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SUSTAINABILITY Trees – fuel for the future

Outdoor Living
Fuel for the future

Growing your own
Chris Brown

Trees are the tallest, biggest and longest-lived of all plants; some reaching a great age. There are bristlecone pine trees in America said to be somewhere in the region of 4,000 years old, which means that they were living in the USA for over 3,500 years before the white man landed and took charge of managing that continent!
All parts of a tree have their uses: leaves and twigs break down into compost of the highest order; the fruits feed us and a whole host of other creatures like birds, insects, monkeys and squirrels; the sap can be tapped to make such products as syrup, rubber and retsina (hic!); and of course the wood is supremely valuable. Trees are also beautiful; they enrich our lives and they are our friends.
Of all the timber felled in the world, about half is used for fuel in the form of logs or charcoal, much of it in the tropics and the Third World countries, which don’t have oil or gas coming down pipes to serve them. The rest is used as timber or processed into wood products like chipboard, plywood or pulp. You are probably sitting on some whilst reading your informative and essential ‘Mayo News’, which also started out as a tree!
Environmentally, trees are crucial to our very existence. Groups of trees temper the forces of nature as they slow down the speed of the wind and shelter the soils beneath them from heat loss, bright sunshine and heavy rains. They regulate the flow of ground water, soaking up vast amounts of rainfall. The roots stabilise and knit together the land in which they stand, penetrating deep to bring up essential minerals.
When we consider that trees absorb carbon dioxide and give out oxygen for us to breathe. They also filter pollution and trap dust (it is said that there is a reduction in street dust of up to 25 per cent where trees are planted). The residue from burning trees is wood-ash, a valuable component for future plant growth. It is not difficult to make a case for the inclusion of trees in future plans if sustainability is the desired goal.

Ireland’s Trees
ENFO (the environment information service) tell us that Ireland has fewer trees than any other country in Europe. This is surprising given the mild and moist climate here, with good soil and water supplies and no extremes of temperature to slow their growth. Trees in Ireland are said to grow up to three times faster than those on the European mainland.
The benefit of plentiful tree cover could hardly be much clearer, so why then have we spent the last few hundred years or so cutting them down in huge numbers without replacing them? Whatever about our generation taking the oil, coal and gas for our comfort which we can’t replace, surely it’s our collective responsibility to at least replace the trees we’ve cut down if there’s to be any fuel for tomorrow.
Currently there are grants available to fit heating systems that are powered by wood pellets, but I do wonder how much thought has been put into producing the pellets? I was told by state-employed forester in 2002 that firewood was valueless, and at that time the willow was not a tree species that was allowed under any grant-aided scheme. Willow is a very fast-growing species, unfussy about the land it grows in and is the species used to make wood pellets!
I do think attitudes are starting to change however, as the wood-burning stove starts to replace oil-fired appliances, which should in turn mean we will plant more trees. This isn’t happening yet, but a tree planting programme for the production of future fuel must surely be just round the corner?

Chris Brown runs Brown’s Farm, a small farm in Louisburgh. He is an advocate of sustainable, natural farming methods and buying local.