The Right Tree in the Right Place

COMMERCIAL PLANTATIONS CAN BE PART OF THE SOLUTION

Governments around the world are pledging to plant millions of trees to suck carbon out of the air. However the various stakeholders have differing views about the best places and species to plant. Dermot McNally reviews a range of contrasting viewpoints on this hot topic.

ARE FORESTS A CARBON FIX?

Firstly a report commissioned by the Royal Society for
the Protection of Birds (the RSPB) in the UK claims that
commercial tree plantations are less effective as
carbon stores than previously thought. More than half
the harvested timber is used for less than 15 years
(e.g., pallets, paper and fencing) and a quarter is
burned (biomass) – thus returning the captured carbon
to the atmosphere. Therefore to claim that forests are
“long term carbon stores” is not accurate they say.

Furthermore it’s now widely agreed that planting deep peat soils with conifers has been a carbon and environmental disaster – peat bogs sequester vast amounts of carbon from the soil without any human intervention. Tree planting typically involves large scale ground drainage works which disturbs the soil and interferes with natural hydrology. We also know that bogs are fantastic sponges to retain water during heavy rains and this ability is reduced. And to make matters worse, the timber harvested from boggy lands is often of an inferior quality meaning that the vast majority ends up as biomass or paper.

MISTAKES WERE MADE

The forestry industry acknowledge that mistakes (such as planting peaty soils) were made in the past. In the rush to increase forestry area (and timber supply) they planted the cheapest and most readily available land, i.e. hard to farm bog-lands. On the other hand foresters and timber processors say that using wood for pallets, paper and fencing is still preferable to using other materials (such as metal or plastic) which could be more environmentally detrimental. Equally biomass (chipped wood) often replaces the burning of oil or coal for heating and at least is closer to being carbon neutral. Foresters point out that if we stop planting fast growing conifers here then it simply pushes the problem elsewhere and results in the importation of similar material from elsewhere. And if carbon capture is our goal, harvesting the timber is essential: the rate at which tree’s sequester carbon slows and stops so better to cut and replant and lock up more carbon.

IMPACT ON BIODIVERSITY

Wildlife organisations are also very worried about the effect of vast swathes of monocultural non-
native trees on biodiversity, especially wild birds whose numbers have fallen substantially in the last few decades. Prime agricultural land on deep mineral soils are rarely available for forestry (due to their price and demand for agriculture) so planting happens instead on lands which have been managed less intensively – areas where some rare species still thrive. Tree advocates argue that to protect all these areas would bring forestry planting to a virtual halt: it would be better they say, to pick outstanding habitats and areas of high biodiversity and forest areas which have already suffered heavy species decline. Irish forestry law tries to balance these demands by specifying that up to 25% of new plantations are left for biodiversity and broadleaves. It’s not enough say the Irish Wildlife Trust but it’s certainly a big improvement on the 1970’s and 80’s when up to 100% of the land area of new forests were planted conifer hedge to hedge.

PROS & CONS

Elsewhere some scientific studies in Europe show that by changing the species of forest (i.e., moving
from mostly broadleaf forests to conifer forest) we have experienced different outcomes. For instance conifer forests absorb more light due to their darker colour, hence trapping heat that would otherwise go back to space. They also release less cooling water into the atmosphere through evaporation. Equally, expanding conifer forests further into northern Europe (Scandinavia and Russia) reduces snow cover and reduces the area to reflect winter suns, all gradually adding to heat retention. Science will be busy adding all the pros and cons for some time to come.

Meanwhile the outgoing and incoming Chiefs at UK’s Forestry Commission are both adamant: conifers are needed to sequester carbon. For instance, Douglas Fir captures four times the carbon that a single oak does due to its relatively quick growth rate and its ability to grow close together (and straight up). Broadleaves are still needed but all agree that squirrels and deer need to be
controlled if the young saplings are to get out of nappies without being eaten. Control of wild animals causes controversy: animal rights activists recently stopped a planned cull of deer in Killarney National Park: Park management claim the deer are causing a range of difficulties including eating too many tasty young trees. There’s very little straightforward.

To conclude then, few expect planting rates in the UK or ROI to return to the heady days of the 1970’s or 1980’s however the pressure will continue to get saplings in the ground.

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Drumlin Nature Watch – by Liam Murtagh

The Blackbird bestowed a soundtrack for a season in lockdown
From his perch on the topmost branch of an Ash tree and sometimes from the ESB wires nearby, a male Blackbird has been singing every day throughout the recent months of our lockdown. For me and for many people the bird’s rich melodic song has been a welcome source of joy at a time when pandemic anxiety prevailed. The Blackbird sings to attract a mate and also to tell other males not to encroach on his territory. The male Blackbird is easily distinguishable from the female. He is black with a bright yellow beak while the female is dark brown with a duller yellow-brown beak. She is not seen by us just as often as the male. I figured out from watching the movements of my local male and female that they had a nest in a nearby bush. While it is tempting to get close up look at the nest, I decided against it. As a schoolboy I remember finding a Blackbird sitting on its nest. On seeing me she flew away, and I could then peer into the nest to see her lovely green-blue eggs. Unfortunately, she didn’t return to the nest again – and I had learned a lesson.

Insects and berries are eaten by Blackbirds. Over the recent drought the Blackbirds have found it difficult to dig up earthworms because of the hard ground. Recently I saw a Blackbird drinking water from my pond and then going on to peck into the soft ground at the edge of the pond.

Blackbirds can have 2-3 broods per year. Only the female incubates the eggs which take about 14 days to hatch. Both parents then feed their young who then fledge in another 14 days. The young Blackbird becomes fully independent three weeks after leaving the nest. A few days ago, I discovered a lifeless young Blackbird lying on the ground just beneath a window. Many birds survive the impact against a window but this one was not so lucky. Windows are probably not the greatest threat to the Blackbird. Vast numbers are killed by cats and cars.

The male Blackbird’s singing will ease off next month. I will miss it, but I can look forward to February
of next year when his melodious song will once again fill the air.

My heart, when first the blackbird sings,
My heart drinks in the song:
Cool pleasure fills my bosom through
And spreads each nerve along.

From ‘My Heart, When First the Blackbird Sings’ by Robert Louis Stevenson.

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Insect Asides – by Patrick Gleeson
Ants: Ireland’s first farmers?

When the first farmers in Ireland began to clear the forests, they may have been surprised to know
that beneath those trees lived an organism that brought farming to this island perhaps long before
they did. They would be surprised to know that this organism also ‘herded’ livestock. This organism would of course be the little ant.

Aphids, commonly known as greenfly, feed on plant sap and then secrete sugary honeydew. Many ants are known to ‘milk’ certain aphid species for this honeydew. In many cases the ants bite off the aphid wings so they do not fly away, effectively ‘herding’ them. There are many ant species that are known to do this and in Ireland this
remarkable behaviour can be seen in the Black Garden Ant and the now very rare Hairy Wood Ant.

There are examples of ants all around the world that ‘farm’, the most notable probably being the leaf
cutter ants of Central and South America. They bring leaf fragments inside their nests, not to eat but
to supply the raw material for fungi to grow on. It is in fact the fungi the ants eat. The leaves provide
the medium on which the fungi grow, almost like a human fertilising a crop.

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NOTICEBOARD

Staying Connected @ Home

Volunteers sought for Irish Hedgehog Survey: The reporting of casual hedgehog sightings is being
encouraged as part of this new survey. Volunteers can also opt to participate in a more focused survey using footprint tunnels or camera traps to survey for hedgehogs in the garden. No specialist training is required, and a simple footprint tunnel can be made at home. There is also a short questionnaire that farmers are being invited to complete. The survey will run between the start of June and the end of September. Details at irishhedgehogsurvey.com.

Dublin Buddhist Centre Meditation Courses: (1) How to live in a world on fire – How do we live well
in a troubled world? How do we decide how to act and behave? Living ethically springs from the
awareness that other people are no different from yourself, and we can actively develop this
awareness through cultivating love, clarity, and contentment. (2) A creative response to uncertain
times – We live in troubled and uncertain times. As many of the routines and certainties of normal life
are lost to the coronavirus outbreak, and we are confronted with the prospect of large scale illness and loss of life, we may find ourselves faced with urgent and uncomfortable questions about the
nature and purpose of human life and our place in the world. See dublinbuddhistcentre.org for more
details.

Cycling safe Dundalk: Many major European cities are making their centres car free, regional towns in Ireland should also be considering these same measures. Support the petition for making cycling safe in Dundalk post Covid-19. Find the petition at www.change.org/DundalkCyclingPostCovid.

Are you a reader of the column? Do you have something to say? Is there a particular subject you would like to hear more about? Do you want to submit an article? Contact us by texting 086 830 3392, even if it’s just to say hello!

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“The Ant Philosophy – never give up, look ahead, stay positive and do all you can.”

[Jim Rohn]

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