Hopefully, we'll be able to see the forest for the trees


ANOTHER LIFE:RAKING UP LEAVES for the compost heap (not, these days, for a whiff of spicy blue bonfire smoke) ought to induce some satisfaction with the world. A little melancholy is allowed, perhaps, but of the sweeter sort; nothing to mar a leisurely musing on nature's continuity, renewal, all that, writes Michael Viney

But even as I heaped the wheelbarrow, a new forestry missive was spiralling into my inbox. Waiting there already were 155 pages of the new Review of Forest Policy for the Heritage Council and an acerbic 10-page position-paper from Friends of the Irish Environment. Now came a cry against government spending cuts from Woodlands of Ireland, lamenting the "millions of oak seedlings" that could be lost to the Native Woodlands Scheme. And following by snail-mail, as if to soothe, came a corporate DVD from Coillte on "Restoring Priority Woodland Habitats in Ireland", full of worthy, EU-subsidised doings in precious vestiges of ancient forest.

Like leaves from different trees, they brought their own colours, including vivid tints of apprehension and dismay. It seems only yesterday that an awakening to all the things that trees are for, backed by creative and enthusiastic professionals, would transform the Irish landscape. "This is an exciting time" wrote the foresters and ecologists in their review for the Heritage Council. So it was, and so it might be again.

Meanwhile, the oaks wait on in their nursery beds and hundreds of foresters, ecologists and contractors move into the ranks of the anxious.

This need not, of course, waste either of the policy reviews, both of which set out radical reform. Our forestry is still governed, as the FIE points out, by the 1996 plan of planting 20,000 hectares a year, mainly with conifers, until 2030, a plan that collapsed last year to the 7,000 hectares actually planted, mainly by farmers. It is well past time, FIE argues, for Ireland to apply to forestry the Strategic Environmental Assessment of land use ordered by the EU and recently endorsed by the Environment Protection Agency.

The review for the Heritage Council was carried out by six professionals at the request of Woodlands of Ireland, with much consultation and even a public meeting. It calls for a new national plan to embrace all the "ecosystem services", from forestry now recognised as valuable to nature and society: timber and fuel, of course, but also carbon storage, conservation of species, enjoyable landscapes and recreation, right down to healthy walks amid the birds in new suburban woods.

In both documents, predictably, there is strong support for increasing the cover of native and naturalised broadleaf trees - but also a new tone in talking about conifers. The "Vision" recommended to the Heritage Council still sees native forests, with their greatest variety of plants and animal life, as "the highest expression of vegetation development". But it sets them in a mosaic of forests and open land in which trees are matched to different soils and landscapes. "The divide in public and professional perception between conifers and broadleaves will be abandoned in favour of planning and management to suit the specific site and objectives."

The FIE has spent decades excoriating national forest policy for its concentration, unique in Europe, on plantations of exotic, fast-growing Sitka spruce, mostly destined for pulp. Its new analysis calls simply for a "focus on higher quality timbers, taking climate change forecasts into account in species selection and diversification." But it will continue to assault Coillte for its clearfell methods and to push the case for mixed forests with continuous cover and selective harvesting.

The implications of climate change, carbon sequestration, and new fuel demands share the 155 pages of the Heritage Council review with a range of topics that climb every tree, as it were, of economic, ecological and regulatory concern. The real application of "sustainability" and "forest certification" has been a hotly contested area in the FIE's running harassment of Coillte, the state's forestry company, notwithstanding that body's green efforts. The review team wants the state's Forest Service to take stronger charge of national standards and for state forests to be kept in public ownership.

State forest land covers 445,000 hectares, so selling it off might raise a few billion at this time. Let us not go there, but browse peacefully, instead, upon the 550.8 hectares of Coillte's current restoration projects. They add to some 22,000 hectares of Coillte's existing Natura sites and are regenerating native woodland in nine rare and threatened habitats on limestone, bog and alluvial wetland. Here, the conifers are gone and fresh ash trees are pushing up through the brash.

Little yew trees take root in Tipperary, raised from native slips. Take heart from the website at www.woodlandrestoration.ie while I go out and finishing raking leaves.

Ireland's Ocean: A Natural Historyby Michael Viney and Ethna Viney has now been published by the Collins Press, Cork