The landscape of Ireland was once extensively forested with primeval forests of oak, ash, Scots pine, elm, birch, alder and yew. Over thousands of years, these primeval forests were almost totally lost, as land was cleared for agriculture. At the beginning of the 20th century only 1.5% of the land area of Ireland was covered in forests. Successive governments encouraged and supported a national reforestation programme. Today, forests account for approximately 11% of the land area of Ireland. The EU average is 34%.
The aim in the government’s Climate Action Plan 2019 is to plant an average of 8,000 hectares per year which is nowhere near enough to contribute significantly to Ireland meeting its climate goals. Nature Rising is calling for 1.5 million hectares to be returned to forests.
Government Grants are available for the establishment of both commercial and native forests.
Forests that are grown for the purpose of wood harvesting and timber sales tend to be monocultures. 51% of Ireland’s trees are now Sitka Spruce, a non-native conifer species which is favoured commercially but eliminates biodiversity and is damaging the natural habitat.
Coillte forests account for more than half of all forestry in Ireland – most of this is commercial forest.
Permanent native forests are the preferred option for sustainability and biodiversity renewal. A lot of thought needs to go into what type of tree species is planted, where, in what soil, and for what purpose. These decisions have implications for biodiversity, habitats and ecosystems, as well as success in trapping carbon.
In existing Irish forests the soils are a significant reservoir for carbon. Around 80% of the carbon that is stored in forests is stored in the forest soils.
Agroforestry is the growing of both trees and agricultural / horticultural crops on the same piece of land. The aim is to provide tree and other crop products and at the same time protect, conserve, diversify and sustain vital economic, environmental, human and natural resources.
Research over the past 20 years has confirmed that agroforestry can be more biologically productive, more profitable and more sustainable than forestry or agricultural monocultures. Many other benefits have been shown.
Healthy soil is the foundation for productive and environmentally sound agricultural systems.
Soil is a living ecosystem, essential for human and environmental health. Soil is a biological engine where micro-organisms play a fundamental role in the decomposition of organic matter into nutrients available for plants, animals and humans. Together with larger organisms, such as earthworms, these micro-organisms contribute to the structure of the soil making it more permeable to water and gases which is very important in recharging surface and ground water resources and preventing flooding. Besides providing a habitat for below-ground biodiversity, soil is essential for the survival of most above-ground species. Chemical pollution by fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics can destabilize the population dynamics of soil organisms, by affecting their reproduction, growth and survival.
Soils are also important carbon sinks. Degradation of soils from unsustainable agriculture and other development has released billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Effective land restoration plays a major role in sequestering CO2 and slowing climate change.
Soil, forests, peat bogs and wetlands all play a part in carbon sequestration. Soils hold four times the amount of carbon stored in the atmosphere. About half of this is found deep within soils. Globally, soils are estimated to contain approximately 1,500 gigatons of organic carbon to 1m depth, more than the amount in vegetation and the atmosphere. The total carbon reservoir in Irish forestry exceeds 1 billion tonnes, most of which is in the soil.