Re: Forestry Schemes Review

Farmers claim that Area Aid payments are dependent on keeping their lands accessible to livestock or the land will be excluded from support payment. They argue that they can not permit reversion of their holdings to scrub.

Scrub is ‘often found in inaccessible locations or on abandoned or marginal farmland' . Scrub can contain many native species, e.g. hawthorn, blackthorn, gorse, juniper, bramble, roses, willows, small birches, stunted hazel, holly and oak. Scrub frequently develops as a precursor for woodland and its support offers the potential to allow for woodland regeneration on hillsides, riparian sites and bog margins . No fertilisation or drainage is required. Tourism, biodiversity, soils and water all benefit by reversion to scrub.

To keep this land open farmers justify burning as a management tool required for economic reasons.

But burning is an increasing economic and social problem in itself in rural Ireland. It is environmentally damaging to wildlife and can lead to severe erosion through loss of vegetative cover and soil structure. Without any permit system or requirement for farm burning management plans, it is estimated that the direct economic loses due to burning have cost more than €2m this year so far in 5 counties.

Forestry plantations suffered significant loses. Coillte estimates that around 1,500 acres of forestry were destroyed by gorse fires so far this year . In Kerry in the month of April there were more than 115 callouts for wildfires, placing fire fighters lives at risk and diverting fire fighting resources into remote areas where they are unavailable for domestic emergencies, etc. Climate change threatens to dry out Ireland's peatland to the point where furze will readily take root and gorse fires become a more serious menace.
Within a forestry grant-aided site up to 20% of the area can be given over to reversion to scrub, recognition of its contribution to forest cover. Support also exists through schemes in designated areas. But there is no direct scheme to support reversion to scrub as an alternative to the requirements of Area Aid.

Scrub would increase rather than decrease the national carbon store as opposed to burning and so would enhance the land's value as a carbon sink and store. Semi-native woodlands sustainably managed can provide posts, durable building/joinery materials, and fuel. A 4 hectare scrub woodland of YC 4 oak would provide 16 tons of hardwood firewood annually, contributing to a rural-based source of fuel, a valuable commodity under increasing pressure.

Grant aiding farmers to bring land under a Forestry Scrub/Transitional Woodland Scheme would increase the forest estate as scrub is included within the definition of forest cover used by Ireland in our National Forest Inventory. It comprises 4% of the total forested area with some counties holding 15% of their forested area in scrub.

A targeted Forestry Scrub/Transitional Woodland Scheme would also address the general issue of ‘desertification' where abandoned rural holdings would naturally revert to woodland but agricultural payments are only available subject to ‘maintenance'.

Such a scheme would be cost neutral as savings from Area Aid payments would be available for the Forestry Scrub/Transitional Woodland Scheme. There would be no establishment costs.

Friends of the Irish Environment
April 29, 2010


FIE's continued concerns about the planting of non-native species on our uplands and coastal uplands are undermined by COFORD (the Department of Agriculture's research section) arguments. These arguments continue to deny CORINE data showing twice the planting rate on peat soils that Ireland admits to - and by continuing to insist that planting on peat soils leads to net carbon sequestration for which Ireland can claim Kyoto credits.

See our latest slide show | Read our letter to the Minister | Read the COFORD reply

It is said that the truth will out in the end. Bertie Ahern's 2000 ‘tree for every household' promised as part of the Millennium Forest Project was a great con job, pushed by the Cabinet over the professional advisors. Read the original FIE summary. The scientific fact is that of the 1.2 million trees planted, only 5% will survive to maturity because of the thinning necessary in growing broadleaves. In order for the 1.2 million certificates to represent mature trees, more than 25 million would have had to be planted. Instead of woodland planting of 337 hectares, 6,000 hectares would have been required. Now, an audit into the project by the management committee set up to run it has revealed just this, attacking the public's 'confused' perception of what the whole project was about. It wasn't about single trees - as Ahern had said all those years ago - but actually about 'forests'.

 Read the recent Mail on Sunday expose   |   Read about the Woodland League's ‘Where's My Tree' Campaign

"Developed countries are trying every trick in the book to preserve business as usual greenhouse gas emissions. How can we expect developing countries to accurately account for emissions from land use change and deforestation if developed countries continue to shamelessly game the system?" Sean Cadman, the Wilderness Society

Frank Convery - now Chairman of COMHOR, the Sustainability Development Council - and Peter Clinch - now special advisor to the Government on the economy - were the lead authors of a 2001 report that suggested Irish forestry could account for almost 10% of Ireland's reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, as other justifications for Irish forestry policy have been steadily undermined, the value of 100% grants for forestry planting with 20 year subsidies - all tax free - has increasingly relied on this ‘sequestration argument'.

At the outset, a clear distinction must be made between ‘natural forests' and ‘plantation forestry'. Natural forests are self regenerating; as older trees fall, younger ones spring up in the clearings, absorbing more greenhouses gases. Soil disturbance is minimal, preserving the large soil carbon store. Natural forests are environmentally good and excellent carbon stores.

In Ireland 97% of our forest cover is industrial plantation forestry, the majority on peat soils. The use of the land is changed, the soil drained, and an intensive, often fertilised crop of trees planted and harvested in a short time frame - less than 35 years. Disturbing the soil on planting, road construction and on harvesting, plantation forestry on these soils is bad for the environment and bad for the climate.

Irish forestry policy is currently based on a 1996 document that requires 20,000 hectares of planting until 2030 to produce ‘critical mass' to make a viable pulp or paper industry, a target repeated in successive Programmes for Government. But forestry planting figures have not reached that figure since 1997 and have fallen steadily ever since. Just over 5,000 hectares were planted in each of the last two years. With grants recently cut by 8%, the figures are likely to fall further.

An analysis of the forest industry in 2003 by Peter Bacon - now special advisor to NAMA - held that 1996's ‘critical mass' would still be valid if 12,000 - 15,000 hectares a year could be maintained, warning of ‘serious implications in terms of the on-going credibility of the policy' if planting rates fell below that. As the subsequent Malone report noted ‘it is self evident that if plantings fall below a certain threshold the future growth potential of the industry will be undermined'.

It is against this background that Clinch and Convery led the charge to replace the increasingly discredited 1996 policy's grail of ‘critical mass' with the value of trees in mopping up our spiralling greenhouse gas emissions.

This has led to 2009 figures from the EPA claiming that 9% of our required carbon reductions 2008 - 2020 will be accounted for using Ireland's post 1990 forestry planting.

The problem is Ireland's conifer plantations on peat soils are not sequesting carbon as quickly as they are diminishing our natural sinks - the peat soils of Ireland. Studies suggest that globally peatlands may store more than three times the carbon stored in tropical rainforests. Forestry that drains and regularly disturbs large areas of peat soils causes carbon emissions, or at best breaks even. It does nothing to sequester carbon.

The loss of Irish peatlands over the last 20 years has been catastrophic. The Irish Peatland Conservation Council estimated in 1996 that 82% of our blanket bogs and 92% of our raised bogs had been disturbed. The Parks and Wildlife Service recently reported to the European Commission that 36% of our raised bogs had been destroyed in the 10 years since the Habitats Directive - intended to protect them - came into force in Ireland in 1997.

The EPA itself ironically published figures showing that the loss of carbon from Irish soils 1990 - 2000 was 27 million tons, more than 24 million of them from our peatlands.

If forestry on peat soils is so bad, how much of it have we planted?

The European Environmental Agency [EEA] caused uproar when it came out in 2004 with figures that showed 84% of Ireland's forestry since 1990 (the only forestry we can count under Kyoto rules) had been planted on peat soils - contributing not to carbon sequestration but to carbon loss.

How then did the EPA end up claiming carbon credits for Irish forestry on peat soils?

Here's how.

COFORD, the research body set up to serve the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, responded to the EEA's report by producing a document called ‘Dispelling myths: the true extent of recent peatland afforestation in Ireland.' That 2008 document claimed the percentage of planting on peat soils in that period was not 84% but 48% - giving 36% more of the planting on non-peat soils that might legitimately be claimed to be storing carbon.

But their figures are based on a misleading definition of peat soils. The EU based Nitrates Directive defines peat soils as any soil with more than 20% organic matter. But the Forest Service uses a different definition - soils with peat depth greater than 30 cm, excluding vast areas of the thinner peat based soils characteristic of Ireland's uplands.

Next, the estimates of carbon sequestration were compiled using inflated planting figures. Irish forestry has been struggling to plant 5,000 hectares a year for the last two years, and yet the 2008 calculations for carbon credits are based on a planting rate of 8,000 hectares per annum up to 2020, making a further exaggeration of the claim based on trees that are not being planted.

Then they claim the trees grow better than they do, and so are capable of taking up more carbon from the atmosphere than they actually do.

Just as the areas planted on peat soils have been underestimated, the yield class [YC] - the measurement of what size a tree will become and so how much carbon it will absorb - have been grossly overestimated. A 2003 COFORD report on plantations in the west stated that ‘Almost one third of the total plantation area surveyed is only expected to reach a top height of 15 metres, while a further 43% may only reach a top height of 18 metres, before the risk of windthrow may require it to be clearfelled.' Data for carbon sequestration is based on a minimum of 30 metres, the height of a well grown Sitka spruce plantation at 35 years.

Finally, they add an extra 15 years onto the carbon-absorbing life of tree, suggesting that they will not be cropped for 50 years when in fact the average felling age of conifer plantations is less than 35 years.

To top all this off in what must be credited as a stroke of genius, COFORD calculates and supplied to the EPA sequestration figures which are calculated using a model that does not include the carbon in the soil at all - a blatant violation of the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change 2006 Guidelines.

These Guidelines require reporting of carbon balances in five areas: - above-ground biomass, below-ground biomass, deadwood, litter, and soil.

COFORD's CARBWARE modelling omits changes in the fifth pool carbon stocks, claiming that ‘Changes in carbon stocks in the fifth pool - soil carbon - are the hardest to detect'. This is in spite of the fact that in another 2008 report COFORD states that 87% of Irish forestry's carbon is in the soil, explaining guilelessly that ‘One of the main reasons for the high level of soil carbon is that many Irish forests have been established on peat soils, which have very high levels of carbon to begin with'. Ouch!

Clinch's and Convery's clothes finally vanish altogether when the end use of Ireland's conifer plantations is considered.

Of too poor quality to produce solid construction grade timber, the trees are turned into pallets, fenceposts, and chipboards. None of these have long lives, and when they decay they release the stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Meanwhile to provide Ireland with durable hardwood timber the remnants of tropical forests are felled, contributing to accelerating third world deforestation and carbon emissions.

How indeed can we ask underdeveloped countries to account for their emissions from deforestation while we ‘shamelessly game the system' ourselves?

Tony Lowes
(C) The Village Magazine


The Millennium Tree Certificates issued to every household in Ireland are a scam forced on the Millennium People's Forest project by the Millennium Committee for political spin.
Material released to Friends of the Irish Environment under the Freedom of Information Act from the Taoiseach's Department shows that the project as proposed by Coillte had no element of individual certificates for every household. The project was planned for the nation as a whole.
The Millennium Committee and Minister Breenan, however, insisted on the issuing of certificates as a condition of an additional £1 million in funding which Ray McSharry requested in September of 1999.

As late as March, 2000, Coillte continued to ask IS THERE ANOTHER WAY, suggesting that more than 60% of the certificates would be thrown out, that there would be difficulties in individuals finding their trees. Yet the minutes of a meeting on 23 March show that Minister Breenan informed Coillte that the certificates were an "absolute".
The scientific fact is that of the 1.2 million trees planted, only 5% will survive to maturity because of the thinning necessary in growing broadleaves. Broadleaves are planted at 3,500 to 6,000 stems per hectare to avoid the necessity of pruning and to force upright growth. In a series of thinnings over the years, the trees are progressively selected until there are between 250 and 350 final mature trees per hectare.
In order for the 1.2 million certificates to represent mature trees, more than 25 million would have to be planted. Instead of the proposed core woodland planting of 337 hectares, 6,000 hectares would be required.
As early as July 1999 Coillte warned "the danger of the project being ridiculed by scientists/environmentalists and greens alike" if the project did not stand up to scientific scrutiny. The project, which was intended to educate people about forestry and encourage the revival of the forestry culture, was instead grossly misrepresented for quick political gain.