The forests of Ireland are very diverse, ranging from commercial plantations to native woodlands, to trees and woods in and around our towns and cities. The range of benefits from Ireland’s forest cover is also diverse, extending beyond basic timber production to encompass employment, bio-diversity, wildlife conservation, environmental protection, rural development, carbon sequestration, amenity and recreation, and tourism. Although considerable overlap does occur, the forests of Ireland can be roughly divided into five basic types: upland and peatland forests; farm forests; native woodlands; amenity forests; and urban forests.
UPLAND AND PEATLAND FORESTS
A large part of Ireland’s forest resource is located on uplands and peatlands. These areas are frequently termed as unenclosed land, due to the lack of any existing field boundaries and walls. Throughout most of the 20th century forests were restricted to this type of land as agricultural production was the priority on the more fertile lowlands. Exotic conifers, particularly Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine from Northwest America, dominate these forests as they are able to grow and thrive on infertile and exposed sites. The timber produced from these forests is used for wide range of end uses such as construction, composite paneling products, fencing, decking, wood energy etc.
Many of these forests have been established on areas that today would not be considered suitable for afforestation due to their low productivity and environmental sensitivity. Most were planted at a time when these areas were considered wasteland with no intrinsic value. Today, however, uplands and peatlands are seen as important elements of the landscape containing habitats for native flora and fauna and also providing and regulating water supply to rivers and lakes. Coillte, the state forestry company, now manages most of these forests and is undertaking and extensive programme of forest re-design which will make them more sustainable into the future. Greater diversity is being introduced in terms of species (although options are limited), age structure, open space, long term retentions, deadwood habitat etc. Restoration of blanket bogs and raised bogs is also taking place in special areas of conservation.
An increasingly important element of Ireland’s forest resource is farm forestry. Farmers have traditionally planted trees, either in the form of hedgerows or as shelterbelts to protect livestock and farm buildings from the weather. In the past, however, support and subsidies from the EU encouraged farmers to use as much of their land as possible for agricultural production, with areas of woodland cover very often restricted to the most infertile corners deemed unsuitable for any other use. In recent years, these supports have diminished dramatically under the Common Agricultural Policy reform measures, prompting farmers to look at alternative uses for parts of their land, including forestry.
Farm forestry has increased significantly in recent years, assisted by grant aid and premiums (annual payments) from the Forest Service and the EU, designed to assist farmers in making such a long-term investment. As it represents an increase in the availability of fertile lowlands for planting, farm forestry is also creating an opportunity to increase the diversity of Ireland’s forest resource. Broadleaf species, which require fertile sheltered sites to survive and grow, are increasingly being planted, together with site-demanding conifers such as Douglas fir and larch.
Apart from having high quality timber as a key objective, farm forestry also has a major role to play in rural development, providing farmers with an alternative source of income and enabling them to remain on their land. Additional benefits also exist. The increased planting of broadleaves promotes bio-diversity, and produces hardwood timber suitable for a wider range of high value end-uses, such as furniture, joinery and craftwork. Farm forestry is also having a beneficial impact of the landscape of our lowlands, creating an appealing mosaic of woodlands and open fields which attract visitors and provide the basis for tourism and game enterprises. Farm forests are planted and managed by farmers and forestry consultants and contractors working on their behalf, with advice available from Forest Service inspectors and Teagasc advisors.
For further information: Teagasc Forestry
Native woodlands in Ireland today are considered semi-natural in nature as interference by man over centuries has changed their character from their original wild state.
Ireland is located within the temperate deciduous forest biome, and most of our land area was originally covered with these types of woodlands. With the arrival of man, this cover was dramatically reduced to about 1% by the beginning of the twentieth century. Scattered throughout Ireland, however, are small pockets of woodland which reflect the characteristics of Ireland’s native cover. These pockets have survived mainly due to their location on extremely infertile and inaccessible sites of no use for farming, or within the protective walls of larger estates, where they were maintained as game cover by wealthy landowners. The wind-beaten hazelwoods on the Burren of Co. Clare, the oakwoods surrounding the Lakes of Killarney in Co. Kerry, and the yew-woods in Aughnanure (derived from the Irish for ‘the meadow of the yews’) in Co. Galway, are all examples of this type of forest cover.
Native woodlands, which vary greatly in size and species composition, are of great importance from a biodiversity perspective. As each one is specifically adapted to the climate and soil of the area within which it is located, they provide us with a glimpse of the natural vegetation type and associated wildlife which would exist in the absence of man. Research is being carried out into the complex biological processes inherent in native woodlands. Once understood, measures can then be undertaken to encourage these processes elsewhere, thereby increasing the conservation value and biodiversity of other types of forest cover in Ireland.
In the absence of man, these woodlands would sustain themselves indefinitely with natural regeneration in gaps created by falling trees. In reality, however, many need a helping hand, and require some degree of management. This may include the clearance of invasive exotic species such as sycamore and rhododendron and the fencing out of grazing sheep and deer, to assist natural regeneration. Deliberate replanting may also be required, using stock grown from locally collected seed, to preserve the genetic integrity of the woodland.
The objective of native woodland management is primarily wildlife conservation and biodiversity. These woodlands also represent a major educational resource, allowing people to experience and learn about Ireland’s natural woodland cover. Native woodlands also create the basis for the long term production of high-quality hardwoods, which with careful management and felling, can be removed with minimal disruption to the woodland’s conservation value. Many of our native forests are located within National Parks managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service , e.g. Glenveagh National Park in Co. Donegal and the Killarney National Park in Co. Kerry. Areas of native forests also exist within the forest resource managed by Coillte, and within the grounds of many larger private estates scattered throughout Ireland.
For further information: Ireland’s Woodland Heritage
Most forests in Ireland, particularly publicly-owned forests, provide amenity and recreation for the general public, even though the primary objective is timber production. Some forests are specifically managed to provide an environment for people to relax and recreate in a wooded setting. These forests usually have various recreational features such as well-developed pathways, interpretation signs, public conveniences and seats to facilitate people’s enjoyment. Additional facilities such as caravan parks and self-catering accommodation are sometimes provided to allow longer visits. Timber production is still pursued, but is secondary to the promotion of the use of the forest for recreation by the visiting public.
Amenity forests are scattered throughout the country. Most are managed by Coillte as forest parks. Examples include the designated forest parks at Avondale in Co. Wicklow, Lough Key in Co. Roscommon, Gougane Barra in west Cork and Killykeen in Co. Cavan. Roughly one-third of our foreign tourists visit a forest park during their stay in Ireland. Areas of woodland situated in private estates are also being opened up to the general public as amenity forests, usually as part of new enterprises within the estate such as accommodation and self-catering facilities.
A list of Ireland’s amenity forests can be found on the Coillte Outdoors website.
Over recent years, the urban forest has become recognised as another major type of forest cover in Ireland. The urban forest is very different in composition to other types of forests, as it is made up of the entire tree population present within an urban area, ranging from street and garden trees to areas of woodland in and immediately around our towns and cities.
The urban forest is managed to maximise the huge range of social and environmental benefits of trees in the urban environment. These include the control of air, visual and noise pollution, landscape enhancement, the encouragement of wildlife into urban areas, and the provision of opportunities for recreation by urban dwellers.
Other more far-reaching benefits are also being recognised, particularly in relation to the quality of urban life. For example, the urban forest provides urban dwellers daily contact with the natural world, balancing the hustle and bustle of urban life, calming stress and promoting physical health. While timber production is way down on the list of objectives, the urban forest does represent a valuable source of timber.
Due to its structure and proximately to other features of the urban landscape, the urban forest requires a wide range of professionals to manage it effectively. These include tree experts such as foresters, arborists and horticulturists, together with urban planners, architects, engineers and utility specialists. Given that urban forestry is as much about people as it is about trees, other groups also have a crucial role to play, including the general public, private landowners, local community groups and young people.
Prior to the late 1980s most forests in Ireland were owned and managed by the State. The few private forests that existed were largely confined to old estates that had been established for several centuries. Forestry was regarded by the farming community as a land use of last resort and was only considered when all attempts at farming had failed. This situation, however, changed rapidly in the 1990s with the introduction of attractive grants and premiums for afforestation. Private planting increased significantly, mostly by farmers, but also by some individuals and investment companies. This had the effect of shifting the ownership pattern significantly and by 2007 57% of forests were owned by the State and 43% by private individuals and companies etc.
The nature of the forests are outlined below by ownership:
- Coillte – manages 445,000ha of forest mostly dominated by large plantations on a wide variety of site types spread throughout the country.
- National Parks and Wildlife Service – manages 6,000ha of broadleaved woodlands which are the best of the remaining native woodlands and are of high conservation value.
- County Councils –manage trees and woodlands in urban areas.
- Estates – contain mostly mixed woodlands that have had some level of forest management for a long period.
- Farms – newly planted plantations with an average size of 9 ha. Nearly all have been established to best practice and the new guidelines required by the Forest Service for grant aid.
- Corporate – a mix of both old and new plantations with a strong management emphasis on quality timber production.