Ireland’s woodlands project will do more harm than good

The Save the Trees movement has never been more relevant than it is now. It’s no longer just about cutting down on our paper use and recycling more effectively – it’s about planting trees, by the million.

This year the Department of Communications Climate Action and Environment published their climate action report. At the time of publishing, optimism was high – 20 million trees were to be planted every year until 2040.

It’s not just Ireland that have descended into panic regarding the speed and quantity of afforestation. Across the globe, intentions have been set and funds have been raised to ensure more trees are planted. This year, MrBeast, a famous YouTuber set up the #TeamTrees campaign which aims to plant 20 million trees. People have been donating to the cause all across the world. Among the donors are Elon Musk, Jeffree Star and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.

Ireland, our beautiful Emerald Isle is known the world over for its green rolling hills and agriculture. Our struggling tree population seems almost contradictory to our reputation on natures world stage. Year on year, afforestation levels have fallen in Ireland and for the first time ever, the Irish government are seriously considering our tree population. Ireland has one of the lowest levels of forest cover in Europe hovering around 11% or 700,000 hectares, only 2% of which is native woodland.

The City graphic. Data Source: https://www.agriculture.gov.ie/

Take a closer look and the collaboration between Coillte, Bord Na Móna and the Government’s Climate Action Plan is seriously flawed if not outright reckless. Minister for Communications and Climate Action, Richard Bruton, announced in October the woodlands project will involve more than 600,000 native trees being planted on 1,500 hectares of unused bogland.

When trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere, it is absorbed into the soil. Planting trees on such bogland will dry out the soil to such a degree that the thousands of years worth of carbon that has been stored there will be released back into the atmosphere. The perception that something is unused because there isn’t a house or a hotel or a car park built on it, demonstrates the attitude towards the natural world that has gotten us to this point.

The City graphic. Data Source: https://www.agriculture.gov.ie/
The City graphic. Data Source: https://www.agriculture.gov.ie/

The placement of trees is not the only issue with the Irish Government’s plan. In 2017, sitka spruce made up 51% of all trees planted in Ireland. This north-american tree covered a total of 343,310 hectares of Irish landscape.

All should rise, stand and applaud for all 343,310 hectares of vast green forests, yes? Well, not exactly. Sitka spruce makes up over half of the trees planted in Ireland and while they do sequester carbon quite quickly, a broadleaf can store more carbon for a lot longer. Sitka spruce is native to North America but can survive well in the cool Irish climate and yields good results for the timber industry. Experts are keen to express skepticism towards those who come down with certainty on either side of the conifer-broadleaf argument.

In 2018, the Save Leitrim Group was set up by a group of concerned citizens. The campaign aims to stop sitka spruce afforestation in Leitrim and says the tree species is having a negative impact on their local environment. At present, Leitrim has the largest population of sitka spruce, followed by Wicklow, Offaly and Laois. Since 2018, the group has harboured the support and endorsement of the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT).

In an interview with the Irish Times earlier this year, IWT campaign officer Pádraic Fogarty spoke out in support of the Save Leitrim Group and agreed saying: “our native woodlands have all but vanished.” Fogarty told the Irish Times that native animals are becoming extinct with their habitats being taken over by the sitka spruce.

“The species under threat are those that lived in uplands, woodlands and bogs that sustained birds such as curlews, golden eagles and hen harriers. The sediment from clear felling threatens the freshwater pearl mussel, while resulting acidification of rivers and lakes undermines salmon and trout populations,” Fogarty said.

Ireland is way behind on it’s emissions targets as it stands. Though our country is small in size, we can and should have a massive impact on positive environmental change. We are faced with the opportunity to create real change and to choose the protection of our biodiversity over immediate profit.

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