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Ireland’s Industrial Forests

Ireland’s Industrial Forests

PERSONAL ESSAY
Ireland’s Industrial Forests: Why tree planting is not always good news

by Gearoid Muldowney, Superfolk

 

“The story goes that once upon a time, a long, long time ago, Ireland was a land densely covered in trees from end to end, broken only by lakes, raised bogs and mountain tops. Today, this era of dense blanket forestry lives on only in old folk tales and mythology”. 

 

 

There is a folk story told to school children in Ireland, intended to give a sense of how much forest there once was. The story goes that the island of Ireland was so densely forested, that a red squirrel could travel the width of the country, hopping from branch to branch, all the way from Galway to Dublin, without ever setting foot on the ground. 

As a child, I often dreamt of that never-ending woodland. In my mind, it was the forest of Fionn and the Fíanna. The Fíanna were are a band warriors in Irish mythology. And, in the stories we were told in school, all of their warrior training and greatest adventures seemed to take place in vast forests.

These stories of mythology lodged in my childhood mind, where they merged and mingled with my reality. 

As children, and later young teenagers, my cousins and I spent every summer holiday and long weekend in ‘the woods’ on the land which my Grandparents owned and all of my mother’s family lived on. In my childhood imagination, we roamed through never-ending woodlands. We were woodland warriors, just like the stories of Fionn and the Fíanna.

But, of course, the truth is - we were not roaming the grand, never-ending, forests of mythology.

Ireland gives a deceptive impression of being well-wooded, with many trees growing in overgrown hedgerows, around small fields and patches of scrub on steep slopes. ‘The Woods’, as we called it, was our place of freedom, exploration and learning. It was our world. But in reality, it was a large parcel of mixed-used lands, (grassland, woodland, bog and scrub). Native woodlands today are largely confined to sites that are too steep, too rocky, too swampy or inaccessible to be put to more direct commercial use. 

Ireland is one of the most deforested countries in Europe. Attempting to unravel how the near-total deforestation of Ireland came about is a story that is politically charged and, to this day, contested.

The rousing nationalist narrative that our cherished wildwoods were ravaged and obliterated by the Tudor conquest of Ireland is more than a little exaggerated. Songs and stories like ‘Cill Chais’, a hauntingly beautiful lament of the deforestation of lands at the time of the Munster plantations, gloss over an inconvenient truth. The people living and farming on the island of Ireland had been busy clearing forests for millennia. 

The clearances of Ireland’s wildwoods of native hazel, elm, oak and pine, first began with the Neolithic farmers who felled woodlands to practice ‘shifting cultivation’ and clearances accelerated in the early medieval period. By the time of the start of the plantations of Ireland, in the 16th century, somewhere between one-eight and one-fiftieth of land was still wooded. 

Since gaining independence the Irish government has not made any serious effort to restore our forests. The “social forestry” schemes rolled out have always been more focused on ‘job creation’ and the optics of ‘stemming rural emigration’ than creating either a comprehensive sustainable policy for the forestry sector or the natural environment and habitats that woodlands support.

And now, at last, the Irish government has recently announced their plan to plant 22 million trees every year, for the next 20 years. That’s 440 million trees. So, are we really going to try to recreate the never-ending forests of prehistoric Ireland, romantic mythology and my childhood imagination? Will a red squirrel once again travel the width of the country, hopping from branch to branch, all the way from Galway to Dublin, without ever setting foot on the ground? That would be the perfect good news story. Planting trees is always a good news story? Right? 

Trees are beautiful and they do so many things for the environment. They provide shelter in our windy climate, shade in summer; they act as a screen against noise. Importantly they provide habitat and food for wildlife of many kinds. They provide material for, furniture, buildings, toys, firewood and fuel. Critically in the context of global warming new forests have the potential to act as ‘carbon-sinks’ taking  CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it. And it is, we are told, in this context, to help the Irish government at reaching their climate targets that they have announced these ambitious new tree planting targets. Here is where we really need to try to unpick the mythology from the inconvenient truth. Because, as with any great rambling folk tale, all is not as it first appears. 

The government's target is to plant 70% conifers and just 30% broadleaf trees. So why does this matter? What is the difference between broadleaf woodland and commercial conifer forestry plantations? Trees are trees, right? Wrong.

First, it is important to understand that ‘woodlands’ are so much more than a collection of trees. Woodlands are living communities, dominated by trees, but the life of a woodland happens in the spaces between the trees. 

Normally the branches of dominant trees (eg Oak) reach out and touch, or almost touch its neighbour. A canopy of foliage is formed and beneath this there is sheltered, shaded habitat that supports a complex ecosystem living in an interdependent way with one another. There is the understory of small trees and shrubs (eg hazel and holly). Below this again is the herb layers of plants (eg bluebells) and ferns. Below this again is the mossy layer. Natural and planted broadleaf woodlands are a refuge for our native mammals from wood mice to deer.  The red squirrel, the pine marten and salmon all exist on the outer edges of our landscape. 

 

 

Conifer plantations, on the other hand, are an entirely different habitat. The 31 million conifer trees, which the Irish government has announced its intention to plant will harbour very little wildlife, will increase instances of flash flooding and may actually increase Ireland's carbon footprint. The net impact is more likely to harm rather than enhance our environment. Here’s how.

The main conifer species planted by the Irish forestry industry in Ireland is Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis). Sitka Spruce is a tree native to the west coast of North America, from Southern Alaska to northern California. While the Sitka Spruce was planted in Norway in the 1900’s it is now considered an invasive species there and an effort is being made to remove it completely.

Sitka Spruce is essentially an industrially farmed invasive species in Ireland. It has emerged as the preferred choice of the Irish commercial forestry industry for three reasons. It grows quickly. In suitable conditions young Sitka Spruce trees can grow as much as 1.5m a year. Secondly, Sitka Spruce can tolerate poor soil, of which Ireland has plenty. Thirdly, Sitka Spruce is resilient to coastal conditions. Ireland is, after all, an island. While this may all sound quite manageable, the greatest environmental hazards occur in the ways in which this tree is planted and managed in the Irish landscape. So what harm is caused by commercial sitka plantations in Ireland?

 

 

Irish conifer plantations are densely packed and planted in straight lines of trees. The intention here is to produce as much from the land as possible and to encourage the trees to grow tall and straight for ease of processing later.

In Ireland conifer plantations are most frequently planted on waterlogged peaty soil that has very little structure. Another reason conifer trees are planted close together is because trees planted on boggy lands are prone to being blown over if they are not tightly packed so as to support one another.

Once mature a commercial conifer plantation is a dark and inhospitable place for most native species. Conifer plantations create an environment where very little additional species can survive. If the wind can’t get in amongst the trees what chance do other native plant species have?

The next environmental hazard with conifer plantations is the practice of clear-cutting. This is where an entire crop (forest) is harvested (cut down) in one swoop. Clear felling of conifer plantations leads to many problems, including ‘run-off’. When an entire crop is harvested, the land no longer has the capacity to soak up the rain which falls on it. Instead, the rainwater ‘runs off’ the land, depleting the soil of any remaining nutrients. This rich ‘run-off’ then flows into the surrounding streams, rivers and lakes where further problems are created.

The sudden influx of runoff water into surrounding watercourses can increase the acidity, nutrients and sediment content leading to aquatic species habitat destruction and sometimes even problems at sea. 

 

 

There are also increased flooding risks associated with clear-cutting. In a world of increased severe weather events, changing the landscape so suddenly and aggressively for profit is a high-risk strategy with huge wide-reaching impacts which we all pay for.

If you hadn't noticed already it rains in Ireland a lot and flooding is becoming a major problem. Forests can help. The more natural woodland we have the better chances we have of managing the ever increasing extreme weather events which are becoming all to common.

What’s more, the carbon-sink or carbon sequestration potential of forests may be greatly reduced if they are planted on already carbon-rich soils, especially peatlands.

In Ireland we have been subsidizing and supporting the planting of conifers in our boglands at pace since the 1990s. Studies now suggest that drainage and tree planting in peatlands may accelerate organic matter decomposition, thereby increasing soil CO2 emissions and reducing the net carbon sink value of the plantation. 

We need to recognise that the farming of grass and trees in Ireland is now an industrial activity. We must not be tricked into thinking either of these activities are either natural or unquestionably ‘good’ for the environment. Intensive anything is not good for the environment or us.

This island of Ireland is known as the land of ‘forty shades of green’ but lately we’ve been doing a good job cutting that down to just two. If we are to continue to live on this island we need to develop gentler more sustainable land-use practices.

The forested areas of my grandparent's lands were steep and stony because there is an ancient ring fort in the heart of the forest. One summer, when I was 11 years old, I still remember the day when we realised that half of our beloved never-ending forest, (our neighbors half) had been clear-felled to make way for a commercial Sitka spruce plantation. Gone were the blackthorn bushes which lined the ringfort on top of the hill, gone were the huge Ash trees which we used to navigate when we were crawling through the undergrowth, gone was the hazel wood, the streams were straightened, the old houses flattened and every place we had a nickname for was gone. In their place was grim straight lines of tiny spiky trees.

The sadness I felt that day still will never leave me.

We must each, as adults, learn to recognize when our leaders are telling us fairy tales. We must plant more trees, yes, but we must do it in the right way, we must create more native woodland for us all. I’m hopeful that our generation might begin to understand the importance of planting native broadleaf forests so our children, and our children's children can play amongst the trees and dream of Fionn and the Fíanna.

 

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