The forest and the trees
Sir, – The thrust of Susan McKay’s article is that Sitka spruce is environmentally unsound, and that Leitrim land should be planted with broad leaves like oak (“‘This is load-of-crap forestry, miles upon miles of it. Everything is dead in there’”, Weekend, March 16th).
To grow quality broad leaves, well-draining fertile soil is required.This can be found in the Golden Vale, Meath and Kildare. Land quality in Leitrim is so poor for farming that most farmers have opted to grow a crop of trees. It provides them with an income in yearly payments, and if the forest is carefully managed, a decent income at end of rotation.
Alder and birch will grow on these wet soils but these are not commercial species and cannot provide a living for the land owner.
It should be remembered that the Irish landscape is a human-made one, and left to its own devices the land will eventually revert to forest. In the case of wet Leitrim soils, this would be predominantly sally or goat willow, with the odd oak tree, birch and rowan, and lots of briars – great for birds and insects but of no value to the landowner.
Sitka grows extremely well on these soils. It is the bread-and-butter species of the Irish forest industry. While there are other conifers such as western hemlock and western red cedar that could be grown on these soils, the saw-milling industry seems to have no interest as current production from these species is too small.
Of course, some people would then attack the planting of these other species. It would be a no-win situation for the forester or landowner. Trees have to be suited to site, and beech, sycamore and oak will not thrive on wet soils. Neither beech nor sycamore are native to Ireland, and our stock of native broad leaves is painfully inadequate.
Forest service guidelines require a minimum of 10 per cent broad leaves on all sites where possible.
Rather than the beauty strip of three rows around a Sitka plantation as is standard practice, I believe we need discrete self-sustaining areas of suitable broad leaves adjacent to new plantations, and these in time will propagate and become endemic to the area.
The article brought up the issue of pollution. It is extremely rare for plantations to require fertiliser.
Contrast that with an acre of land which is farmed for grass and the inputs of a spreading of slurry in the early spring, followed by six bags of nitrogenous fertiliser, and repeat of fertiliser post-harvest, followed by another spreading of slurry in the autumn.
Over 35 years, the usual rotation of a forest, that’s a huge input of nutrients from farming, which forestry avoids.
My plantations in west Clare, 70 per cent Sitka spruce, on land very similar to that in Leitrim, have large numbers of red squirrel which feed on Sitka seed.
Each day I see a pine marten somewhere locally. Ponds created at planting to catch drained water are havens for frogs. I gave up counting at 350 pairs mating in one pond. We have hen harriers, which hunt in young plantations and clear felled areas, and shrews, wood mice, otters, lizard, stoat, badger, foxes, pheasant, woodcock, snipe, siskin, and tree creepers. The occasional eucalyptus, dotted about, provide a late autumn flow of nectar for bees and other insects. I have observed hares using the larch plantations for browsing and shelter. Deer quietly moved into the area some 10 years ago. Insect life is abundant in the summer. If Sitka is thinned early, an under-story of shrubs and other plants will thrive, as will fauna.
In Ireland we need to plan our forests with a view to multiple use, with walking and biking trails and camp sites to foster an appreciation and understanding of that forestry in Ireland is about.
A greater mix of commercial conifers where possible should be encouraged, as well as broad leaves suited to the site. I’d strongly suggest that our network of hedgerows and ditches be used for individual broadleaf planting.
Finally, we have the best-funded forestry programme in the world, but interest has effectively collapsed due in part to unnecessary restrictions, inertia and distinct lack of imagination on the part of the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, which implements the programme.
In January, your newspaper published another article critical of forestry, and I am not aware of any Forest Service response. The deeper one buries one’s head in the sand, the greater the impact of the inevitable kick in the nether regions. – Yours, etc,