For a few years now I’ve been half-begun on a project to help identify key strategic locations for woodland restoration. I’ve spoken about native Irish woodlands, their tiny fragmented remains, and have spent the month of October on my #Treetober threads talking about Ireland’s tree species. What I think is often missing in the conversation is a clear, detailed plan or what ecologically sound, strategic re-forestation would look like.
One of the campaign slogans of the Save Leitrim campaign against Sitka Spruce monocrop plantations is “The Right Trees in the Right Places” and that is the main challenge of any reforestation project in Ireland. While it is true that the island of Ireland was once entirely covered in woodlands, there have in the thousand years or more since this was true emerged other forms of complex habitat that are important for biodiversity and worthy of protection. Heath uplands, raised and blanket bogs, and wildflower-rich calciferous grasslands like the Burren, are all habitats in part created through human historic deforestation.
So where should these new trees go? Until now much of Irish reforestation has occurred on “greenfield” sites, unused arable land. This often leads to more fragmentation, little connection with older woodland, and little impact on flood prevention or water quality.
Therefore, in my view there are four major considerations that take priority and the wider issues they would address:
- Rivers (flooding, habitat and water quality)
- Hillsides (Soil erosion, habitat, and water quality)
- Connecting existing fragments (preserving genetic diversity, habitat, micro-organism, forest health)
- Sustainability (Guarantees of long term protection leading to mature woodland and increasing biodiversity)
Riparian woodland, woodland that follows river corridors, is one of the most important resources in need of protection and restoration. It is no secret that Ireland deals with a great deal of rain water. Flood prevention, in the context of climate change, is only becoming more important. Hard infrastructure like walls, and river dredging, has been shown to be both harmful to river ecological and completely inefficient at reducing flood risk. Vegetation along river banks, at least 1.5m deep, including trees will not only create a natural barrier to flooding but it improve water quality and supports threatened iconic species like kingfishers and otters.
Some of the fiercest resistance to woodlands has come from the Irish uplands. While it is true that some upland areas should not be planted as they already have valuable habitat in the form of heath lands or blanket bog, most denuded (stripped of vegetation) hills in Ireland are only this way due to over-grazing of livestock.
These denuded slopes are then very vulnerable to soil erosion in the winter as the excess of rainwater we all know will come every year strips the hillsides to rock.
Connecting Existing Woodland Fragments
This is one of the most important points. While there are very few ancient native woodlands left in Ireland, there are quite a number of small fragments of old woodland that act as vital refuges for species and a valuable resource for allowing those species to re-establish themselves. Planting between fragments, connecting them into more sustainable woodlands again allows the genetic diversity of these old woodlands to spread into the newly planted sections, giving them a biodiversity almost impossible to achieve in wholly artificial habitats.
Planting woodland is expensive and while some trees mature in 20 years most forest trees can take a human’s lifetime to reach maturity. For new Irish woodlands to function as meaningful woodland habitat and carbon storage they have to be guaranteed for the long term. Planting trees only to have them cleared again in 25 years in a waste of everyone’s time and money.
This connects us to the issue of community buy-in. If local communities are not invested in woodlands, they will not last in the long term. Once they are accepted as a valuable part of the local area they will survive.
What does that mean?
The main takeaway from this should be that while Ireland desperately needs afforestation, it needs meaningful, strategic afforestation most of all. These characteristics can, with use of aerial photography, surveys and mapping, help identify key areas that woodland restoration should be attempted in, rather than picking sites for the cheapness of land/its all we’ve got/etc.
This methodology would see areas of flooding, water pollution and fragmentation proactively chosen rather than reactive systems. It is in my opinion the only way to make major, positive ecosystem change in Ireland.
Kelly (2002) ‘The regeneration of Quercus petraea (sessile oak) in southwest Ireland: a 25-year experimental study’ Forest Ecology and Management
O’Callaghan, Irwin, Byrne, & O’Halleron (2016) ‘The role of planted forests in the provision of habitat: an Irish perspective’ (this concerns sitka spruce and biodiversity)
Wilkins & Aherne (2016) ‘Vegetation community change in Atlantic oak woodlands along a nitrogen deposition gradient’ Enivronmental Pollution
Woodlands of Ireland (2009) ‘Native Woodland Scheme Information Note No. 5 Establishment, Design and Stocking Densities of New Native Woodlands’