Ireland’s problem is that it needs its forests back
I’m writing this in response to Nick MacIneskar’s piece on what we can do to save trees. I’m an ecological philosopher and I’ve had run-ins with Coillte, the state body that manages seven percent of Ireland’s land, around water quality issues, but water quality and wood management are not separate. On top of which, I’m originally from Scotland, with a fairly long-standing relationship with and interest in the Trees for Life project, so I was particularly keen to read Nick’s piece.
And because I saw similarities and differences, I thought I’d write something about how we might improve the situation here, in Ireland. The situation is similar in some ways in Ireland, but there are also important differences.
Nick’s piece was about what we can do to save existing trees. As he makes clear, existing native woodland and forestry is much more valuable than reforestation starting with fresh trees. Old trees are beautiful, too. Take a walk in the woods, and you will almost certainly be inspired to action.
And action, individually, community-led, and political, is of the essence. Most people realise now that the existential threats of our time — climate change and biodiversity loss- are inseparable (I have often argued that these are inseparable from fragmentation and division in human systems, but that’s for another day). You can’t affect one without affecting the other. Trees are major form of carbon sequestration, and in all regions where they grow, they are the most biodiverse, and most intensively inhabited, ecosystems in the world. Where forests and woodlands have been cut down over generations, what remains needs to be fully protected, but we also have to look at reforestation.
Those who manage forestry and woodland on behalf of nation-states, or who are responsible for protecting and ensuring their survival and flourishing, have to have a keen measure of accountability. If state bodies are irresponsible in their management, and laws surrounding the protection of forests and woodlands are ineffective, we are unlikely to see the kind of protection or growth in tree-cover that would allow the sequestration levels and the biodiversity recovery that we desperately need for our own survival.
Just as Nick was reluctant to bore his readers with the labyrinthine policies and procedures that make up forestry management plans in Scotland, so I’ll limit my comments on the Irish government’s Forestry Policy and Strategy. The first thing I’ll point to is the board of one of the five key structures, Project Woodland, established in February 2021. The members of the board are Brendan Gleeson (not the actor. This one holds a BSc. in Management Law and Diplomas in Law and Public Administration. He’s been a civil servant for some time); Jo O’Hara (former CEO of Scottish Forestry); Sarah O’Shea (CEO, SOS Sports; honorary general secretary, Olympic Federation Ireland); Jerry Grant (chair, Dublin Port Company). I’d just like you to note the lack of ecological training or arboreal specialisation among this group.
The poorly edited government page also announces that ‘Forests, products and People — Ireland’s forest policy, a renewed vision’ focuses on developing the social, economic and environmental benefits of forestry. Which is laudable, although laughably lacking in detail. Environmental benefits would seem to indicate a push for biodiversity, but the vast majority of Coillte’s lands are planted with monocultures of sitka spruce, because, of course, economic benefits require attending to the bottom line, and the bottom line, so the story goes, requires that short term profitability trumps all other concerns. Which is a pity, because ultimately, like any long term investment, forests and woodlands are key not only to climate change mitigation, but also to the cost in trillions of euro, and in millions, or hundreds of millions, or even billions, of human lives that lack of action now actually means. They are also at the heart of any chance we have of being well, of flourishing, because, as we all know all too well, being locked in, or unable to access green and blue natural systems (oceans, rivers, mountains, forests) is deeply damaging to our psyches. This double whammy of short sightedness and failure to put economics into context, as being nested in ecological health, is particularly depressing from an institution whose job is to maintain and even extend tree cover in this country.
As I said above, Trees for Life in the Highlands of Scotland has done impressive work in helping to push for natural reforestation across the north of Scotland. Nothing like that exists in Ireland. The problems with upland burning persist in Ireland, and Irish farmers are very unwilling to accept that its time has come. In Scotland, as in Ireland, arguments for burning range from those related to cultural heritage (we’ve been doing it since mesolithic times’) to claims for increased biodiversity (grouse can eat the new shoots, golden plover can nest). None of these claims stand up to much scrutiny, and Trees for Life has clear evidence that biodiversity from allowing reforestation of uplands is a far more successful strategy for carbon sequestration and biodiversity increase. The problem, of course, is that you can’t hunt in a nature reserve (less of an issue in Ireland than Scotland). And nor can you farm sheep. Existing deer populations would need to be heavily (and sensitively) culled. You can, however, create successful enterprises selling carbon credits, supporting small-scale industries, educating, working with the health and therapeutic sector, and even (though more controversially) energy.
What can you do to support reforestation by native species in Ireland? We need a Trees for Life organisation here. Having a large area of uplands dedicated to rewilding would be a fantastic opportunity to mirror what Trees for Life has done in Scotland. Ireland was temperate rainforest when it was forested. That kind of ecosystem could support all kinds of food and medicinal plants if we had the imagination and put in the effort to allow it to develop here again.
In the meantime, we can help support small local reforestation projects, and we also need to put pressure on Coillte to operate in a much more transparent manner, and to be properly accountable when it comes to biodiversity and ecological management. Clearfelling has to be phased out in favour of less machinery-intensive methods (continuous cover forestry has worked for decades in Continental Europe). A much more imaginative approach to managing, and harvesting, and restoring biodiversity needs to be taken so that forest cover can increase sufficiently extensively to make a real difference to carbon sequestration.
Joining an eNGO like the IWT or Crann can really help. Lobbying for policy change is best done through existing groups or organisations — though if you have the time and energy, setting up an organisation for rewilding uplands in Ireland would be fabulous!
Forming a local group or reaching out to others in the area who are working to protect native species is a good move. It’s good for your mental health, too, particularly if you practice compassionate communication techniques, and make good connections with other people who can then become friends. and it’s always more likely to get results than acting alone.
Check out your local TDs. Contact them and ask them what their opinion is on how we deal with climate change and biodiversity loss, and then ask what they think about reforestation projects in the area. If they don’t know any, and you do, pass on the information and suggest that they come back to you to discuss what more could be done, particularly by councils and land owners, on understanding the importance of saving existing native trees (here in Ireland ash dieback is a huge problem, and Dutch Elm Disease has ravaged that population). In short:
Lobby for change in legislation
Join a local ecological action group — or form one!
Contact your local TD and find out what they know. The more people who do this, the more chance there is that the issue will become something they will have to deal with
Finally, as Nick’s piece makes clear, existing native woodland and forestry is much more valuable than reforestation. But here in Ireland, old growth forest is very rare. We need regeneration, so go down to the woods, and get inspired!