January 28th 2023 Padraic Fogarty
It has been a dramatic week in the history of our long and tortured relationship with trees in Ireland. The protests, the outrage among opposition politicians, the people sending emails to their TDs, even the government ministers admitting things need to change, including the State buying land for rewilding “at its most basic”, tells me that biodiversity, and the realisation of what we’ve done to our landscape have landed as mainstream issues.
Yet, despite all of this, there seems to be strong resistance in the government to implementing change where it’s needed most. While forestry can be a complex and sprawling issue, the controversy over the last weeks surrounding Coillte and a private investment fund has thrown light on where we need to see the changes happen. These can be looked at under four headings:
The country has been saddled with a tree cover that extends to c.12% of the land area however our native forests constitute only a tiny fraction of this. Many of the plantations established in the early days when Coillte was the principle actor in this area have been ecologically and economically disastrous. While it is hard to get an accurate figure, Coillte themselves say that 232,000 ha of their 440,000 ha (so about half their estate) is on peatlands which is a major source of greenhouse gases from the decaying peat. Whatever about today’s standards, these early plantations had zero regard for habitats or water quality, with aerial fertilisation using rock phosphate and planting right up to the edge of water courses.
In Coillte’s recently published ‘strategic vision’, the state agency proposes rewetting or rewilding 30,000 ha of this, an entirely inadequate 13% of the total.
The new Forest Strategy has next to nothing to say about this issue, merely saying that “Legacy impacts associated with forests on peat will be assessed and management decisions will be implemented informed by best available science”.
We also know that when these forests are clear-felled, many are being replanted with 100% Sitka spruce even though it is known that this is exacerbating the problems. The Strategy does have some proposed schemes for making these plantations ‘resilient’, i.e. converting them to native or continuous cover woodland however these are set to be mere pilot projects with a very small extent. There is nothing about removing forests altogether to restore open blanket bogs.
In short, we still have no plan for dealing with our legacy problem.
Protecting Biodiversity from Forestry
Some of the most important habitats and species in Ireland are dependent upon open or farmed landscapes. These include, old flower-rich meadows, peat bogs and nesting sites for a range of birds such as hen harrier, curlew, redshank and lapwing, which are all threatened with extinction.
In 2015 the European Commission (EC) stipulated that in order to qualify for state aid “the inappropriate afforestation of sensitive habitats such as peat lands and wetlands will be avoided, as well as the negative effects on areas of high ecological value including areas under high natural value farming [HNV].”
However, the Department of Agriculture still has no working definition of HNV farmland. They say that planting on ‘deep peat’ has stopped but they decided that planting on ‘shallow peat’ was ok, something they decided was anything less than 50cm in depth. I am not aware of any scientific basis for this distinction.
In November last year, in a letter that was published this week on the website of People Before Profit, the EC tore into our new Forest Strategy for “continued extensive planting on peat soils under the current forestry programme”, “the piecemeal encroachment of forestry plantations and roads into open landscapes under high natural value farming and relied upon by open habitat birds, notably the Hen Harrier and the breeding Curlew” and noting that “afforestation has been impacting negatively on rare grassland habitats”. They said that forest planning continues to be “haphazard”, dominated by Sitka spruce and that there is no environmental impact assessment of afforestation.
In data released this week, BirdWatch Ireland accused the government forestry programme of not being compliant with the Bird Directive and noted that 14% of afforestation or replanting since 2014, i.e. since the EC warning, has taken place in “hotspots for six of our most threatened breeding waders” including curlew, lapwing, redshank and snipe.
The current Forest Strategy has no proposals for addressing this on-ongoing destruction, much of which has occurred under the new government and since the Dáil declared a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019. Much hope is placed on a forthcoming ‘land use review’ and discussion about what the ‘right tree in the right place for the right reasons’ actually means. Two years into Minister Pippa Hackett’s ‘Project Woodland’ this overused slogan remains a hazy concept.
Restoring our Native Forests
The restoration of a functioning, native forest ecosystem across Ireland is one of the most effective measures we could take for biodiversity, climate, water and people. It should be the project of the century to bring the people of our island together. The best way to achieve this is through the managed natural regeneration/rewilding of land, the control of grazing deer and sheep to allow existing pockets of native forest to expand and the use of river corridors to join up these pockets to establish a coherent ecosystem.
On the plus side, a landowner looking for native forest options will find that the premiums are generous: €1,103 per ha per annum for 15 years, or 20 years if you’re a farmer. However, the government’s targets are only for 1,150ha per year out of the 8,000ha total annual target. This, even when you add other nature-based schemes such as forests for water and rewilding, amount to only 14% of proposed new afforestation.
This was described by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in their submission to the draft Strategy as “inadequate”. They calculated that just meeting the (soon-to-be legally binding) target for restoring old oak woodlands under the EU’s Nature Restoration Law, will require 1,271ha/p.a. of just this type of forest (we also have targets for alluvial woodland). They also noted that the incentive for natural regeneration/rewilding, for which a landowner will receive €350/ha/p.a. is actually a perverse incentive to clear away scrub and emergent woodland as he/she will get three times the income to have it planted with saplings.
So, we need native woodland expansion and restoration to be much more ambitious. It should represent at least half the total targets which would send a signal that the government believes that this task is at least as important as keeping the timber industry on its feet. And while it was welcome to see a mention of rewilding, it would be better if this separate target was scrapped. Instead, it should be made clear that all new native woodland should prioritise rewilding/natural regeneration and only resort to tree-planting where this is deemed ecologically appropriate.
Transforming Production Forests
In 2019 the Dáil voted to “make a fundamental change in forestry policy away from a narrow vision of 30 year cycle to a permanent woodland approach”. The motion was initiated by the Green Party. Late last year, the Oireachtas cross-party committee on Environment and Climate Action published a report on biodiversity recommending “that priority be given to implementing the Continuous Cover Forestry, CCF system on a broader basis for greater sustainable forest management”. This reflects the findings of extensive public consultation since the end of 2021 and even a statement from Minister for the Environment, Eamon Ryan, who wrote on Twitter in January that “We must move away from upland, mono-culture & clear-fell plantations to allowing trees re-seed naturally in ‘continuous cover’ forests”.
Yet, despite all of this we are seeing an attempt to gaslight people by claiming that the new Forest Programme will not have any monoculture planting all.
For years now there has been a requirement for stands of Sitka spruce to be hidden behind a trim of native trees, amounting to 10% of the total forest stand, while there has also been a requirement for 15% ‘space for nature’. Under the new programme the trim of native trees is set to increase to 20%, so the move from monoculture to ‘not monoculture’ for some amounts to an increase of 10% in the area for native trees. 65% will continue to be blocks of single-species.
The ‘space for nature’ requirement meanwhile has been heavily criticised as under the existing Forest Standards Manual these ‘Areas for Biodiversity Enhancement’ can include setbacks from public roads, railway lines, internal roads, houses and other buildings or “other features, if deemed appropriate by the Forest Service”. Once again, we see that nature is left with the leftovers whereas a real ‘transformation’ would see nature as fundamental to the future of forestry. Nature needs landscapes, not the dregs.
These monocultures will continue to be planted for future clear-fell so it’s very hard to see how anyone can defend this very minor adjustment as somehow moving away from the dominant model of forestry practiced on this island to-date.
As pointed out by TD Richard Boyd-Barrett in the Dáil this week, this entire approach is only one beetle away from ruination. Ireland has so far escaped the infestation of the eight-toothed spruce bark beetle Ips typographus, which has ravaged plantations across continental Europe and has been in the south of England since 2018. How the wet-loving conifers of the Pacific north-west will cope with a drought-prone future climate also gives reasons to doubt even the commercial viability of such a single-species focus.
The new Forest Programme has the potential to deliver €1.3 billion to rural Ireland. This in itself is a significant achievement for Minister Hackett. That politicians are ready to reform the mandate of Coillte and to start using public money to buy land for rewilding is positive. From this year, farmers are no longer penalised for having native vegetation on their land and up to a half of any farm can be rewilded without losing payments. I am hearing that farmers are keen themselves to plant native trees or switch to a continuous cover approach. This is all very positive.
But because the Forest Programme is 100% funded by the taxpayer, it places the government in a unique position to steer the future of the sector. We should not be providing any premiums to monocultures of any kind but instead invest in new training and sylvicultural practices that bring real long-term benefits.
We now need some political bravery to listen to what is being said outside of the industry bubble and do what is right and in the public interest. It is not too late, but we’ll find out soon if that bravery exists.