Forestry: The strong case for moving away from monoculture

An EPA-commissioned review identified a need for 875,000 more hectares of forest by 2050, or roughly 33,000ha per year. That’s more than double the area existing today

Last year, the Government published Ireland’s Forest Strategy to 2030 which will be financed by an unprecedented €1.3 billion in public money. It comes after a time of crisis for the forestry industry and, some would say, more importantly, an intensifying crisis of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.

For decades, forestry has been beset with disagreements about everything from where forests should go to the types of trees that are used. It is fair to say that the model of planting single-species blocks of non-native conifers, particularly Sitka spruce, has not proved popular.

However, all agree that regardless of the type of forest, we simply don’t have enough of them. A review commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency published early in 2023 concluded that, just to meet net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases from the land use sector by 2050, we will need an additional 875,000 hectares of forest, or roughly 33,000ha per year. That’s more than double the area that exists today.

While there is an urgent need to transform the quality as well as the quantity of forests, the new Forest Strategy is primarily focused on expansion. It sets a target of increasing forest cover from today’s 11.3 per cent to 18 per cent by 2050, at a rate of 8,000ha a year: modest compared to what’s needed, but ambitious compared to the rate at which we are moving. But can it deliver?


Ireland would not be the first country to set its mind at reafforestation. The most notable example in the world must be Costa Rica, which was dealing with high levels of deforestation in the 1980s and early 1990s. Nevertheless, the small Central American country managed to turn things around, increasing forest cover from a low of 21 per cent to over 60 per cent today. This impressive feat was achieved not by establishing monoculture plantations but by allowing the native forest to regenerate itself. In fact, no country that has substantially expanded its forests in recent centuries has done it through planting trees.

Even the native forest scheme prevents the planting of trees above specified elevations, immediately ruling out the restoration of our upland forests. Little of this makes sense

In early 2021, a conference of scientists hosted by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London, on Reforestation for Biodiversity, Carbon Capture and Livelihoods produced 10 golden rules for restoring forests. Chief among them was to “use natural forest regrowth wherever possible”. The delegates went so far as to declare that they were “alarmed at the predominance of large-scale planting of monocultures of exotic tree species... which have been shown to have detrimental impacts on native biodiversity and ecosystem services and often sequester less carbon than natural forest”. The latter claim is increasingly supported by scientific evidence. One opinion in the journal Nature suggested that natural forests were 40 times more effective than plantations at storing carbon.

The UK charity Rewilding Britain, meanwhile, has estimated that just allowing existing areas of forest in England to expand using natural regeneration would create an additional 405,000ha of native woodland. This form of forest expansion is very low-cost, ecologically coherent in that it restores the web of life and not only trees and, because it is diverse, provides resilience in the face of pests, fires and climate change. Indeed, even many commercial foresters themselves around the world look for natural regeneration to avail of lower costs and lower risk of catastrophic losses.

Even in Ireland, the most recent Forest Inventory demonstrates that between 2006 and 2022, 37,000ha of new forests have spontaneously emerged. The Government has acknowledged the benefits of this free and ecologically appropriate form of forest expansion by creating a scheme dedicated to “rewilding/emergent forest”. Yet, landowners who want to avail of natural regeneration to grow new forests will receive a mere €350 per hectare, the lowest of all the payment rates by far.

On top of this, to be eligible for this scheme, the area to be rewilded must have potential for tree canopy closure within six years, which is far too short a time frame. Any gaps in the emerging scrub need to be planted with up to 1,100 stems/ha of native trees from nurseries, a stipulation that overlooks the benefits of natural regeneration, as the self-seeding of trees would naturally close any such gaps over time. To round it off, the entire scheme is limited to areas of mineral soil, immediately excluding the 20 per cent of the country that has peat soil. Even the native forest scheme prevents the planting of trees above specified elevations, immediately ruling out the restoration of our upland forests. Little of this makes sense.

Marina Conway is chief executive of Western Forestry Co-Op, which was established in 1985 to encourage more farmers to plant trees. She has seen a big shift in the last couple of years so that now she says “80-90 per cent of our inquiries are for native forests”. This scheme is based upon planting saplings of native tree species, and the rates are generous, with an annual premium of €1,103/ha per year for 15 years (20 years if you’re a farmer), and an upfront grant of €6,744/ha. Meanwhile, interest in plantations of Sitka spruce has fallen away, she believes, for a variety of reasons, including bad press. Premiums for these forests are only €746/ha per year.

Conway says there’s a “huge amount in this Forestry Programme for people, and there’s really good options”. She says interest in reprofiling existing monoculture forests to make them more diverse, eg through methods such as continuous-cover forestry, is “massive”.

“But,” she says, “my main concern is delivery.” She fears that “we have made the process so difficult and so cumbersome that it’s hard to see how it can be delivered”. She notes many of the schemes are not open, while the level of “forensic environmental investigation” is placing too high a burden of proof on applicants to show that no environmental harm will arise, irrespective of the existing type of land. “It feels like there’s absolutely no trust here as to the foresters’ level of professional judgment,” she says.

A new “native tree area” scheme allows landowners to establish up to 1ha of native trees without going through the licence system. Conway says interest for this has been “off the scale... every meeting held around the country about it was packed”. However, this too is for mineral soil only, needlessly excluding swathes of the country.

Ray Ó Foghlú is the farm programmes co-ordinator with Hometree, a recently formed charity that promotes the establishment of native woodland. He says “there will always be a place for woodland planting” which, be believes, is “well looked after” in the new Forest Strategy. “But the big omission is the promotion of woodlands naturally regenerating”. While not a panacea, he adds, “it should be catered for – if there is a big missed opportunity, it’s that”.

Will Ireland achieve what no other country has managed? Despite the welcome levels of ambition and investment, it is difficult to see how it will

Due to changes in how farm subsidies are paid out, farmers are no longer being penalised for having scrub and emerging forests on their land, which is positive, but Ó Foghlú believes, “It’s really unfair that if a woodland emerges that’s not planted, the remuneration for the farmer is a fraction of what it would be if that was a greenfield site that was planted with trees.

“It shows that there is still a skewed perception of ecological benefits over other benefits. We know that the best way to expand our old woodlands is through natural regeneration. Yet if you do this you will only get a fraction of what you would if you cleared that scrub away and put saplings in the ground, and that seems wrong to me,” he adds.

Ó Foghlú agrees with Conway that even for the good schemes the process is too slow, and this can result in farmers exploring options other than forestry.

Will Ireland achieve what no other country has managed? Despite the welcome levels of ambition and investment, it is difficult to see how it will. The trees themselves will grow nearly anywhere – Ireland was once 80 per cent forest – but the bureaucracy seems to think that nature itself is not required to meet our objectives.

This is perhaps the greatest of the missed opportunities.

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