Hen Harriers, one of Ireland’s most threatened species due to the afforestation of their breeding habitat.
Many of Ireland’s red and amber listed species will suffer unless the Forest Service starts carrying out necessary ecological assessments.