Native trees cover just 2% of Ireland. How can this be increased?

Native Woodland Scheme: Forest Service must increase premiums paid to landowners

Different people will see different things when they look at a large, mature tree. A biologist or conservationist might begin to notice the species it supports.

A child, gazing up, might think about climbing it.

A property developer, envisaging a tidy cul de sac or two, might wonder whether some fungus could be discovered requiring it to be felled (for the safety of the public, naturally). A forester might wonder when to chop it down (sustainably, of course) and how much the timber would fetch.

There are few mature trees in Ireland, let alone of native species.


Including hedgerows, motorway plantations and birch monocultures, less than 2 per cent of the State is covered in native trees – under a fifth of our forest estate, itself the lowest in the EU outside Malta.

Given the overwhelmingly positive role native hardwood trees play in flood control, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, water filtration, soil fertility security, recreation and wellbeing, there are increasing calls to raise native afforestation rates. How can this be done? We asked the Department of Agriculture who referred us to the Forest Service’s Native Woodland Scheme, which is designed to pay farmers or landowners to plant native naturalised woodlands.

One problem

There’s just one problem. It doesn’t work. Declan Little is project manager with Woodlands of Ireland, a non-profit funded by the Forest Service, Heritage Council and the The National Parks and Wildlife Service. They are charged with increasing the State’s native tree cover. He says farmers are “often shy” about the Native Woodland Scheme, adding that “you cannot force landowners to take up these funds” due to plain economics.

He agrees with the other NGOs interviewed for this piece: the Native Woodland Scheme, as currently funded, just is not a goer.

He agrees with the Woodland League that farmers need to be paid for ecosystem services instead. It’s not just activist groups saying this.

Ask Crann – Trees for Ireland. A non-profit funded by the Department of the Environment, Crann is headed up by former Forest Service boss Diarmaid McAree, who first introduced the Native Woodland Scheme (NPWS). Yet even Crann admits that landowners refuse to plant native trees because the grants (as low as €1,320 a hectare) are uneconomical.


Crann spokesman Joe Barry says this situation is “ridiculous”, as some species – such as oak – only mature at 120 years. “There is no viable return until your grandchildren inherit the woods,” he adds. “The Forest Service must increase the premiums paid to landowners – and increase the length of the period when premiums are paid.”

“Like other positive Forest Service schemes, it seems to be only created to satisfy sustainability criteria,” adds St Ledger,“ to achieve EU approval for State funding of sitka spruce tree farms. Business as usual, in other words.”

Ireland has at least 1,320 native woodland sites. Almost of all of them are tiny. Just 10 cover more than 100 hectares, while some are managed by Coillte and the NPWS under EU directives. The Woodland League and Crann both want these small pockets increased with more “close to nature” spot-planting planting of adjacent sites, creating ecological corridors.

The Woodland League also called for the doubling up of hedgerows, creating linear forests of native species. The NeighbourWood Scheme, also mentioned by the Forest Service as a means to increase native woodland cover, allows local communities to manage or create existing woodland.

Yet Little, Barry and St Ledger also all agree that this scheme almost never results in new planting. What else can be done?


Sean McGinnis of EcoPlan is forest manager at Birr Castle Estate and of the Giants Grove Project. He says grazing by deer and other animals “makes establishing broadleaves impossible”. Both McGinnis and St Ledger believe there should be better grants for fencing and management of deer and sheep.

Last year, just 5,500 hectares of new forest was planted in this country. How many were of native species? No one seems to know. What is known, however, is that the total amount of public land afforested came to a neat, round figure.

Zero, to be precise.

More than half of Ireland’s forest cover (and 7 per cent of land in the State) is owned by Coillte, deft exponents of the dark arts of clear-felling, a practice illegal in Denmark, Switzerland, Slovenia and parts of Germany for its devastating effects on plants, animals, soil and landscapes alike.

There are fears that Coillte is clear-felling trees at a younger age, reducing the volume of standing timber while maintaining the same ballpark forest cover.

The controversial semi-State is unable to draw down afforestation grants, but plant 19.5 million trees each year (92 per cent coniferous). They clear-fell a similar number.

Crann and the Woodland League want Coillte to carry out more diverse planting and continuous coverage forestry, the norm on the European mainland. Coillte has earmarked just 5 per cent of its 445,000 hectares of land for it. The Woodland League says the Department of Agriculture could force Coillte to implement it across its entire estate.

Fully reviewed

Sean McGinnis says the role of Coillte must be fully reviewed. “Coillte must stop selling our land and forests, implement continuous cover forestry and reforest clearfelled areas with native species,” he says.

“These forests belong to the Irish people. Coillte act like they own them – while providing a tenth of the income they should.”

Last year,Coillte paid the Government a dividend of €7 million, from earnings of €66.5 million. Coillte did not answer any questions sent to it for this piece.

Economically, with Government spending at current levels, planting mixed native woodlands remains a philanthropic enterprise – the preserve of motivated individuals and small communities. Yet, as a State and community, planting native woodlands offers several quantifiable economic benefits.

Whether the Department of Agriculture allows these benefits to be realised depends on whether the Minister, Michael Creed, Minister of State for Forestry Andrew Doyle and their successors look at a mature tree and see its value rather than its price.

@DarraghPMurphy –