New forestry plan approved by EU has not addressed significant environmental issues with Irish forests and is a missed opportunity.

Minister Tom Hayes yesterday announced the approval of the new forestry programme by the EU but environmental groups claim the plan fails to resolve serious environmental issues with the Irish forestry model.

While there are some positive steps taken in the new forestry programme the Environmental Pillar, which is made up of 28 Irish environmental NGOs, say an opportunity to reform the outdated Irish forestry model has been missed.

The plan represents the same model with some token measures towards environmental objectives. The key issues are as follows:

1. Dependence on foreign species
This plan guarantees the continuation of Sitka Spruce as the preferred tree in Irish forests. The over reliance on this foreign species has in some cases had a damaging effect on biodiversity and soil. Over reliance on any one species will also make any forestry system vulnerable.

2. Dependence on clear-felling by heavy machinery
This plan continues to support the type of forestry management which sees block planting of same species and clear-felling by heavy machines. While this industrial technique suits forestry companies it devastates wildlife, damages watercourses and is an eyesore on the landscape.

3. Missed opportunity for job creation
Forestry methods used in other European countries can sustain more jobs per acre. Systems which focus on native trees, natural regeneration, and coppicing provide abundant timber while maintaining the biodiversity and watercourse protection benefits and also provide more jobs.

Andrew St Ledger, Convenor of the Environmental Pillar Tree Cover Working Group said:

“The Programme embeds the continued reliance on one non-native species, Sitka Spruce, which is dependent on herbicides, fertilisers, and clear-felling, thereby ensuring that the old model continues unchecked. This means vulnerability to pests, flooding, soil erosion, lack of biodiversity, lack of community employment, all of which have been highlighted by the Environmental Pillar and others. Ten million shallow rooted Sitka spruce were blown over in last year’s storms, with an estimated 10 million more clear-felled due to wind vulnerability. The plan is to replant these sites with the same species. This is an example of completely failing to learn from mistakes. The total area affected was 20,000 acres, representing one fifth of the projected planting target of the programme up to 2020.

“One positive is the inclusion of agroforestry, which has been a normal part of European forestry models for centuries. This one measure will fund 36 ha per year, equal to one medium sized farm, allowing sitka spruce and sycamore, both non-native species. This will have little impact, and will fail to harness the multiple benefits such agroforestry systems are known to deliver, socially, environmentally and economically.

“In relation to the forestry for fibre measure two more non-native species are being funded, eucalyptus and hybrid-aspen, which immediately carry risks of importing disease. We already have the problem of ash dieback, caused by importing non-native ash trees, which is destroying our native ash stocks. We would like to know why native species such as birch, hazel, willow, all fast growing, safer from a plant health view and capable of producing sustainable crops of biomass were not considered for this measure.

“Using forestry methods which use native trees, natural regeneration, forest thinning and traditional coppicing techniques have been shown to sustain more jobs than the industrial forestry method we plan to continue to employ.

“In Switzerland, a country half the size of Ireland with almost twice as much forestry cover, at 3.2 m acres, compared to roughly 1.9 m acres for Ireland, over 90,000 people are employed. Minister Hayes quotes 12,000 forestry jobs for Ireland, which is almost one job for close to roughly 150 acres compared to one job per 35 acres in Switzerland. The Swiss practice a close to nature system of continuous cover with an emphasis on native species and coppicing. The Environmental Pillar believe this is the forestry model that we should be trying to emulate, and move towards especially when rural Ireland is dying on its feet for lack of employment opportunities and investment.