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Can Ireland's vast monoculture conifer carpets be changed into biodiverse deciduous woodlands?

It is better for biodiversity and more sustainable, writes Dermot McNally.

Dermot McNally Writer

THE GROWTH OF conifer forests is being challenged by a number of groups in Ireland. These critics, who include the protest group Save Leitrim, say that more broad leaf trees combined with Continuous Cover Forestry (CCF) should be mandatory in woodlands in the future.

They say it’s better for biodiversity and more sustainable. Industry stalwarts don’t dispute the facts on biodiversity but say that CCF and more broadleaf forests aren’t viable in the Irish context. So where does the truth lie?

CCF

CCF is a long established practice on the continent but the approach has really only begun to establish itself here in recent decades. One Irish forest where CCF has become standard practice can be found in Co Monaghan at Hilton Park, an estate in the Madden family for nine generations.

They’ve been progressive land owners since 1731 when Samuel Madden (co-founder of the Royal Dublin Society) promoted the idea of financially rewarding outstanding farm and forestry initiatives, hence his nickname “Premium Madden”. So it’s little surprise that the Hilton woodlands were honoured with an RDS Multi-Purpose Forestry Award in 2018.

The Award is aimed at forests that are developing and enriching habitats through natural and environmentally sensitive methods. Judges evaluate the planning and management of the area, ecological awareness, social benefit, silvicultural methods, control of grazing animals and invasive species, as well as sensitive felling and thinning.

Fred Madden and his father Johnny liaise with forester Sean McGinnis of EcoPlan to ensure that both biodiversity and timber value are enhanced with each intervention.

Rich woodlands

One-third of the 250 acres at Hilton is made up of Sitka and Norway Spruce. These are blended into rich woodlands of oak, beech, alder, birch, ash and more, all of which help to create a ramblers paradise – an added bonus to guests who book into their award winning Country House.

The woods are home to every imaginable flora and fauna including rare species so they feel richer and more inviting than conifer monocultures. Importantly, diverse woodlands such as these are less vulnerable to species specific disease such as Chalara/Ash Dieback which has devastated Ash trees in Europe and is likely to do the same across Ireland.

So why doesn’t everyone follow the Hilton methodology?

Firstly scale is critical for anyone considering CCF. Around 250 acres is forested at Hilton and so the enormous fixed expense in employing timber extraction equipment every year or two to service the woods is justified: as different stands of trees reach maturity at different periods a gradual extraction of small blocks (group fell) of timber is viable.

Few privately owned woodlands exceed 30 acres and small forest owners struggle to justify financial outlay without some immediate return. In comparison forests on the continent are often vast in scale (or managed collectively) which facilitates a CCF approach.

CCF is highly reliant on the natural regeneration of saplings (new trees) but this is fraught with complications. Shade intolerance of certain saplings, competition for nutrients from ground vegetation, damage from insects and animals (hare and deer especially) as well as suitability of the new trees for final timber production all make natural regeneration perilous.

And when manual spot planting is necessary it’s time consuming and expensive vis a vis large scale planting.

Financially productive

But the biggest consideration is that conifer stands are typically three times more financially productive than broad leaves (regardless of felling style). Growing top quality hardwoods is very challenging as final crop trees need several pruning interventions with much of the timber only good enough for pulp.

Each tree has to avoid storm damage and disease for periods of 60 to 120 years before felling. Therefore it’s lucky that the Madden family put such a high value on biodiversity, aesthetics and recreational use or Hilton would be a very different woodland.

It’s not surprising then that in a world where money talks, most newly planted woodlands are dominated by the standard mix of 75% conifer, 15% broad leaf and 10% biodiversity area, and managed by clear-fell. Conifer monocultures are often simpler, more predictable and more profitable: investors can hope to achieve a modest 5% growth per annum on well managed conifer forests – broadleaf forests are estimated to return a little over 1% per annum.

All end users of timber love working hardwoods but they also like the predictability and price of softwoods which is why they dominate construction and related trades. Foresters also argue that despite the dreariness of conifer plantations they are still playing a huge part in carbon capture.

So if Ireland is to usher in a new era of forestry, new measures to bridge the gap between the two sides in the debate are needed.

Dermot McNally is a journalist and writer who blogs at dermymcnally.com.

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Dermot McNally  / Writer

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