Local Woodlands & Tropical Forests – Life Supports for Humanity

Earlier this month a book entitled ‘A walk in the Park’ was launched at Ballybay Wetlands Centre. The book was compiled by participants on Monaghan Community Forum’s ‘Hands Together 2’ PEACE III Project’ and focused on the value of the trees and plants we have in the parks of Co Monaghan.  Andrew St Ledger of the ‘Woodland League’, who launched the book, is an enthusiastic promoter of native woodlands.  

Liam Murtagh, a project participant and also a member of Monaghan Ecological Group went along to the launch. He now reflects on why, for the sake of future generations, we should stop buying tropical hardwoods and do what we can to ensure that more native trees are grown in Ireland. Both actions he says will help improve biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Andrew St Ledger of the ‘Woodland League’ pictured at the entrance to Ballybay Wetlands Centre as he spoke about the merits of the Aspen tree, while leading a walk around the grounds of the Centre.

Andrew St Ledger of the ‘Woodland League’ pictured at the entrance to Ballybay Wetlands Centre as he spoke about the merits of the Aspen tree, while leading a walk around the grounds of the Centre.

Just imagine what the landscape of Co Monaghan was like ten centuries ago when there was complete tree cover, with the oak as the prime tree of the forest. This was the image that Andrew St Ledger described as he commenced a really interesting guided walk around the lands surrounding the Ballybay Wetlands Centre.  He began by emphasising the enormous global importance of trees as well as the value of local trees in the fields around the Centre both now and in the past. The economy of the Gaelic Order was that of the forests,  providing raw materials as well as the basis for spirituality and wisdom. The mystical Ogham alphabet corresponds to the first letter of each of our native trees.

Today it is gradually being realised again that trees are of enormous benefit to humanity, and being the ‘lungs’ of the planet they  provide  a range of what are now termed ‘ecosystem services’. These include oxygen, carbon storage, biodiversity value and many more benefits. Research now tells us that trees are extremely advanced in terms of their DNA and that they ‘communicate’ complex chemical messages to other trees and living things. Some trees, as well as taking up water, even ‘spraying’ an invisible mist to help give their neighbouring plants some moisture during dry spells. As we walked around the Wetlands Centre we saw some oaks that are about 200 hundreds years old. Oaks can live for 1000 years and are particularly rich in biodiversity value.

Ireland now has the second lowest area of tree cover in Europe – only 10% of the land area of Ireland is under forest. The Government has a target of 17% but it is unlikely if it will be reached anytime soon. Most of the forestry in Ireland is made up of monocultural conifer plantations of trees like Sitka Spruce.   While they are beneficial for certain timber uses and as a carbon sink they are considered very poor in biodiversity value. It is also claimed that they have contributed to pollution of water due to acidification and other effects.

As we have not been growing enough hardwood trees in Ireland, we are importing tropical hardwoods in the form of flooring and other timber products. While they are supposed to come from ‘sustainably managed forests’ the reality is that much of this timber is still illegally logged. The American scientist O A Wilson once said: “Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.” In Ireland, the organisation ‘Just Forests’ campaigns against the sale of illegally logged tropical hardwood. They encourage us when buying timber from a DIY or a builders’ provider to check that it is marked ‘FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified’.

Andrew St Ledger is eager to see plantations in Ireland, which economists consider non-viable, instead providing training opportunities in tree harvesting as well as fuel and timber products for local communities. As the trees are felled we could plant other trees that are suitable for coppicing for firewood and other uses. He is particularly keen that we plant more native trees. Ash is a tree that has been used for furniture making and hurleys as well as being coppiced for firewood. However the recent arrival of ash dieback disease means that other native species such as hazel, willow, cherry, oak and alder need to be considered as alternatives to ash.  Ongoing financial supports are needed to incentivise landowners and farmers to planting hardwood.  Agroforestry, which involves trees growing on the same land with livestock or arable crops is an alternative system of land use that would, if viable and widely adopted,   help increase the number of trees being planted.

In recent years many schools have developed schools gardens. Andrew says that schools could also develop small native tree nurseries. This can begin at this time of year with the collecting of seeds such as acorns and planting them in beds within the school garden.  From there they can be lifted in a few years and planted in their permanent location, e.g. in a common green area within the community.

It’s coming to the time of year that we can do some tree planting. If you or an organisation you belong to, wish to plant native trees, you can obtain large quantities from sources such as www.nonesohardy.ie or smaller quantities from www.futureforests.net.  In previous years Monaghan Co Council supplied a limited quantity of tree plants to community groups for Tree Week in March.  If you wish to find out more about any of many national organisations that are involved in various aspects of forestry see  www.forestryfocus.ie/governance/organisations for details.

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