Are we planting the right trees?

February 27th, 2021 5:10 PM

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SIR – I would like to share with the readers what I have discovered recently whilst studying online (Environmental Studies) during the lockdown. Ireland once was a lush land of woods and forests of differing shades of the green, 80% was once our Native Woodland but today it is 2%.

Centuries of clearance for agriculture and timber have reduced Irelands once extensive native woodlands to the remnants of today as one of the lowest rates in Europe.

Once the most forested country in Europe today only 11% is the total forest cover in Ireland, approximately 10% of this is conifer plantations (Sitka Spruce) Our once loved native trees (oak, elm, ash, birch, rowan, holly) support a huge biodiversity of wildlife. They take longer to grow but the wait is worthwhile in the end.

Padraig Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust claims ‘Irish animal, bird and fish species are being driven into extinction because their natural habitat is being replaced by unnatural conifer forests. Ireland is coming under pressure to reduce carbon emissions and one of the ways the Government plans to do this is with more conifer plantations,’ he adds. ‘Monoculture in the form of conifer plantations has also been identified as one of the principal sources of water pollution, Clear felling results in massive pollution run-off and leaves a devasted landscape in its wake. The sediment from clear felling threatens the freshwater pearl mussel, while resulting in acidification of rivers and lakes and undermining salmon and trout populations.”’

The ‘Save Leitrim Group’ has claimed the ‘relentless subsidized Sitka spruce afforestation programme has caused widespread environmental problems undermining rural life, fuelling depopulation, they let no light in, thereby eliminating all life on the forest floor, they are dark and foreboding.’  Not only people in Leitrim are suffering from this onslaught of conifer plantations.

There are currently 18 species of birds on the endangered list in Ireland, including the magnificent barn owl. It is hard to believe that once wolves, bears and wild boar roamed our lush lands of woods long ago, now even common species such as bees, butterflies, the curlew, lapwing and snipe are threatened with extinction. The pine martin, mountain hare, red squirrel and red deer are among the species seriously declining over the past decade.

These woodlands not only provide food and shelter for wildlife but they would increase our biodiversity and make our 5km walk much more interesting to boot! Forest bathing is said to combat depression, anxiety and stress.

By giving incentives, encouraging farmers to change the way farmland is managed to be more wildlife and forest-friendly (rewilding) this would surely be the right way to tackle climate change and dwindling wildlife populations.

It is scientifically proven that oaks and other broad leaves are the most carbon-absorbing species, however the target of the government is to plant 70% conifers and 30% broadleaves.

I am concerned that this could be short term thinking. Are they the right trees?

Jessica Garnett,


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