Giving 12 speakers a conference platform to discuss a specific forestry topic would prove challenging at the best of times.

Broaden the topic to the right trees in the right places for the right reasons and the answers are going to be as diverse as the speakers and their backgrounds. So it turned out at the recent forestry conference organised by the Society of Irish Foresters.

The views on what trees to plant included native and non-native species, and the middle ground that accommodates both.

Stuart Goodall, CEO of Confor, the UK umbrella organisation for the forestry and forest products sector made an objective case for a balanced approach that includes both productive and native woodland creation.

Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust proposed natural regeneration as the preferred option for forest expansion: “Essentially allowing nature to decide what the right tree should be and where the right place should be.”

There may be instances where no planting should be carried out at all, according to Minister of State Pippa Hackett and Dr Elaine McGoff of An Taisce.

The minister said: “In some cases, this may mean either no tree planting, or simply allowing natural regeneration or planting to take place.”

What constitutes sustainability is not always constant

Dr McGoff maintained that in freshwater pearl mussel catchments, neither native nor introduced species should be planted. Sustainability was discussed through an economic lens by John Desmond of Cygnum and Brendan Lacey, managing director of the Irish Forestry Unit Trust (IForUT). Desmond was in no doubt about the positive value of commercial softwoods in displacing fossil based materials in sustainable construction.

“What constitutes sustainability is not always constant,” maintained Lacey, citing the promotion of diesel cars as more environmentally friendly than petrol models by the Green Party a few years ago.

A number of the audience turned to Jo O’Hara and Stuart Goodall for some advice on how Ireland could achieve a viable planting programme like Scotland, which increased afforestation from an average of 4,600ha in 2016 and 2017 to 11,000ha in recent years.

Goodall said the Scottish performance was down to many factors but political leadership was vital

It made this transition during O’Hara’s time as CEO of Scottish Forestry, while Goodall, in his role as CEO of Confor, has been a strong proponent of a viable forest industry in the UK but especially in Scotland which far outperforms England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Goodall said the Scottish performance was down to many factors but political leadership was vital. However, he also said the creation of positive dialogue between all stakeholders was necessary to achieve a favourable climate that has resulted in a viable mixed-species afforestation programme in Scotland.

There is no perpetual right answer, but there are good solutions

O’Hara stressed that all parties must accept that no one forest type or function can fulfill all expecta­tions from forestry.

“All forests are multi-functional and sustainable forest management has to recognise and balance these functions,” she said.

“There is no perpetual right answer, but there are good solutions.”

Getting farmers to re-engage with forestry

Marina Conway, CEO, Western Forestry Co-op, provided some answers to multipurpose forestry from the farmer’s perspective when addressing her topic: The right trees – native and introduced. “The right trees for whom?” asked Conway, when presented with her topic.

“As a nation we need – and want – farmers to plant more trees, but how do we define the right tree in the right place for them?”

Foresters must ultimately decide on the right trees in consultation with their clients, which for Western Co-op are mainly farmers. She described the practical journey that a farmer and forester take when they decide on the forestry option.

We need farmers to reengage with forestry and CAP 2023 is an opportunity that should not be missed to encourage more woodland creation

Conway understands the strict environmental standards, the need for consultation, screening for appropriate assessment and other environmental requirements, but said these could surely be simplified to make it easier to buy into forestry, especially for farmers. She believed that inordinate delays in licence approvals, more attractive competing agri-schemes, inadequate incentives especially for native broadleaves and the replanting obligations have cumulatively resulted in farmers walking away from forestry as a landuse options.

“We need farmers to reengage with forestry and CAP 2023 is an opportunity that should not be missed to encourage more woodland creation,” she said. “The right trees, both native and introduced, can form part of balanced farm woodland and commercial tree programme. Both broadleaf and conifer can work in tandem, as long as the balance is right for the farmer.”

Central role of forestry in achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050

As the various options were discussed in achieving multipurpose forestry, the conference speakers were asked to focus on the main issues.

“In the balancing act of functions, how do we prioritise world demands such as greenhouse gas mitigation and national benefits?” asked Dr Gerhardt Gallagher.

Dr Elaine McGoff broadly maintained that an ecologically sensitive forestry model for Ireland should be the priority. Stuart Goodall stated that global warming could not be ignored by individual countries in formulating forestry policy.

He said the model adopted in England of planting mainly native species ensured that Britain would remain the second largest importer of timber in the world, which was not a sustainable global view.

David Styles, University of Limerick, maintained that achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 was a central issue.

“The likelihood of ‘emission overshoot’ plus ongoing emissions from difficult-to-abate sectors such as aviation, cement production and agriculture, will necessitate significant CO2 removal (CDR) over the coming decades, in order to achieve climate neutrality,” he told the conference.

Ireland faces a particular challenge in striving for climate neutrality

“The only proven scalable CDR options currently available globally are soil improvement – particularly on degraded soils – and forestry,” he said.

“Ireland faces a particular challenge in striving for climate neutrality, owing to land use being a net emission source, reflecting low forest cover and around 9mt CO2 emitted annually from organic soils and peat bogs.

“Furthermore, annual emissions of circa 20mt CO2 eq. from a bovine-dominated agriculture sector will be difficult to abate without reducing production.”

Compared with all other land-based scenarios, trees are essential for Ireland’s climate goals, far exceeding livestock reductions alone and land use change such as rewetting.

There is an urgent need to ramp up rates of conservation and commercial forestry to deliver sufficient CDR by 2050

To avoid and/or offset GHG emissions, the policy should be to incentivise farmers to increase annual planting programmes, estimated at between 13,000ha and 33,000ha by Dr Styles. This would represent a seismic shift in planting.

The highest historic annual afforestation achieved in Ireland was 24,000ha in the mid 1990s.

“There is an urgent need to ramp up rates of conservation and commercial forestry to deliver sufficient CDR by 2050,” maintained Dr Styles.

He said this ambitious approach is necessary “in order to avoid future massive fines, reputation damage, and chaotic contraction of agricultural production at national level.

“But it would also help Ireland realise emerging opportunities for bioeconomy and ecosystem service delivery.”