Re-imagining our forests

A change is underway in Irish forestry policy, and in our landscape itself

While the climate crisis has occupied the public consciousness, with mixed success, for the best part of the last two decades, biodiversity loss has increasingly risen in prominence alongside it in recent times. Once fashionable, neatly rolled lawns are increasingly viewed by the public as “green deserts”. Dublin City Council now leaves a wild margin throughout Dodder Park. Trinity has replaced centuries old lawns on College Green with a wildflower meadow. 

Coillte manages 7% of Ireland’s land, a vast 440,000 hectare area, nearly five times the size of Dublin county.”

A National Parks and Wildlife Service report published last year found that 85% of EU protected habitats in Ireland were graded as “inadequate” or “bad”. A growing cognizance of our bruised landscape has in part led to a reexamination of how we manage our woodland areas, most of which are under the stewardship of the semi-state Coillte, and are managed commercially. Coillte manages 7% of Ireland’s land, a vast 440,000 hectare area, nearly five times the size of Dublin county. 80% of that land is devoted to commercial activity, and the remaining 20% is managed with biodiversity as the primary objective. 

Most commercial forestry in Ireland is cultivated with a species called Sitka Spruce. This is a coniferous, fast-growing species that came originally from Newfoundland in Canada. It took to the Irish climate and soil like a duck to water. It takes 35 years to mature, while many Irish native broadleaf species such as oak can take over a hundred years. Everyone in Ireland has seen these Sitka Spruce plantations. They cover the Dublin mountains, and most of the land dedicated to forestry in the country. Sitka is an appealing option for commercial forestry operators as it grows straight, it is cheap to extract and it gives a return in a couple of decades. It is often the tree of choice for overseas, absent investors in search of a steady financial return.

Some locals who reside beside plantations complain of them as silent, impenetrable walls of forest, guarding dark, lifeless swathes of countryside.”

While its commercial advantages are undeniable, Sitka has some key drawbacks. It is evergreen, and in a plantation it forms a “closed canopy” all year-round, blocking light from reaching the ground. According to a 2006 EPA report, “Sitka spruce and other heavily shading conifers is associated with an extremely impoverished ground flora.” For this reason, Sitka plantations are increasingly being thrown into the same category as manicured lawns, attracting the label “green deserts”. While this is probably an oversimplification, anyone who walks through the silent eeriness of a Sitka plantation will see a barren landscape, the dark soil below littered with spruce needles and seemingly nothing else. Some locals who reside beside plantations complain of them as silent, impenetrable walls of forest, guarding dark, lifeless swathes of countryside. Campaigns such as the Save Leitrim group have been set up to oppose forestry plantations, which they say are emptying the life and people out of the villages and communities who live among them.

When harvesting native deciduous trees such as oak, birch or ash, the trees are generally gradually felled in rotation, using an ancient technique known as coppicing. This contrasts with the method of clearfelling that is used for Sitka plantations, in which a whole site is cleared of trees. Although it is more cost-effective, a site that has been clearfelled is a scarred land, a barren site that often generates acid sulphate which damages our rivers and lakes.

Speaking to Trinity News, Ciarán Fallon, head of Coillte Nature, Coillte’s branch focused on biodiversity, described how Ireland’s current forestry policy first arose. “When the state was formed in the 1920s there was very little forestry cover, less than 1% of our landmass. The current EU average is 42%. Meanwhile our small patches of forestry were mostly for the recreation of landed gentry.” For the first few decades of our state, very little forestry was planted, according to Fallon. It was only in the middle of the 20th century that forestry became a concern, and the fast growing Sitka Spruce was seen as a useful way cover large areas of the country in forestry. “This was an understandable decision from their perspective at the time.” Under this policy Irish forestry cover managed to increase to its current 11%. 

Fallon says we are at a point now where we can make a decision about the future of our forestry policy. He sees a role for species such as Sitka as a reliable timber crop; “people need timber, and if we can produce that in Ireland then there’s no reason we shouldn’t”, although he stressed that balance in our forestry is key. The Dublin Mountains were planted with Sitka Spruce in the late 60s and early 70s. At that time Dublin city ended at Dundrum, and recreational visits to the mountains were rare, so this made sense. Now that the city extends right up to the mountains, and hundreds of people visit sites like Tiknock every day. For this reason, the Dublin Mountain “Makeover” is currently beginning, an effort that over the years will convert the Coillte estates that cover the Dublin Mountains into native broadleaf forestry. This forest will be ‘alive’ with diverse flora and fauna, and will be an attractive site for recreational activities for Dubliners. 

Fallon sees an increase in interest from the public on forestry, and welcomes that people are expressing opinions on what they want woodland in Ireland to look like in 50 years, and even 100 years. According to him, the management of forestry is about political choices, rather than simple economic evaluations. The key factor which will decide what our forestry will look like is what function the Irish public would like it to serve. In the coming years it seems very likely that biodiversity and the beauty of our countryside will be foremost in our minds when reimagining our forests.