Ireland’s forests endangered, few natives left

Despite its green image, Ireland’s forests have all but disappeared. Across Europe, nations average around 35% forest cover, but in Ireland the figure is just 11%, one of the lowest on the continent.

It wasn’t always like this. Thousands of years ago, over 80% of the island of Ireland was covered in trees. Over many centuries they were almost completely cleared to make way for fields and pastures, and by 1925 only 1% was covered with forest. The only trees left were on land unsuitable for any type of agriculture.

For several decades, the government has paid farmers and other private landowners to plant trees on their land instead of intensive agriculture. But those grants have so far fallen short of its target of 18% forest cover.

Until recently, forestry was considered valuable only as a supply of wood to be harvested. This explains why, of the 11% of the Republic of Ireland that is forested, the vast majority (9% of the country) is planted with pines like Sitka spruce, a fast-growing conifer native to Alaska that you can harvest after as little as 15 years. Only 2% of Ireland is covered by native broadleaf trees.

Subsidies not enough to restore Ireland’s forests

Today’s handbags overlook many things. For example, once trees are planted, the land must remain exclusively dedicated to forestry, which acts as a “negative push” for landowners who want to keep their options open. Tax incentives for continued forest cover could be a minor psychological barrier.

Annual subsidies are also designed with the harvest in mind and are therefore only paid for 15 to 20 years. This is of no use to a farmer who wants to plant a mixed forest that can take up to 100 years to mature, but would not generate returns beyond 20 years.

Thus, subsidies provide a strong financial incentive to continue planting fast-growing non-native species that, when harvested, can disturb wildlife, release carbon, impair water quality and damage the landscape.

So how could Ireland be forested, with the right mix including more native broadleaf trees?

A scorecard for Ireland’s forests

We are engaged in work to develop a measure of real value for Irish forests, using a “Scorecard” style.Main Assets“, for different species, ages and types of soil in a forest.

The scorecard would provide a value for each of the different types of ecosystem services provided by a forest, which would vary depending on the age and species of the tree, the type of soil and the conditions in which they grow.

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The aim of this research, from the Forest and FOR-ES projects at Trinity College Dublin, is to estimate the total value of trees in financial terms based on the value of all their main benefits: carbon sequestration, impact on water and soil quality , value as wood or as utilities, and their ability to support a variety of other plants and wildlife.

Our scoring method is particularly useful as different tree species offer different benefits at different times. For example, fast-growing non-native species sequester more carbon in the short term and provide a valuable source of wood.

Native species, on the other hand, are generally better for wildlife and have greater recreational value. They will sequester more carbon overall, but over a longer period of time, and while they can provide a valuable source of wood, they take much longer to mature.

Each forest type offers different benefits.

Each forest type can provide some of the five benefits, but to a greater or lesser extent and on different timescales.

We hope that our scorecard can lead to better-designed inputs. Forests planted to remain in situ without harvesting can receive a long-term financial subsidy to reflect the ecosystem services they provide to the public, such as cleaner air or a pleasant place to walk.

The Irish government currently provides subsidies for the meat and dairy sector, which for most farmers would not be economically viable without support. The sector produces large amounts of greenhouse gases, and around 90% of the product is exported.

Support forests instead of polluting activities

Rather than supporting polluting agricultural activities, we propose that forestry be subsidized at a level that reflects its value as a public good, which will also reduce the likelihood of Ireland imposing EU fines for failing to meet its emissions targets.

For landowners to be compelled to take agricultural land out of permanent use and establish native forests in the long term, they need to be properly incentivized and financially rewarded for doing so.

This article was written by Martha O’Hagan Luff, Associate Professor at Trinity Business School at Trinity College Dublin.

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