Another Life: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second-best is now’

With the sycamore taking over, it is time to get less random about what trees we plant

Passion for trees: autumnal colours in Co Mayo. Illustration: Michael Viney

Passion for trees: autumnal colours in Co Mayo. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

Perhaps the sycamore should go next. It’s so much bigger than ever we expected, overwhelming the apple trees and robbing the polytunnel of early-morning sun. It even denies light to its own seedlings, a miniature forest at its foot.

But sycamore takes ages to dry and burns without much heat. Apple, it’s said, makes excellent fuel, and the blackbirds, in any case, were always first at the fruit. As we bring to the stove the last chunks of a quite beloved ash (it blocked a broadband relay to neighbours), such pros and cons still tease.

Our passion for trees was quite random; whatever came to hand found a corner among the vegetables. A walk in Cong Forest gave a seedling of beech, so glorious this autumn, and another of holm oak, evergreen and sturdy in the hedge. Douglas Gageby – late, much-cherished editor and dendrophile – sent a gift of a cigar box encasing a dozen sprouted acorns.

There are other “memorial” trees, too, among them a beautiful small oak, golden-leaved in spring, raised by the late John Healy from an acorn he brought home from a tree in Strasbourg, outside the European Parliament. It has had a hard time, run over by my lawnmower when little and, left twin-trunked, as another crowded neighbour of the sycamore.

Memories have added much pleasure to the trees, and if some, at least, now warm our old age, that is an unplanned boon. A new season for planting has arrived, and with it, one hopes, fresh thoughts on growing broadleaf fuelwood by many with a bit of land to spare. Even at the scale of forestry, the extra heat in hardwood thinnings is finding a new market in the countryside.

This is well endorsed in a new book from Coford, the forestry development arm of the Department of Agriculture. Broadleaf Forestry in Ireland, priced at €55, is a heavy, thorough fistful, but also bright and most readable. Its authors – Juergen Huss, Padraic Joyce, Richard MacCarthy and John Fennessy – have spent four years on research, some of it in Europe, to produce a definitive guide to silviculture and strategy at this still-early stage of reafforestation.

Their use of Chinese proverbs – for example, “One generation plants the tree, another gets the shade” – is part of an attempt to convince normally short-term thinkers at a most uncertain time. Another Chinese proverb they might have found – “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second-best time is now” – would have reinforced their urgent advice, even with its stress on grants and subsidies.

“Nobody knows today,” they write, “what the situation will be like in 50-100 years, [but] one of the best possible options will be the production of high-quality timber.” This, after all, “can easily supply all markets, and can easily be transformed into . . . chips, pellets and solid fuelwood.” By that time, of course, Ireland may feel warm enough, but they devote their book to planting and tending the finest, most valuable trees the island can grow.

Popular guide

Its predecessor from Coford, published in 1998, proved a popular guide for novices to broadleaf forestry, which needs a much more attentive and sophisticated level of silviculture than a farmland field of Sitka spruce. Long-living broadleaves now cover some 66,000 hectares, and the new book has examined the plantations. A sample of 120,000 individual trees found fewer than half with the symmetrical crowns produced by proper pruning and thinning.

Along with social, ecological and economic values, it considers forestry systems designed to move closer to nature. Continuous-cover forestry, coppice-with-standards and natural regeneration are among the systems thoroughly discussed. A favoured solution for many Irish sites, mixing conifers with broadleaves, would give plantations richer ecosystems and more stability in strong winds, but demands a higher level of care.

When Ireland’s climate matches that which exists now in Spain and Portugal, there is potential for new species. Among them are the eucalypts, the “blue gums” from Australia, vast tracts of which so controversially dominate the pulpwood forestry of Iberia. (For one online view, see iti.ms/2eNWwRs.)

Eucalyptus warps, cracks and twists as it dries, but its family has evolved to burn in lightning wildfires and then grow again. In Ireland, its extra, oil-fed inflammability has prompted the first home plantations for fuelwood (there are nursery plugs for sale). But given the eucalypt wildfires that have raged from California to the Mediterranean, this would not seem a choice for future Irish forestry on any scale.

The authors, indeed, give it no encouragement. They would favour more beech to supplant tropical hardwoods, along with walnut and Spanish chestnut. Pedunculate oak, sycamore, alder and downy birch would cope best with fluctuating water levels and sessile oak, hornbeam, lime and rowan would tolerate droughts and climb higher on the hills.

Our awkward sycamore, meanwhile, could make excellent furniture, parquet floors and enough sides and backs of violins to supply several orchestras. I think I’d like the last.

Michael Viney’s Reflections on Another Life, a selection of columns from the past four decades, is available from irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks

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