The right tree in the right place for the right reason

Why we need both fast-growing conifers for sustainable timber for construction and native woodlands to enhance biodiversity

The recent controversy about the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund (ISFF) set up with the Irish semi-State forestry company, Coillte, and managed by investment fund managers Gresham House seems to have missed some important points.

The heated debate centred on criticism of Coillte for doing a deal with an international fund manager which would buy land to plant trees and in so doing push up prices of land for farmers who couldn’t compete with the purchasing power of a €200 million fund.

But what got lost in the rhetoric was that the ISFF represents only 3,500 hectares of land – which is less than 1 per cent of the State’s ambitious target to plant 450,000 hectares of new forestry by 2030.

The terms of the ISFF will also see Coillte plant a mixture of conifers and broadleaf trees over five years (65 per cent conifers, 20 native broadleafs and 15 per cent left unplanted for rewilding). The ISFF is also set to buy 8,500 hectares of existing forests which Coillte will manage.


In a statement following the controversy, Coillte said “it doesn’t believe the scale at which the fund is active will have any effect on overall land prices”. But what this one-step-remove process does allow Coillte to do is to access generous State afforestation grants and premium payments which it was no longer able to do following a European Commission ruling in the mid-1990s.

Ireland has one of the lowest forestry cover in Europe at 11 per cent compared with the European average of about 39 per cent. Coillte currently manages about 50 per cent of forests in Ireland and its aim is to contribute 20 per cent of the national afforestation target to increase forestry cover to 18 per cent of land in Ireland by 2030. Its strategy includes plans to create about 100,000 hectares of new forests by 2050, half of which will be native woodlands.

In a statement, Coillte said: “This [20 per cent] will deliver a meaningful contribution towards the target but it also reflects the necessity for farmers and private forestry companies to deliver the majority of future afforestation in Ireland.”

Currently forestry planting rates in Ireland are estimated to be at about 2,000 hectares a year, yet farmers and Coillte planting rates combined were as little as 400 hectares in 2021. This will need to be increased to about 8,000 hectares a year to reach Government afforestation targets. Coford, the body appointed by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to advise on the forestry sector, suggests this planting rate could be as high as 16,000 hectares per year.

The €1.3 billion forestry programme launched by the Government in November 2022 was the largest ever investment in tree planting by an Irish government. At that time, forestry expert Donal Magner, writing in the Irish Farmers Journal, said that not since 1996 had forestry received such attention (the period between 1989 and 1996 was the last time record planting levels by farmers, private landowners and Coillte occurred). In the Climate Action Plan, forestry was singled out as an essential land use to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Backlogs in getting both planting and felling licences from the Department of Agriculture resulted in many farmers and private forest owners leaving forestry in the last five years or so. According to the Government’s most recent estimate, there are about 23,500 private forest owners in Ireland – the majority of which are farmers. About 70 per cent of forests are coniferous and 30 per cent broadleaf.

Another aspect of the recent public debate on investment in forestry is that there has arguably been an overemphasis on the importance of native woodlands for biodiversity excluding the reality that timber from fast-growing species such as Sitka spruce is essential if construction in Ireland is to become more sustainable.

Writing in The Irish Times recently, Mark McAuley, director of Forest Industries Ireland, said Ireland must embrace low-carbon timber building systems to reduce our emissions from construction. Buildings currently represent about 37 per cent of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, which includes both the emissions from energy used to operate the buildings (about 23 per cent) and the emissions during construction and design of the buildings (about 14 per cent).

McAuley says the global demand for wood and wood-based alternatives is expected to increase significantly as the building industry is forced to use low-carbon materials instead of high-carbon materials such as steel and concrete. “We need Ireland to have sustainably-managed forests to produce construction timber for this market,” he adds.

Around 90 per cent of mass timber (a construction product made up of layers of timber boards bonded together to form high performance structural panels for walls, floors and roof structures) is made in Europe. Ireland currently imports the majority of timber used in construction from Scandinavia and North America yet some believe Ireland could become self-sufficient in construction timber as with our mild climate conifers grow twice as quickly in Ireland as they do in many other countries in Europe.

But if Ireland is to become self-sufficient in construction timber, this would require more coniferous forests grown specifically for their timber alongside more native woodlands maintained for their amenity and biodiversity value. “For many farmers, commercial forestry is the enabler to justify planting a sizeable portion of their plantation with broadleaf,” Magner adds.

Researchers working with Prof Martha O’Hagan Luff from the School of Business at Trinity College Dublin are currently developing a forest scorecard to work out the true financial value of different tree species to encourage the Government to offer forestry premiums for longer than 20 years. In the new forestry programme, farmers planting 20 hectares can earn more than €400,000 in tax-free payments over 20 years, compared with just under €200,000 in the older scheme.

The goal of the research by the Forest project at TCD is to create a financial value of trees based on all their main benefits including carbon capture, timber production, biodiversity, amenity and their impact on water and soil. The scorecard is being developed with Prof Jane Stout and Prof Frazer Mitchell in the Department of Botany at TCD.

“Our scorecard method is particularly useful as different trees species offer different benefits at different times,” explains O’Hagan Luff. For instance, fast-growing coniferous trees capture more carbon in the short term and provide a valuable source of timber. Native trees are generally better for wildlife and have greater amenity value. Native trees also capture more carbon and provide timber in a longer time frame.

O’Hagan Luff hopes that the forestry scorecard could lead to better-designed subsidies for farmers and other landowners. “The idea is that woodlands that are planted to remain in situ without harvesting can receive a long-term financial subsidy to reflect the ecosystem services they provide to the public such as cleaner air or a nice place to go for a walk,” she says.

“For landowners to be asked to put agricultural land permanently out of use to establish long-term native woodlands, they need to be properly incentivised and financially rewarded to do so.”

Planting the right tree in the right place for the right reasons has never been more important.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment