Our species seems to have evolved an overdeveloped tendency to view people – and environmental values – through a very narrow lens. We focus on exclusive categories, when the reality of our lives, and our relationship with nature, is usually much more complex – and much richer – than our neat labels suggest.
"What are you doing studying forestry," people used to ask Bernard Carey when he was an undergraduate at UCD, "aren't you a farmer?"
Carey had already learned that trees were often regarded as having little value on Irish farms, especially on small farms like his father’s in Co Meath. Apart from hedgerows, they were generally cleared completely from land where every square metre was needed for grazing or cultivation.
For reasons he can’t quite identify, though, he was always fascinated by trees. By the time he was 18 he found he was planting trees on some parts of the farm while his father was cutting them down for firewood in other areas, to their mutual bafflement.
So he became a forester, not a farmer, and has worked for a commercial forestry company in Co Clare for 16 years. He has most of them in Mountshannon, a tiny village overflowing with outstanding natural and built heritage on the western shore of Lough Derg.
The cover of Carey's recent report on the ecosystems services provided by Mountshannon's trees, co-authored with Brian Tobin of UCD, demonstrates key aspects of this abundant local wealth vividly, if somewhat surreally: A white-tailed sea eagle, a species which has created great excitement – and significant tourism revenue – by nesting in view of Mountshannon harbour, is shown carrying in its claws a representation of another ecological trophy, the largest oak tree in the country. '
This venerable ‘champion’ tree, which may be 800 years old, can be seen today, still massively rooted to the ground, just off the main street in a private garden. And the eagle is flying above Holy Island (Inis Cealtra), the site of a well-preserved monastery founded in the 7th century, and also within sight of the village.
The report itself, however, focuses on forms of local wealth which are much less visible to most of us, and even to many foresters. Foresters have themselves tended to view trees through a narrow lens, managing them only for their most obvious and immediately marketable resource value, as timber.
But that is changing fast, and the report exemplifies a much broader appreciation of the wider range of benefits trees bring to us. It spells out the value of urban trees in economic terms for the local community, though Carey and Tobin hope their model may also be applicable in any of our villages or towns.
That model consists in assessing the girth, height and canopy size of the trees within a sample area. The raw data is then fed into i-Tree software, developed by the US Forest Service. Taking account of species characteristics, this software translates it into cash figures reflecting the benefits (or ‘services’) the trees provide us with.
So the report tells us that Mountshannon’s trees, in public spaces alone, store 116 tonnes of carbon dioxide, worth €2,223 and equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of 90 cars. Not bad for a village of fewer than 200 inhabitants. And every year the same trees remove (‘sequester’) another four tonnes from the atmosphere, worth €77 a year. The trees also cleanse the air of pollutants to a value of €480 a year, and reduce rainwater run-off, and thus potential flooding, to the tune of €134 a year.
These figures may seem modest, but they fall into perspective when you take into account that Mountshannon only covers 85 acres, and that the much more numerous and often much bigger trees on private land were not included in this survey, for logistical reasons. The actual values may be five times as high, according to Tobin.
Carey is modestly at pains to point out that this is “only a pilot study”, and that there “may be glitches in it”. And Tobin stresses that they “only included those values they could robustly stand over to any economist”.
Many such studies today would have included a range of health service benefits, for example: there is now a solid body of evidence that public health, physical and mental, significantly improves where there is easy access to green and wooded areas, representing significant savings to health service budgets.
Nor did Carey and Tobin factor in the amenity value of trees, which are likely to encourage tourists to stay longer in places they visit, nor the less tangible but no less real aesthetic benefits to the villagers themselves. But they do give a remarkable total value of €422,209 to the champion oak, building in all factors over the centuries.
What is really remarkable about this survey is that it came from the commitment of one citizen, was then warmly supported by the local community council, and funded by Clare County Council.
Ireland is committed, under our own National Biodiversity Plan and under the EU Biodiversity Strategy, to evaluate the services provided by our ecosystems and build them into national accounting systems by 2020.
But though the Irish Forum for Natural Capital (naturalcapitalireland.com) was set up last year by NGOs and State agencies to aid this process, progress is still slower than many of its members would like. More grassroots initiatives like this report could speed things up a lot.
“More than anything else, I wanted to get thought processes going in people’s heads about the multiple values of trees,” says Carey.
“Trees are a resource we all benefit from,” says Tobin. “But if we don’t know the value of what we have, we can’t manage it correctly.”
“It’s a novel approach and I would love to see it done elsewhere,” says Congella Maguire, heritage officer with Clare County Council. The council had already published an extensive survey of trees in small Clare towns in 2015. (http://iti.ms/2aAmEfz).
“What the Mountshannon report has done is absolutely valuable. You have to be able to put hard figures on these things if you are to convince the people who make decisions about our future that trees matter, that biodiversity matters.”
Rising profile of Mountshannon oaks
"It's all been about trees this year," says Linda Herman, one of Mountshannon's 12 elected community councillors.
Bernard Carey, it turns out, has not just surveyed the village’s trees, he has been instrumental in two projects to plant more of them, both linked to commemorating the 1916 Rising centenary, one of them also celebrating Mountshannon’s record as a Tidy Towns winner.
Everyone from transition year students to the Men's Shed and the most senior citizen, Pakie Dooley, got involved. (See their facebook page on http://iti.ms/2anl5hW.)
A third 1916 commemoration project was organised by Tommy MacNamara and the Community Employment Scheme. It involved planting 100 oaks in the nearby Woodpark forest.
Regarding the council’s support for the valuation report, Herman echoes Congella Maguire’s comments: “If you are interested in supporting the environment, you have to convince the people who are calling the shots, and they are not all tree huggers. You have to give them figures.”
Paddy Woodworth is a member of the steering committee of the Irish Forum on Natural Capital