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Opinion: ‘Coillte took me to court but we could work together to make forests a better place'

Last week, Sioned Jones was found not guilty of criminal damage of a Coillte Forest but guilty of a second charge of stealing firewood.

Sioned Jones

WHEN I FIRST came to live in this area of West Cork over 30 years ago, the mountain above my cottage was teeming with biodiversity and the wildflowers were buzzing with insects.

I got used to walking the hills and valleys while foraging, looking for berries, mushrooms and firewood. I got to know this mountain and I saw it change when the Sitka spruce was planted.

The spruce grows up and it grows sideways. The branches meet and intertwine. It becomes dense and you can’t walk through the forest anymore. I saw meadows become ecological dead zones where before they were rich with biodiversity.

  • (Read more here on how you can support a major Noteworthy project on the impact Sitka spruce is having on the Irish ecosystem.)

There was one particularly magical place on the mountain which I would always visit when I walked there. A south facing sun-filled valley. A microclimate filed with purple heather and bilberries (miniature blueberries).

I was shocked one day to find it being planted with spruce. As the spruce grew bigger, I found it hard to walk my usual route. It was also casting a shadow on the blueberries I picked.

This is where it all started as I began to cut the spruce to be able to walk that way as I always had done as well as to let light into the fruit bushes. As time went on, I kept cutting every year.

The purpose of planting

Over 30 years ago, I noticed that the whole valley and mountain were devoid of broadleaf trees and I was inspired because I was looking for a mission in life. I was in my late 20s and I had been asking myself a few questions. What am I here for? What is my purpose in life? I realised it was to plant trees.

I started by planting trees around my house and then worked in commercial forestry. I actually planted some of the spruce on a different part of the mountain almost 30 years ago. I did it to earn money and experience but it’s just a mad rush to plant a tree every 20 seconds.

I soon realised after a while of doing commercial forestry, that it wasn’t the way forward for me. I wanted to plant broadleaf trees in a place where I could give them the care they need and maintain a connection with them.

So I bought some land with a friend which we planted with native trees but that filled up and I needed somewhere else to plant them.

Other spruce conversion - 14 years An area of spruce forest which Sioned Jones has been replacing with native trees. Source: Sioned Jones

Fourteen years ago, I turned to the acres and acres of spruce monoculture forest sitting on the mountain above my house. Since then I have worked on two different areas and have planted thousands of native trees as replacements to spruce I removed.

The older area, which I was not in court for, used to be a beautiful meadow, a stunning place full of biodiversity. One spring it was planted with a forest composed of entirely spruce. I was shocked and appalled.

The following year, I went back and started taking out the spruce. I planted over 700 native saplings that first year. The trees included oak, birch, rowan and many other Irish species.

Caught with a chainsaw

The section of forest I was charged over is much smaller and I have clear-felled about two acres of spruce there which I replaced with broadleaves. The spruce at the edges is quite large and casts a shadow on the trees I planted. To help remove them, I ringbarked them so that they would stop growing, slowly die and eventually also be replaced.

I was using a bow saw to cut the trees for years but eventually some of the trees were getting too big so I used a chainsaw. And that’s how I got caught as Coillte was in the area and they heard the noise and called the guards. That’s the trouble with chainsaws… you can’t operate them discreetly!

Last week, I was delighted to be found not guilty of criminal damage of a Coillte Forest as my actions were about the native trees of Ireland, the scattered remnants of the ancient forest which are scarce, fragmented and vulnerable.

Forest conversion Oct 2019 Newly planted oak trees surrounding spruce cut by Sioned Jones. Source: Sioned Jones

My vision for the smaller section of forest is to expand the native planting in two different directions. Since I’m not allowed to cut or remove spruce from this area according to the court, I hope to get permission from Coillte to do this. This work could be achieved under the remit of their new not for profit entity, Coillte Nature, which focuses on the environment and recreational forests.

I feel Coillte need to improve biodiversity in their forests by increasing the amount of broadleaf and native planting. They manage 7% of the land in Ireland and the time has come for change. We need to move away from Sitka spruce which takes up over 50% of the forest area.

As an earth protector, I acted on my conscience, to protect biodiversity against destruction. Concerned citizens have a duty of care to ensure that land and resources are used sustainably.

I felt I could not stand back and watch while this ecosystem was destroyed by spruce. I had to act on my beliefs.

Sioned Jones moved here over 30 years ago from Wales. She lives in a small cottage outside Kealkill, West Cork, underneath hundreds of acres of monoculture spruce forestry.

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SPRUCED UP Investigation 

Do you want to know what impact coniferous trees are having on our native ecosystem?

The Noteworthy team want to do an in-depth investigation into Sitka spruce forestry in Ireland and find out whether environmental concerns are justified. 

Here’s how to help support this proposal> 

About the author:

Sioned Jones

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