The dark march of Sitka spruce

Comment & Opinion

REGIMENTED ROWS Dark blocks of Sitka spruce plantation are increasingly appearing throughout our landscape. Pic: Walter Baxter CC-BY-SA 2.0

Ciara Moynihan

Condemnation of the partnership between semi-State forestry company Coillte and a British investment fund has been swift and strong. But will anyone listen?
Under the proposed deal, Coillte will source land for forestry, and carry out the planting and management, enabled by the backing of UK asset and investment management firm Gresham House. The latter is set to manage the forestry portfolio from its Ireland office in Dublin.
Environmentalists and farmers alike have criticised the strategy, in part due Gresham House’s status as financial backer rather than the Irish government, while opposition parties are demanding the deal be halted. The Irish Wildlife Trust has come out and said the strategy flies in the face of plans worked on by government groupings over recent years.
Quoted in The Journal on Saturday, campaign officer for the trust, Pádraig Fogarty said there is a fear that any investor ‘will just want to get the cheapest land that’s available’ and plant the tree species that produces the highest return – the controversial Sitka spruce. (Gresham House’s forestry investment investor said the company would plant 20 percent broadleaf species and 80 percent Sitka spruce.)
Concerns surround the non-native North American tree’s impact on the biodiversity of the areas it covers and borders – the resultant monoculture environment deemed entirely unsuitable to the country’s biodiversity needs and environmental commitments.
The State is putting up €25 million for the plantation strategy, through the Irish Strategic Investment Fund. As Fogarty asks, why are we providing grants for more spruce plantations when the public doesn’t want them – but will be paying for them through their taxes?
Research carried out last year by Project Woodland – a body established in February 2021 by the Department of Agriculture to deliver a new strategy on woodland creation – found that the public felt the most important benefits of forests were how they addressed climate change (25 percent of those surveyed) and enhanced air quality (15 percent), while 14 percent wanted to see forests contribute to wildlife and biodiversity.
The Irish Wildlife Trust, a partner in that research, is dismayed that ‘after all of that consultation, the Government is turning around and giving more grants for Sitka spruce plantation’. Branding the move ‘a scandal’ and ‘completely anti-democratic’, Fogarty voiced incredulity that ‘they can even stand over that decision’.
Looking ahead, one wonders what our future countryside will look like should the dark march of Sitka continue over our hillsides and through our valleys. (Mary Colwell’s Guardian article, ‘A forestry boom is turning Ireland into an ecological dead zone’, creates a frightening picture. It is worth reading.)
Currently forest cover in Ireland is 11.6 percent. This is miserably low when compared to the EU average of 40 percent. Complicating the picture and increasing the situation’s urgency is the fact that one of our most important, most populous broadleaf trees, the majestic ash, is dying off.
All over Mayo, all over the country, the skeletal evidence of ash dieback was everywhere to be seen last summer, as the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus starved leaves and killed tree crowns. It will not be satisfied until it lays waste to these grand and graceful beauties.
I once saw a mock-up of the countryside minus the ubiquitous ash. It was shocking. You can imagine one yourself in your head pretty easily: Ash trees account for almost one third of the trees found in our hedgerows. Native ash woodlands are also home to a broad range of native plants and the loss of this species will deal a terrible blow to biodiversity in Ireland.
Sitka are simply not the answer. Writing for RTÉ, Ken Boyle points out that ‘in Ireland, Sitka spruce or other conifer woodlands are neither old nor complex habitats of the homeland’. “The forests that we need to store carbon into the future will need to be mixed,” he explains, “so we have a range of species that will not all succumb to disease.” These mixed forests, he added, should be comprised of native species – birch forests, oak forests and woodland of oak, ash (that survive) and hazel.
Imagine the increase in native biodiversity that would result. Imagine the carbon storage as these deciduous giants mature into old age. Imagine the soils enriched and the canopies and forest floors teeming with life and movement. Imagine showing off these forests to visitors and telling them the story of how this natural protective blanket, once so rudely stripped from our country, was restored.
But short-term gain seems to be once again trumping long-term sense. As the world’s waters rise arond our bloated boat, the powers that be are busy rearranging the deckchairs. They would do well to stop and think about whether they’d rather be sitting on a flimsy, mass-produced deckchair of softwood when the boat goes down, or climbing into a solid hardwood currach and heading for green and healthy land.