The 14 October national forestry conference, “The right trees in the right places for the right reasons”, will address tree species selection in Ireland.

Apart from our low forest cover, the major difference between Irish and European forests is our reliance on non-native species. This is mainly due to a dearth of indigenous species. Ireland has only 20 native tree species compared with Britain’s 35, while Europe has 454 native species.

Only a small fraction of these species are planted as forest and woodland trees. In Ireland, you could count on one hand the number of native Irish tree species that provide viable productive woodland. Oak and Scots pine, on suitable soils and cherry in mixture, have proven characteristics while alder and birch adapt well to a wide range of soils but have limited end uses.

Sadly, that’s it, now that ash and elm are no longer planted due to disease vulnerability. The remainder have undoubted ecological and heritage potential, but not commercial timber production.

All European indigenous spruce, larch, fir and pine species (with the exception of Scots pine) are non-native to Ireland. Broadleaves, including beech, sycamore, sweet chestnut, field maple, Norway maple and lime also failed to colonise Ireland naturally and were introduced by humans over the centuries.

Fortunately, all these European species grow well in Ireland, while many are now naturalised here. Even better performances are being achieved by coniferous species that originated in western North America, where climatic – maritime – conditions are not dissimilar to Ireland.

Small wonder that Irish forests turned to these species after the foundation of the State when Ireland had 1% forest cover and only the poorest of land was made available for afforestation.

What has emerged over the past century are largely plantation forests comprising 62% conifers, 25% broadleaves, 11% open diverse areas and 2% temporarily unstocked .


About 21% of the forest area of Ireland comprises native species, which critics of Irish forestry maintain is far too low. While nativeness is not regarded as an issue in Irish agriculture and horticulture, it remains a controversial topic in forestry.

Farmers, horticulturists and gardeners rely almost exclusively on non-native livestock, crop and plant species, because there is an absence of productive indigenous varieties.

The view that we should limit forestry to indigenous species overlooks the dearth of species available and the land available that would support viable native forests. However, the desire to recreate this lost native resource remains strong.

In their publication, Management Guidelines for Ireland’s Native Woodlands, John Cross and Kevin Collins acknowledge the role played by foresters and forest owners in the past in managing “for wood production in a manner compatible with biodiversity conservation” but they depart from this approach when they discuss conserving existing native woodlands and recreating the lost native woodland resource.

Here, they assert that “the overriding objective regarding native woodland, is to manage for biodiversity and conservation”. They avoid the objective of wood production which many private forest owners regard as too narrow a focus.

There is, however, a realism in Cross’s and Collins’s approach. They see the benefits in the ecological but farmers who are being asked to establish native woodlands as part of their farm enterprise are also realists.

Brave undertaking

For farmers who traditionally manage crops for a seasonal return, establishing a short 30- to 40-year rotation commercial crop is a brave undertaking even allowing for generous State support for the first 15 years.

Establishing a 100-year plus oak forest demands a different and more sustainable partnership approach between the owner and the State where the ecological overrides the economic. This long-term collaboration is more akin to Edmund Burke’s societal “contract” which “becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born”.

That State-private partnership test was put to the test, and found wanting by the State when ash dieback was introduced to Ireland in 2012.

Species selection has changed dramatically in Irish forests since the 1950s. Many once prominent species are no longer planted, such as larch and ash due to disease infection, while lodgepole pine has rarely featured since peatland afforestation ceased.

While forest owners will still choose productive species in future, land availability, disease vulnerability, climate change and biodiversity enhancement will become more influential in species selection. The national forestry conference webinar provides an opportunity to discuss multipurpose social, economic and environmental forestry issues including the tree species that best serve Ireland’s forestry programme.

Speakers at the forestry conference

The forestry conference “The right trees in the right places for the right reasons” scheduled for 14 October is divided into two sessions:

  • The right trees and the right places – an inventory of what species we have and what’s best for Ireland.
  • The right reasons – the role of multifunctional forestry; its wood and non-wood goods and services.
  • Organised by the Society of Irish Foresters, it features 11 speakers drawn from a wide range of disciplines. The Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, Senator Pippa Hackett, will provide the keynote address followed by John Redmond, head of the National Forest Inventory.

    Redmond’s topic is “What species we have – an assessment of the National Forest Inventory”.

    Niall Farrelly, senior research officer with Teagasc, will discuss “land availability in achieving the Government’s 8,000ha annual programme”.

    Stuart Goodall, CEO of Confederation of Forest Industries UK (Confor), will speak on “achieving a balanced species afforestation programme” based on the Scottish model.

    Marina Conway’s topic is “The right trees – native and introduced”. The CEO of Western Forestry Co-op will present case studies from a forester’s perspective.

    Pádraic Fogarty, campaign officer, Irish Wildlife Trust, will present a paper on “Sustainability in contemporary forest and woodland management”, while Declan Little, native woodland specialist with Coillte, will discuss the influence of soils on tree species selection.

    The second session opens with Dr Elaine McGoff, natural environment officer, An Taisce. Her topic is “The role of forestry in environmental conservation”.

    John Desmond, managing director of Cygnum Timber Frame Ltd, will feature sustainable building case studies in a presentation titled “Wood in the community – timber frame construction from local forests”.

    Brendan Lacey’s topic is “Trees as a sustainable investment”. The CEO of IForUT and chair of the ITGA will also outline his company’s approach to sustainable forest management.

    Looking forward, Dr David Styles, University of Limerick, will speak on “The role of forestry in achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050”.

    Jo O’Hara’s topic is “The challenge of achieving real forest multi-functionality”. She is managing director of FutureArk Ltd and former CEO of Scottish Forestry. She is also a board member of Project Woodland.

    The conference, which is part-funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, will feature a Q&A session.

    Further information

    Email for further information and booking (€30) or check

    Book direct through Eventbrite online at up until 1pm on 13 October.