Managing and reimagining forestry in Ireland

Our forests must be managed sustainably amid the threat of the climate crisis

Deforestation, wildfires, and ash dieback are just a few of the alarming issues to be read about in today’s news regarding international forestry. Apocalyptic images of burning orange skies and 50m flames have become a common appearance on social media, as has the devastation of homes, landscape, and livelihoods. These damaging issues have been attributed to climate change, which leaves us, as humans, feeling very much responsible. A quick browse on Instagram and Twitter can leave you feeling anxious and hopeless. What can be done? What is being done?

By momentarily looking beyond the colossal issues of global change, I ask you to focus on one thing: forests. Or more specifically, Irish forests. This leads us to a practice known as forest management, or more specifically, Sustainable Forest Management (SFM). SFM, under EU guidelines, is defined as: “The stewardship and use of forest lands in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their productivity, biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfill now, and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions at local, national and global levels and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems.” To put it very simply, it means society will continue to use forests for economic and recreational purposes, while ensuring these forest ecosystems can flourish and remain healthy and biodiverse. By following this practice, we should, in theory, not cause damage to this finite resource. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, particularly here in Ireland.

We owe a lot more to forest spaces than people realise.”

It is common knowledge to many of us now that forests are crucial to our environment and ecosystems. They curtail the effects of climate change by contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. By doing so, they function as carbon sinks, with Irish forests storing an estimated 311.7 million tonnes of Carbon in 2017 alone. Further benefits of forests include shade, water and soil cooling, biodiversity, and flood prevention, while additionally providing people with recreational and medicinal uses. Picture the last time you walked through a clearing in a wood. Did it relax you, or perhaps improve your mood? We owe a lot more to forest spaces than people realise. A correctly and sustainably managed forest can bolster ecosystem services like pollination, which in turn improve Ireland’s food and agriculture production. It is undeniable that forests have immense value to our society.

Currently, Ireland’s forest cover stands at 11% which, notably, is the lowest figure in Europe. Many of these forests have been planted by people and are not naturally occurring nor native to Ireland. Currently, 71.2% of our forests are made up of conifer species, with the remainder being broadleaved species. Ireland significantly lacks mature forest cover, almost three-quarters of which is less than 30 years of age. In Dublin, the forest cover accounts for a mere 6.5% of land. A large portion of forestry in Ireland is privately owned, intended for commercial use. Sitka spruce accounts for 51.1% of forest area, meaning it is the most common species to be found in a forest.

Uncontrolled gorse and heather fires, particularly during drier seasons, can have devastating consequences for an Irish forest, particularly tree plantations.”

There are numerous factors that contribute to the damage of our forests and woodland. Stormy weather accompanied by strong winds or wildfires can have disastrous consequences for forests, as well as diseases, herbivory, and pests. Windthrow is the term used for the uprooting of trees by wind and is said to be a primary threat for many of Ireland’s forests. Fortunately, with Ireland’s moist, temperate climate, we are not as vulnerable to large-scale wildfires as other countries. However, this does not mean we are immune to these fires. Uncontrolled gorse and heather fires, particularly during drier seasons, can have devastating consequences for an Irish forest, particularly tree plantations.

In many Coillte forests, which are home to the controversial monoculture plantations of Sitka spruce, the forest floor is covered with pine needles, which undoubtedly provides excellent fuel for a wildfire. Monoculture is defined as the growing of a single crop species in a given area and is fast becoming a common feature in Ireland due to its economic advantages. Sitka spruce forests often appear dense and devoid of other plant species, with  Coillte receiving criticism for this practice.

Damage caused by animals, such as deer, grey squirrel, and rabbits, is a common threat to many Irish forests. In deer-dominated areas such as the Wicklow mountains, large communities of deer consume the shoots of young trees which slows the regeneration and growth of forests. To combat this, many organisations must erect fencing to physically stop the over-feeding by plant-eating animals. However, this is a costly solution which unfortunately, is not always affordable for organisations. Invasive species can also have a considerable effect on native biodiversity within forests, often significantly altering an ecosystem for the worse. By doing so they can endanger the survival of native flora and fauna.

As a direct result of climate change, Ireland is seeing more intense storms than usual, along with wetter winters and drier summers. The increased occurrence of extreme climatic events is likely to have a knock-on impact within ecosystems

In October 2019, Coillte and Bord na Móna announced a plan to convert 15,000 hectares of ‘disused peatlands’ into native forests by planting 600,000 trees. By doing so, this collaboration would support Ireland’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to plant 20 million trees per annum over the next 20 years  This announcement was met with mixed feelings, as many felt that the reclamation of these peatlands for forests would be detrimental to the Irish landscape, and may in fact increase Ireland’s greenhouse gas output. In a chapter within the book, Irish Peatland Forests: Lessons from the Past and Pathways to a Sustainable Future by Florence Renou-Wilson and Kenneth Byrnez, they note that the current waterlogged condition of peat, coupled with its lack of nutrients, makes it unsuitable for tree production. Peat would require intensive management for it to be more suitable for the establishment of trees. Even then, many issues arise such as loss of nutrients, phosphorus leaching, which can be damaging to local water systems, increased release of CO2 to the atmosphere, and waterways and the shrinkage of land. 

In correct SFM, prevention of damage is prioritised over cure. The limited use of pesticides and herbicides have been encouraged as a form of forest management. According to the Forest Protection Guidelines by the Department Of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, if applied sparingly during an appropriate time period, pesticides are said to be a favourable form of treatment for pest insects. Ireland’s status as an island, and the immaturity of the forests, can create an ideal situation, where it is less likely that pests and diseases will settle.  Yet the frequent trading industry of household plants and wooden materials increases the potential of disease transportation. 

For the conservation of water quality and aquatic ecosystems, buffer zones are located between waterways and forests. These are areas where natural vegetation is encouraged to grow. 

For the prevention of wildfires, public awareness is a main priority. This discourages carelessness while operating fires, as this is often the main cause of forest or gorse fires in Ireland. Furthermore, as the issue of windthrow is most damaging, the formation of a solid root structure within a stable soil is crucial. This prevents the loss of healthy trees.

These are just a few of the practices that are involved in SFM in Ireland, and which help to maintain the health of our forests. But if we wish to increase our forest cover to that of other EU states, a lot more needs to be done.