Greens to launch motion for new Irish forestry model

Published by Niall Sargent on

October 1st, 2019

The Green Party will today launch a motion calling for a fundamental shift in forestry policy away from our current clear-fell plantation model toward a focus on native woodlands.

The motion, seen by The Green News, calls for the Government to push for a more diverse continuous cover forestry (CCF) model that supports a wider range of forest types including semi-wild areas and agroforestry on farms.

The motion calls for a rebalancing of forest premiums and payments to support this strategic shift that will allow for the restoration of large areas of permanent natural woodlands. The motion will be debated in the Dail this evening.

The Government recently outlined a new planting target of 22 million trees every year for the next two decades. It is planned that short-rotation conifer plantations will account for 70 per cent of new afforestation, and the remaining 30 per cent of the trees will be broadleaves.

At just 11 per cent (770,000 hectares), Ireland has one of the lowest levels of forest cover in Europe, yet also has one of the highest rates of plantation forestry across the bloc. Only around two per cent of the country is covered by what is termed native or semi-natural woodland.

In 2017, Sitka Spruce made up 51 per cent of all trees planted in Ireland – a total of 343,310 hectares. The total area of grant-aided afforestation for Sitka and lodgepole pine increased from 48 per cent in 2004 to 74 per cent in 2018.

Conifer Plantation in Wild Nephin area, 2 December 2017 Photo: James Orr

Carbon source and impact on biodiversity

The Green party motion also states that our current afforestation model can have “negative impacts” on biodiversity, water quality and landscapes.

Bird species in Ireland known to be under pressure from our plantation model include Hen Harrier, Merlin, Golden Plover, Bewicks Swan, Greenland White-fronted Goose, and Dunlin.

In general, plantation forestry also supports a lower diversity and abundance of bird species relative to native broadleaves and supports fewer specialist species.

The NPWS has found that our current forestry model is a significant threat and pressure on habitats and species protected under European law.

The Environmental Protection Agency has also found that afforestation and harvesting can impact soils and biodiversity, as well as water quality through acidification and nutrient run-off.

A recent UCD-led study of forestry in Co Leitrim found that only 61 per cent of sites in the county were visited in 2018 to assess if the area was environmentally suitable for planting in advance of the Forest Service issuing an afforestation licence.

The researchers also found that the field inspection rate for felling licence applications was only six per cent in 2018, even though the county had the second-highest level of felling licences that year. The average national rate was only 19 per cent in 2018.

Critics argue that the plantation model also has little long term value as a carbon sink as planting rates are failing to match harvesting rates.

recent report from the Department of Agriculture states that managed forest land moved from a carbon sink to a source in 2017 largely due to an increase in harvesting rates, a declining age class of forest areas and an increase in emissions from organic soils due to drainage at plantations.

Community and farmer role

The Green motion also calls for the Government to establish local forestry plans with civil society input and environmental assessments to ensure there are no significant biodiversity impacts from planting.

This follows concerns in Co Leitrim over the level of plantations cropping up in the county, a large percentage of which are owned by investors from other counties or from abroad.

The county is the most forested in the country with almost 19 per cent (30,000 hectares) of all land under forest cover, substantially higher than the national average of 11 per cent. Conifers account for 70 per cent of trees planted.

The Greens also want to see more support for community ownership and investment in afforestation, as well as a “radical expansion” of urban tree planting.  There have been a number of high-profile cases of local authority removal of urban trees over the past year.  

The Greens also want to see the Government outline financial support for small-scale mixed woodland forests in each county, and to supports farmers to plant a hectare of native woodland on their farms within the next five years.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London