Ireland’s native woodlands are quietly disappearing

Under 11% of country’s land is forested as State plants Sitka spruce at expense of indigenous trees

The Sitka spruce tree. Illustration: Michael Viney

The Sitka spruce tree. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

Despite favourable climactic conditions, only about 10.5 per cent of Ireland’s land is covered by trees. Discount semi-arid Malta, and it’s the joint-lowest in the EU (where average forest cover is 40 per cent).

Thankfully, the Government has a cunning plan – raising our tiny forest cover to 18 per cent by 2046, under the Strategic Plan for the Development of Forestry.

It’s the equivalent of planting a forest bigger than Dublin city each year. Yet last year saw the least planting in at least 30 years – just 5,500 hectares, a third of the post-2016 target. Some 115 years since the advent of Irish State forestry, semi-natural broadleaf forests make up just 2 per cent of our tree cover (compared with 87 per cent across Europe). As highlighted by the Save Leitrim campaign, the vast majority of new planting still comprises Sitka spruce tree farms.

Ever wondered why many hillside woods in Ireland look out of place? It’s because they are. Named after the Alaskan island of Sitka, and hailing from the Pacific northwest of North America, the Sitka spruce has been planted with semi-religious zeal here since 1907, mainly due to the promptings of one man. Augustine Henry, the Scots-Irish mandarin famous for the aphorism “no forestry without a profit”, saw in Sitka spruce the solution to Ireland’s “useless land”. And the Gospel according to St Augustine continues to hold a quasi-mystical sway over official policy at the Department of Agriculture.

The results can be seen across the country: Sitka spruce tree farms – more sylvan desert than forest – planted in crowded, linear rows, robbing light from the forest floor and lacking the plentiful flora and fauna found in our natural forests.

Unlike broadleaf woodlands, Irish Sitka spruce monocultures require fertilisers and pesticides. Their “harvesting” also creates quite a mess. In England, foresters artfully coppice hardwoods such as oak, hazel, chestnut and ash in rotation, felling them while still young enough to regenerate multiple trunks, prolonging their life and sequestering more carbon. Here, Sitka plantations are “clear-felled” over vast areas at a time, generating acid sulphate, affecting waterways, and leaving whole hillsides scarred for up to two years.

All this is done legally, by our own semi-State forestry authority. In Scandinavia, home to the Norwegian spruce (“Christmas”) tree, Sitka spruce is officially an invasive species, and is being replaced. So too in the UK.

Yet in Ireland, it just keeps on being planted – 110,000 hectares since 1983, suffocating an area bigger than Longford with an invasive monoculture. To what end?

Sitka spruce gospel

The majority of Irish forests are owned by semi-State Coillte, a confirmed disciple of the Sitka spruce gospel. The State’s largest landowner with €1.4 billion of assets, Coillte describes itself as the biggest provider of MDF to the UK. In 2017, Coillte paid a dividend of €8 million for the State. To put that in context, Ireland is facing annual €75 million fines for failing to meet EU emissions targets.

Still, tree farms or no tree farms, with the resources at Coillte’s disposal – and more than €2.5 billion spent on the Forestry Programme since 1990 – you would think it’s meeting new afforestation targets. It’s not.

Overall, the State last year met just a quarter of its target for native woodlands, agroforestry (trees on pasture) and “forestry for fibre”. Even the planting of conifers fell 22 per cent short of the target.

And all this is happening within the context of the gradual felling of Ireland’s native forests.

A recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report recently warned of increasing deforestation– mainly involving broadleaved woodlands in private hands. The EPA dryly notes its deforestation estimates are incomplete, as “no unlicensed or exempted deforestation” is accounted for. Indeed, most broadleaf deforestation is probably being done completely within the law.

The average Irish tree is much more likely to be cut down now than five years ago, thanks to the removal by the 2014 Forestry Act of many protections against tree-felling.

The Act greatly expanded the types of trees that can be cut down without a licence, including: any tree within an urban area, any tree within 30 metres of a building (bar new buildings); any hawthorn, blackthorn, apple, pear or plum tree; trees within 10 metres of a road; and trees cut down by local authorities. Forestry is exempt from the ban on hedgerow-cutting from March to August.

The Forest Service provides felling licences free of charge.

Boom in firewood

This new-found deregulation in the tree-felling sector has precipitated a boom in firewood – supplied by native broadleaf trees.

Despite the ubiquity of Sitka spruce, no one wants to burn it. It has low calorific value. Instead, the wood-burning stoves of Ireland are ablaze to the crackle of hardwoods – birch, oak, ash, holly.

“We’ve spent billions on an industry that cannot even supply decent firewood,” says Andrew St Ledger of the Woodland League. “Hardwoods are efficient for firewood, which is fair enough – but there was no plan to take care of this surge of demand. Illegal felling is most affecting semi-natural and native species, the woods and trees we can least afford to lose.”

European Commissioner Phil Hogan recently called for Ireland to reboot its afforestation, noting a stigma among farmers about tree-planting. The Woodland League is calling for a law requiring landowners to plant 10 native trees within a five-mile radius for every tree felled.

Supported by musician Glen Hansard and President Michael D Higgins, St Ledger recently successfully ran a pilot project, the Woodland League “Forest In A Box”, involving 700 children in nine primary schools in Co Dublin, Co Offaly and Co Clare. The “box” in question is a native tree seed box – a metre square – replicating natural forest conditions with a sample of natural forest leaf litter mulch, carefully measured shade and a fine mesh protecting seeds collected by schoolchildren from the area.

Each box can provide up to 200 healthy native trees every two years. Some of the seeds are acorns from the ancient Brian Boru oak tree. With political will lacking, Coillte missing afforestation targets, and private landowners cutting down native trees, it may be left up to local communities to decide whether Ireland continues to have native trees.

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