In reforesting the countryside plantations (man made forests) were used to replace the native forests that were cleared over the centuries. Today, commercial conifer plantations are the most common forest type that we see in the countryside.
Early plantations were established and managed exclusively for timber production. Intensive silvicultural methods such as ground cultivation and drainage along with fertilisation and the planting of high yielding conifers at close spacing maximised the timber production capacity of sites. Large uniform areas (>200ha) of even aged plantations of single conifer species were established with these regimes which gave economies of scale but were not ideal for biodiversity.
Many of Ireland’s plantation forests have been planted on poor quality grazing land in the uplands. They have added diversity into a largely grassland landscape and have provided some ecological benefits and their effect on biodiversity is generally regarded neutral to beneficial. However, many plantations were established on what today would be considered as environmentally sensitive sites e.g. uplands, western blanket bogs and the raised bogs of the midlands. Low timber yields and environmental impacts from forestry and forest operations have presented many problems and challenges in the management of these sites. As a result, the afforestation effort being re-directed towards better quality land and today new planting on peatland has more of less ceased. Efforts, however, are being made to improve the biodiversity of existing forests as well as in new plantations.
Both new plantations and restock sites in existing forests are being designed in way that will make them more diverse in the future. Open space, mixed species, more broadleaves, retained habitats, riparian zones, long term retentions, deadwood, smaller felling coupes, delayed felling/restocking etc are some of the measures that are being used to create a more diverse environment within forests. Over time, as suitable habitats for native flora and fauna are created these forests will support greater biodiversity and become more environmentally sustainable in the future.
Further information on biodiversity and plantation forests is to be found at: