Ireland’s native trees facing danger ‘from disease and threats to gene pool’

Coalition of more then 30 environmental groups says sending seeds abroad for germination is inherently dangerous

A coalition of more than 30 environmental groups has called for an “urgent review” of rules around the movement of young trees between Ireland, the UK and the EU.

Coillte, the State-owned forestry company, confirmed to The Irish Times that it sends native tree seeds to the Netherlands to be brought on as saplings before being returned to Ireland for planting.

Coillte said the practise of sending seeds abroad for propagation “is not uncommon in the wider nursery sector in Ireland”.

It also said it imports sapling trees grown from European seeds, which are used for broadleaf forestry here, although it does not use these in forests described as being of “native woodlands”.


However, many environmental groups, including Ireland’s largest environmental coalition, the Environmental Pillar, claim the practice of propagating seeds abroad, as well as importing saplings, is inherently dangerous. The Pillar said the practise exposes seeds to diseases similar to ash dieback, which was first found in Ireland in a consignment of imported trees. Ash dieback is expected to wipe out 90 per cent of the State’s ash trees, State research body Teagasc has found.

Now there is concern that the importation of saplings from the UK and EU could raise the possibility, not just of disease to forests generally, but damage to the gene pool of the native Irish oak, which is separate and distinct from northern European oaks.

Andrew St Ledger of the Woodland League, and the Centre for Environmental Living and Training, said “the genetics of Irish oaks indicated that they originated from the Iberian refuge after the Ice Age, while other countries including the UK have a mix of genes from three glacial refuges. Thus, it is important in Ireland not to import oak seeds”.

“Diseases affecting oak trees in the UK and EU states have been detected in recent years, including Acute Oak Decline (AOD), the oak lace bug and the oak processionary moth in the UK,” he said.

Mr St Ledger said any shortfall in native oak acorns could “easily be compensated by the use of the more prolific and useful native trees like birch, alder and rowan, with our excellent native conifer the scots pine, until native oak becomes available again”.

“In order to protect our native tree gene pool from dilution and our native trees from pests and disease it is absolutely critical not to import non-native oak or other native tree species for native woodland schemes or other broadleaf planting,” he said.

Fintan Kelly, editor of the Environmental Pillar’s submission on Ireland’s Forest Strategy (2022–2030) said “genetic diversity is one of three levels of diversity that the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has committed to safeguarding.

“Ireland has an obligation to protect the unique genetic diversity of our native tree species by sourcing seed as locally as possible. We are deeply concerned,” he said.

He said the policy overseen by the Department of Agriculture was also resulting in the flow of public money out of the country, which could be used to support jobs in Irish nurseries. In a statement Environmental Pillar said “the policy needs an urgent review”.

“It is essential to use seed from certified Irish sources to ensure provenance and biosecurity”.

Teige Ryan of None so Hardy Nurseries in Co Wexford said his firm has been collecting native acorns in Ireland for many years and uses these to bring on saplings on more than 500 acres. However, he said he cannot sell many of the plants within Ireland as there are low levels of forest planting here, blame for which he lays at the door of the forest service in the Department of Agriculture.

Millions of his nursery’s seedlings would have been destroyed if the market in Scotland hadn’t opened up, he said.

Coillte said in the autumn of 2021 there had been a significant shortage of oak seed in Ireland and Europe. As a result, “and in anticipation of a shortage of oak plants for the 2023/24 planting season”, Irish oak seed was sent to a grower in the Netherlands in autumn 2022 with the expectation that they would produce oak plants within a year compared with the standard two-year production cycle in Ireland. It is expected this seed will produce around 65,000 oak plants, which is less than 3 per cent of Coillte’s broadleaf production.

Coillte said its nurseries aim to be fully self-sufficient in the supply of plants to the market and “only native provenance are sold for native woodland schemes”. It said “in years of high demand for certain tree species, Coillte may import small amounts of European grown trees to meet the demand, but these typically represent only a very minor component of the total amount produced by Coillte”.

Coillte said all imported plants were “subject to the strict rules of plant passport protections”, governed by the department. It said imported plants are not used for native woodland schemes.

The Department of Agriculture was asked for comment over a number of weeks but one had not arrived by the time of writing.

Earlier this year, in response to a Dáil question, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue said “the movement of seed to another EU member state to be grown, with the resulting plants returned to the country of origin” was “a fairly common practise”.

The Minister said “master certificates of provenance” were issued by his department for such movements, while all plants for planting moving within the EU must be accompanied by a valid plant passport. A plant passport indicates “a clean plant health status for the regulated plants and plant products” he said.

Furthermore, he said, regulations for several trees species require that the department must be notified of the consignment “no later than 48 hours after arrival into the State, so that the department can organise official controls to prevent the potential spread of any destructive pests and diseases”.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist