Centuries of clearance for agriculture and over exploitation for timber have reduced Ireland’s once extensive native woodlands to the remnants we see today. Examples of these old native woodlands are still to be found as small scattered stands that have survived mostly on thin soils and areas that were generally unsuitable for agriculture. Some larger areas, however, exist in old estates where they are managed for timber production and locally as cover for game. Native woodlands have also developed in recent decades on abandoned rough pasture in uplands and on cutaway bog, especially in the midlands. The total area of native woodland is estimated to be between 85,000ha and 100,000ha.
Some of our native woodlands may have existed since post glacial times (ancient or long-established woodlands) and these woodlands have a wider range of associated native plants and animal species, some of which are unique to these areas and not found in modern commercial plantations. The woodlands are important habitat for native species in a landscape that is increasingly dominated by intensive agriculture, and are therefore the focus of biodiversity enhancement and nature conservation.
Native woodlands as the name implies are comprised of native tree species. In Ireland, native woodlands are mostly broadleaved in character with oak, ash, alder and birch being the dominant tree species. Native conifer woodlands are very rare, the best example being the yew wood on the Muckross peninsula in the Killarney National Park. Conifers, however, are to be found in the new native woodlands currently being established where Scots pine, which is considered to have become extinct only within the last 1000 years, is often planted in mixture with native broadleaves.
Native woodlands have low timber productivity in relation to conifer plantations and as a result many were felled and replanted, or heavily thinned and underplanted, with fast growing conifers. While this practice (now ceased) changed the appearance of these woodlands many still retain their old woodland characteristics, and with appropriate management it is often possible to restore them to their former state.
Today, foresters perceive native woodlands in a different light and now recognise their importance as hot spots for native biodiversity. They are being managed to conserve and enhance this unique habitat and an active programme of rehabilitation of existing native woodlands and the planting of new woodlands is underway. Native woodlands are being created in riparian areas adjacent to streams, rivers and lakes to protect water courses from eutrophication and siltation. These areas will also provide corridors for wildlife to move through the landscape and link areas of biodiversity.
To encourage the restoration of existing native woodlands and the planting of new ones the Native Woodland Scheme, administered by the Forest Service, provides attractive grants for the establishment and on-going maintenance of native woodland areas.
For a description of our native woodlands and their associated flora and fauna see the excellent booklet titled ‘Ireland’s Woodland Heritage’ published by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
CONSERVATION AND RESTORATION
A number of initiatives have been undertaken in recent years to restore and expand our native woodlands. Each has contributed to our knowledge of how to conserve and manage the native woodland resource. Foresters, ecologists, contractors, volunteers and other stakeholders working together have successfully developed and implemented plans for the restoration of important native woodlands. Some of these initiatives are listed below:
National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS)
Restoration work on the native woodlands was first pioneered by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). This organisation manages approximately 5,000 ha that represent the best of the native woodlands which have been designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and/or nature reserves.
Over-grazing by livestock and wild deer and the invasion by Rhododendron ponticum pose real threats to the long term existence of some of these woodlands; the oak woods of the Killarney National Park and the Glengarriff Nature Reserve being notable examples. Restoration work has been on-going for many years but despite the size, difficulty and cost of the task the threats are being contained. Click here for further information
Peoples’ Millennium Forests
This project was undertaken by the Woodlands of Ireland, a group set up by the Heritage Council to focus attention on Ireland’s native woodland resource. Over 600 hectares of native woodland in the Coillte estate were restored and designated as 16 ‘Millennium Forests’, dedicated in perpetuity to the people of Ireland.
The project restored mature woodlands and also established new native woodlands. A native tree was planted on behalf of every household in Ireland and a certificate was posted to all homes giving details as to where trees were planted under the Family Tree Scheme. The trees were planted as part of the restoration of these native woodland communities which now include woodland walks, nature trails, interpretative and recreational facilities.
The work was undertaken by Coillte with funding from the government’s Millennium Fund and sponsorship from Allied Irish Banks.
Further information at: Peoples’ Millennium Forests
Native Woodland Scheme
The Native Woodland Scheme (NWS) is aimed at protecting, enhancing and expanding Ireland’s native woodland resource and associated biodiversity, through appropriate planting and management. Where compatible, the scheme also encourages the growing of quality hardwood timber. The NWS is implemented by the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in partnership with Woodlands of Ireland, National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and the Heritage Council. The scheme comprises two separate elements: Conservation focusing on protecting and enhancing existing native woodland and Establishment creating new native woodland.
Further information from the following links:
Coillte priority Woodland Project
Coillte, as part of its nature conservation programme, has undertaken the restoration of four woodland habitats found on its forest estate – alluvial woodland, bog woodland, woodland associated with limestone pavement and yew woodland – all are recognised as priority habitats under the EU Habitats Directive as being critically rare.
The objective of the project was to develop and promote woodland restoration techniques, enhance 550ha of priority woodland habitat and demonstrate the relevant and value of priority woodland habitats. The restoration work has been successfully completed and the areas which are SACs are part of the 15% of Coillte’s forests being managed for biodiversity. Funding for the project was provided by both Coillte and the EU LIFE Nature programme.
Further information at: Restoring Priority Woodland Habitats in Ireland
An on-going research programme on native woodlands is underway by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). A summary of current research projects can be found at: Woodlands Research
Native Woodland Survey
The recently completed survey of native woodlands has provided a current assessment of the conservation status of Irish native woodlands. It is a valuable resource for environmental managers, ecological researchers and policy makers to work towards the conservation of Irish woodlands. Further information is available in the following documents:
Arising from the Native Woodland Survey a further inventory was made of ancient and long established woodland. This is available at:
Ireland’s Woodland Heritage by John Cross. Published in 2012 by NPWS, Dublin.
This attractive well illustrated booklet describes the types of native woodland found in Ireland, their place in the landscape, their ecology and associated plants and animals. The international importance of the woodlands is highlighted along with issues concerning their management and conservation.
The Strategy was compiled by Woodlands of Ireland in partnership with native woodland stakeholders in the public and private sectors. It covers a broad range of topics from the management of ancient/old/scrub woodlands, the creation of new native woodlands, woodland creation as part of climate mitigation and water quality enhancement measures, natural capital realisation and recreational native woodlands.
Abstracts from papers presented at a major conference on native Irish woodlands. The conference reviewed the background to native woodland development in Ireland, examined its current status and explored opportunities for its future. Papers were presented by a broad range of leading experts in the field of native woodland conservation from Ireland, the UK and mainland Europe.
Brackloon – the story of an Irish oak wood by Deirdre Cunningham. Published by in 2005 by COFORD, Dublin.
This book describes the natural history of ancient oak woodland at Brackloon, near Westport, Co. Mayo. Based on the work of the Forest Ecosystem Research Group in UCD the book describes the evolution of the wood from pre-historic times, the soils, vegetation, and wildlife and how it has been used and influenced by man over the years.
If Trees Could Talk – a history of forestry in Co. Wicklow by Michael Carey. Published 2009 by COFORD, Dublin.
Michael Carey explores the evidence of former woodland cover and the various tree planting initiatives carried out in Co. Wicklow between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. The uses made of timber and the profitability of the industry during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are also discussed and include a review of documentary material related to the old Watson-Wentworth-Fitzwilliam estate based at Coolattin near Shillelagh in the south of the county. The progression of the industry over the period is referenced to the overall social and political evolution of the county and related issues.
There are many individuals and organisations that have an interest in our native woodlands too numerous to mention. However, listed below are the main organisations in Ireland concerned with the conservation, management, and promotion of native woodlands:
The principle nature conservation authority in Ireland concerned with the conservation, restoration, monitoring, research and promotion of native woodlands.
The national forest authority concerned with the promotion of native woodlands; grant aiding the restoration of existing woodland and establishment of new woodland; and the registration and certification of native seed sources.
The state forestry company concerned with the restoration and conservation of native woodland on its forest estate. Also, has an extensive programme of establishing new native woodlands along riparian areas following clearfelling of mature conifer stands.
A statutory body with a mission to develop a wider understanding of the contribution that heritage makes to our social, environmental and economic well-being. Promotes native woodland as part of our natural heritage and advocates for the conservation and expansion of the native woodland resource.
WOI is the principle non-governmental organisation (NGO) involved in promoting native woodlands, the Peoples Millennium Forests being the largest project to date. WOI provides support to the Native Woodland Scheme through training courses and woodland management information.
An NGO dedicated to the preservation of our ancient woodlands and the planting of new native woodland..
Groundwork is a voluntary environmental organisation that has worked extensively on the removal of the invasive Rhododendron ponticum from the native oak woodlands in the Killarney National Park, Co. Kerry and Glenveagh National Park, Co. Donegal.
The Woodland League is dedicated to restoring the relationship between people and their native woodlands.