‘Forestry schemes are not working; mistakes were made…’

Last week, Teagasc indicated that Ireland is 4,000ha behind on its forestry targets.

And while it is a contentious issue in many parts of the country, one expert in the field – who is based in Co. Limerick – says that many of the difficulties have been brought about by the schemes that are on offer to incentivise landowners to plant trees in the first instance.

Nick Cotter is an organic sheep farmer in West Limerick. In 1993, he started planting his land and has now given over a substantial number of hectares to the initiative.

He is also involved in Cotter Bros Firewood which is operated by his two sons Jack (21) and Nick Jr. (18).

It is a local farm business, based on producing and selling high-quality, ready to burn Wood Fuel Quality Assurance (WFQA) certified firewood.

Much of raw material required for the business is sourced from the farm and since its inception in 2011, Cotter Bros has gone from strength to strength.

Identifying the problem

Meanwhile, while Cotter admits that there are difficulties around forestry in this country “at the moment”, he is adamant there are solutions to be found.

There is a problem with forestry in this country at the moment because the schemes that are there are not working.

He continued: “It’s not about the wrong trees being planted – which many suggest is the problem – because in many cases very poor land that has no use is being planted with trees that are being used to lock up a lot of carbon and then the cycle of cutting them down begins.

“People think that is very bad for the environment but not necessarily because the carbon is already locked into that tree and it in turn is being turned into building materials that will then go on to hold that carbon for a very long time.

“In that process more trees are planted and replanted – therefore there is a constant build-up of carbon storage.

“Whereas permanent forests are not having the same effect.”

‘A balance is needed’

The sheep and forestry farmer went on to say that a solution can be found by focusing on “balance” in the sector.

We need balance in terms of species; balance in terms of the distribution of forestry; and a general balance in the market.

Cotter added: “Sitka spruce has been described as the Friesian cow of the industry – and it is.

“It’s productive, it sequesters carbon, and like anything else, when its planted correctly, has a positive result.”

He then pointed to the problems that developed as a result of plantations carried out in this country during the 1960s.

It was a complete disaster – mistakes were made.

He continued: “If we go back to the 1960s when we had social forestry in this country it was a complete disaster and mistakes were made.

“But the forestry we have today is in no way similar to the forestry we had back in the 1960s.

“We do, however, need to change forestry management because we need to move towards more diversity in the forest – change the age structure that is there and be more sustainable as well.

“I think that it was a big mistake to introduce the non-farmer into the equation – it has been a retrograde step and has resulted in a fall-off in planting in this country.”

‘Doing things right’

Cotter says that in 1994 – “which was the big year for planting” – there was 24,000ha planted in Ireland.

This year – there is probably 4,000ha.

He added: “Nowadays forestry is better placed, better structured and is highly regulated, but the forest programme needs to be brought back to the people of Ireland.

“The forest programme is not sufficiently supported by Government – landowners aren’t stupid; if it’s attractive they will go for it.

“And we should not be allowing foreign investment funds to take the land – that creates unnecessary negativity. It’s not good and we should not be doing it.”

Water quality and trees

The forestry expert also spoke about water quality and shed some light on the actual role of trees when it comes to the nation’s rivers, lakes and streams.

Trees are known to provide water-shed services.

Cotter continued: “Harvesting comes with guidelines and if those guidelines are observed then there won’t be a problem.

“But badly-sited forestry will have a negative result – I don’t believe that we have those issues in Ireland.

“Now, if forests are planted on acidic soils then obviously we are going to have acidification.”

He went on to say that Sitka spruce – which is the cause of much annoyance in a number of counties – “is a good tree to plant”.

Some people say that Sitka spruce causes acidity and that is true in a roundabout way.

Cotter added: “The acidity that spruce – and other trees – cause is called inception deposition and this is where trees filter the impurities out of the air which tend to cause acidic ions.

“When it rains that acidity is carried onto the ground and if it is an acidic soil (under a pH7) – then when it rains you will get a certain amount of acidity washed in on water courses.

“So, Sitka spruce is filtering the air. Our air pollution is causing acidity in the stream if we are to be totally factual – a lot of people don’t realise this.

Equally, broadleaves will cause the exact same phenomenon – but to a lesser extent because the leaf area of broadleaves is lower.

“It is a flat leaf whereas spruces are needles; also broadleaves do not have leaves all year round and therefore at times there is nothing to catch.

“Again, if harvesting is done right there won’t be an issue.”