Serious concerns regarding the environmental impact of Ireland’s recently launched forestry programme have been expressed by the European Commission.
In a damaging critique of the country’s new €1.3bn programme, which is proposed to run from 2023 to 2027, the Commission took issue with a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) which was undertaken as part of Ireland’s draft national forestry plan.
A letter from the Commission to the Department of Agriculture’s forestry division noted that SEA report failed to “sufficiently address” concerns around the impact of what it described as the “inappropriate afforestation of sensitive habitats such as peatlands”.
In addition, the Commission letter cited Irish forestry’s continued dependence on Sitka spruce and was unhappy that possible difficulties around the planting of uplands and wetlands areas considered crucial nesting environments for endangered birds, such as the hen harrier, curlew and lapwing, were not highlighted.
It also pointed out that the detrimental impact of planting on the catchment areas of rivers with the freshwater pearl mussel had been pointed out in previous communications from the Commission, but did not appear to have been adequately considered.
In a damning assessment of the SEA report, the Commission said it failed to address “the biodiversity and climate implications of converting peatlands to forestry, in particular short-rotation even-aged Sitka spruce stands destined for periodic clear-fell and associated disturbance of organic soils”.
“Evidence also indicates that afforestation has been impacting negatively on rare grassland habitats. This does not appear adequately reflected in the SEA report either,” the Commission states.
“Afforestation appears to be still haphazard and often results in relatively small scattered blocks of forest on open habitats, such as wet grasslands, leading to habitat loss and fragmentation and increased predation,” the Commission document contends.
“Evidence strongly points to the need for enhanced EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] screening and coherence with farming-related conservation measures aimed at conserving birds of the wider countryside which are of conservation concern,” it suggests.
The Department’s forestry division will now have to respond to the Commission. It is unclear whether a revised SEA will be sought by the Commission or if Brussels’ concerns regarding the new forestry programme will delay its introduction.