Let there be light on our forests

 

The song of the goldcrest, the new Collins Bird Guide tells us consolingly, is "difficult to hear for many elderly people." Happy to report, then, receiving it loud and clear in a morning mooch through the spruce woods over the hill: a rhythmic little jingle, insistently repeated, with a flourish at the end. A change, certainly, from the usual high-pitched tsee-tsee-tsee with which it mocks one's failure to find it, even with binoculars, so high up in the canopy.

Regulus regulus is a five-gram scrap of feathers with a yellow Mohican hair-stripe, so cutely animated that any close-up encounter gets remembered. Fluttering in the conservatory, carried in by the cat, even (this from a Co Kilkenny reader last summer) leaped at by frogs in a garden pond: big adventures for the smallest bird in Europe.

Even before the modern conifer plantations, the "golden-crested wren" was found breeding in Ireland "wherever there are trees". Turn-of-the-century ornithologists were especially impressed with its migrations. On the east coast, in some autumns, "there are great rushes, as in October, 1884, when they were seen at Rockabill all day and night and fell in scores." One imagines them fluttering at the lighthouses like a swarm of brilliant bumble-bees.

Today, their densities in Ireland are probably the highest in Europe, sustained by the lack of killing winters. One study in the 1970s found as many as 600 goldcrest territories per square kilometre of conifers at Killarney and up to 190 in a square kilometre of oakwoods - immeasurably denser populations than in the forests of Finland, for example.

Now, a new study funded by COFORD, the forest research agency, confirms the goldcrest's superabundance in the mature conifer forests of the south-west. They actually make up half the birds found in the average hectare of trees in the breeding season. But, more to the point of the study, the other half are drawn from 30 species of bird, and another half-dozen species use the forests in winter. Much of the concern about the coniferisation of Ireland has had to do with bio-diversity. Near-monoculture plantations of Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine have been regarded - at least in their later, closed-in stages of growth - as ecologically inhospitable: forests "where no birds sing". Planted on bogs, they have swallowed up the habitat of special moorland birds and spoiled stream catchments for fishlife - or so the indictment runs.

In Scotland, moorland forestry has, indeed, obliterated much of the breeding landscape of scarce waders and divers. But few such birds breed in any numbers on Irish peatlands, certainly towards the south of the island. Instead of the vast sweeps of British forest, we have a broken mosaic of plots, each with its own long edge - often a rich habitat for birds. Given Ireland's relatively small pool of true woodland species, could forests in the right places actually increase bio-diversity?

This is the thinking behind a long-term project in University College Cork, investigating "enhancement opportunities" for birds in forestry and for fish in forested catchments. The findings on the birds already in possession will be published shortly in the journal Irish Forestry. The 38 species recorded over the year by Dr John O'Halloran and his team in 20 blocks of different kinds of conifer do not include many surprises, and echo those from comparable studies in Scotland. The range of birds is broadly similar to those using the farming countryside in general, plus half-a-dozen forest specialists such as coal-tit, siskin, redpoll and the newly-settled crossbills. You wouldn't expect skylarks, but all the hedgerow birds are in there, including songthrush, and even the herons find the forests a useful year-round retreat.

The greatest number of species seem to be attracted to Norway spruce and Douglas fir, with rather fewer in the Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine that form the great bulk of the forests. This, say the UCC team, suggests that selection of tree species should include some thought about a "bio-diversity component".

Good idea ecologically, as are all the others they propose: include more broadleaves; change the size and shape of plantations to increase the length of edge; let more light in to encourage shrubs and ground cover. Commercial conifer forestry as we have known it, however, is all about using the most productive species, grown close, tall and straight in the biggest possible plantations. How far can such rules be bent in gestures to diversity?

Even if the new research holds few surprises, it will certainly have registered with the company task force set up in Coillte early last year to develop a formal framework for "SFM."

If capital letters can spell out commitment, Coillte's published documents on the subject of Sustainable Forest Management carry one along on a wave of uplifting intentions. SFM was defined by the Helsinki Process, a 1993 ministerial conference on the protection of forests in Europe, followed up by a Vision, capital V, adopted by the national ministers in Lisbon last summer.

It is (deep breath) "The stewardship and use of forests in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their bio-diversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfil, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economical and social functions, at local, national and global levels, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems."

Thus does Coillte pledge, scout's honour, to maintain, conserve and enhance the range of all the different trees and plants that are growing in its forests, and all the insects and animals they provide for. Yea, and that counts in the 70,000 hectares not yet planted, with all their NHAs and SACs, their moorland, lakes and islands.

If this is Europe . . . let's join.