Ireland’s forests are home to a number of rare and protected species and habitats. Being undisturbed for long periods forests are generally suitable areas for their protection and conservation. However, forest management must ensure that they are not negatively impacted as a result of plans and operations.
The species that are of current conservation concern regarding forests are:
- Freshwater pearl mussel – critically endangered
- Lesser horseshoe bat – near threatened
- Otter – near threatened
- Hen harrier – amber status
- Kerry slug – favourable conservation status but Irish population is important in a global context as the Iberian populations are severely threatened.
- Red squirrel – near threatened
While all are protected species under the Wildlife Act the freshwater pearl mussel, lesser horseshoe bat, otter and the Kerry slug are also protected under the EU Habitats Directive and the hen harrier under the EU Birds Directive.
Given the conservation importance of these species the Forest Service has developed a number of guidelines in consultation with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. These guidelines describe the methods by which the species will be protected during forest operations, and how the Forest Service will take them into consideration when issuing licenses and approvals for forest operations. The guidelines can be accessed through the following links:
While the red squirrel is described as being near threatened it not listed as a key species for conservation in the EU Habitats Directive. Guidance for its management has not been issued to date by the Forest Service but an All Ireland Species Action Plan has been developed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service which gives proposed actions for red squirrel conservation.
In addition to the Forest Service Guidelines, Coillte has also developed Biodiversity Action Plans for the Freshwater Pearl Mussel, the Lesser Horseshoe Bat and the Hen Harrier. These plans were developed in response to the requirements of FSC forest certification at a time before national biodiversity plans existed. However, they continue to be relevant and are an expression of Coillte’s commitment towards the protection of these species.
National Parks and Wildlife Service (2012)
Many forests were established in Ireland at a time before the designation of special conservation areas. As a result, plantations were located on sites that today would be protected under the Wildlife Act and the EU Habitats and Birds Directives (i.e. NHAs, SACs, SPAs etc). Official procedures, however, are now in place as part of the afforestation and felling licence applications to ensure that new afforestation developments and forest operations in established forests do not cause damage to designated conservation sites.
The identification and protection of natural habitats is now part of everyday forest management, not only for designated sites but also for smaller areas within the forest. Natural habitats are also being created in plantations through the planting of native species, leaving open space, creating deadwood habitat, retaining veteran trees etc.
Conservation areas (SACs and NHAs) have been officially designated in a number of existing forests. These are areas in which the natural habitat is more of less intact or has not been irreversibly changed due to afforestation. While afforestation many have affected them to some extent, it is sometimes possible to restore them to their original state.
Three habitats of conservation concern that have been affected by commercial forestry over the years are:
- Blanket bog
- Raised bog
- Priority woodland
Coillte and to a lesser extent the National Parks and Wildlife Service, have undertaken large scale restoration of degraded or damaged habitats in designated conservation areas in forests.
Coillte with financial assistance from the EU LIFE Nature funding has embarked on a programme of restoration of priority habitats within their forest estate. Three major projects have been completed to date – blanket bog, raised bog and priority woodland with a further project underway.
Further information is available at: LIFE Nature Projects
The NPWS has undertaken restoration of native woodlands in the national parks and nature reserves e.g. Killarney and Glengarriff. Further information at Woodland Restoration