Urgency and commitment are not words associated with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine when tackling major forestry issues in Ireland, which range from a seriously underperforming afforestation programme to ash dieback.
While external factors contributed in part to the demise of afforestation, there has been no excuse for the shamefully neglectful response to owners of diseased ash woodlands.
Developments in recent weeks suggest that these two issues may at last receive a belated sense of urgency.
While details of the findings of the ash dieback review group are not available at the time of writing, first reports suggest that at least the owners of diseased plantations were really listened to for the first time.
Deliver ‘lasting benefits’
While, the recently launched “Ireland’s Forest Strategy, 2023-2030” has been met with mixed reviews, there is no doubting its commitment and urgency to achieving a viable forestry programme.
This is evidenced in its opening statement: “The overriding objective between now and 2030 is to urgently expand the national forest estate on both public and private land in a manner that will deliver lasting benefits for climate change, biodiversity, water quality, wood production, economic development, employment and quality of life.”
Acknowledging the need for a partnership approach, it states: “This will be a challenge of significant proportions, which will require a whole-of-society and whole-of-Government response if we are to succeed.”
The strategy outlines the importance of forestry in achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, but there are no afforestation targets provided.
On page 30, it has the heading “18% forest cover”, but this is neither a commitment nor a target. It is the result of public consultation, during which “88% of participants endorsed a forest cover target of 18% or more by 2050”.
The strategy states: “The pace at which 18% forest cover will be achieved will depend on how active landowners and stakeholders will engage in demand-led afforestation schemes,” deftly avoiding the Department’s direct commitment to annual afforestation that would achieve forest cover of this scale.
What would 18% forest cover require?
Achieving 18% forest cover would require an annual afforestation programme of over 16,000ha, but the strategy opts for an “expanded and sustained afforestation programme of 8,000ha or more”, which “will improve the sink capacity of the estate”, but nowhere near the 18% forest cover target.
In trying to be all things to all people, the strategy fails to acknowledge that commercial forestry is the only option to displace carbon-based material in construction – the biggest emitter of carbon globally.
However, it doesn’t shy away from the key role that conifers will play in climate change.
“Conifers are an essential factor in the supply chain of timber products in Ireland and across its export markets,” it states.
While, foresters and timber processors believe that the strategy suffers as a result of not acknowledging the major role that wood products will play in the displacement of fossil-based material in construction and energy, they acknowledge its importance in trying to achieve a balance between the ecological economic and social aspect of forestry.
A ‘balanced’ programme
“The emphasis should be for a balanced forestry programme,” said Traolach Layton, GP Wood. “I keep returning to David Attenborough’s claim that we need wood, but we also need to protect and enhance the native woodland resource,” he added. “Both are achievable.”
“Climate change mitigation and adaptation are highlighted as a main driver of the national forest strategy, which must also recognise the importance of our conifer crops as they sequester carbon faster than slower growing species and supply timber for construction, displacing high carbon emissions from concrete production,” said Donal Whelan, from the Irish Timber Growers Association.
Conifers are an essential factor in the supply chain of timber products in Ireland and across its export markets
“Ultimately, our forests must be economically sustainable into the future, generating adequate income for owners, so they can be actively and appropriately managed to supply all the economic, environmental and social benefits envisaged in the Forest Strategy,” he added.
“We welcome the strategy, but we now need a clear pathway on how it will be implemented,” said Pat O’Sullivan of the Society of Irish Foresters.
“Farmers, nurseries, timber processors and foresters who are charged with its implementation, have repeatedly called for the establishment of an independent Forestry Development Agency (FDA) to oversee its implementation, which we in the Society support,” he added.
Minister of State Pippa Hackett has announced the launch of a deer tree shelter and fencing scheme. The deer fencing grant is now up to €2,880/ha, using IS436 standard posts based on 160m/ha. An upgrade deer fencing grant up to €1,440/ha is also available.
Where tree shelters are used, a maximum grant in pure broadleaf plots is €1,600/ha. Areas defined as carrying additional broadleaves will receive grant aid up to €625/ha.
Tree protection against deer is now essential in most counties in Ireland. The 2022 National Forest Inventory recorded deer damage in 106,000ha of forests, due to browsing and bark-stripping, which is four times greater than the damage of cattle, sheep, goats, squirrels, hares and rabbits combined.
If Ireland is to achieve a 50% native species programme, as outlined in the forest strategy, the cost of deer protection is likely to be the single most expensive element in many woodland establishment projects.
Other objectives of the forestry programme, such as increasing coniferous species diversity and continuous cover forestry (CCF), are unlikely to succeed unless deer damage is addressed.
Deer damage, especially by the Japanese sika species, is a European-wide problem. Ironically, the recent deer-fencing grants were announced at a time when European forest owners called to classify sika as an invasive species – sika is a protected species under the Wildlife Act 1976 and may only be hunted under licence.
“Deer fencing is a costly and unsustainable way of protecting forests against deer,” said a forestry company spokesperson. “If we wish to achieve a diverse tree species mix, then we need to remove sika’s protective status,” he said.
Teagasc information meetings on new afforestation schemes
Teagasc has organised a 19-county information blitz on the new forestry programme, lasting from 10 to 19 October.
“Topics discussed include selecting the best forest type that suits the farm owner and how forestry interacts with other agricultural schemes,” said Tom Houlihan, Teagasc.
“We strongly encourage all considering a new forest to attend, because important changes to the forestry grant structures have been introduced,” he said. “There will be an opportunity to cover all scheme aspects, and those who attend are invited to ask questions.”
Registration is not required for meetings, which start at 7:30pm. Apart from the Claremorris and Dungarvan meetings, all take place at Teagasc offices (see Table 1).