Ireland needs to branch out its forestry

IT USED to be said in olden times that a squirrel could travel from Cork to Killarney, Co Kerry, without once touching the ground, such was the extent of woodland, writes Donal Hickey.

The beauty of trees has been brought home to us in a delightful way during the fine weather in October, with the fading leaves in rich colours of red, yellow, rust and brown a delight for the eyes to behold.

The most recent international climate change report again highlighted the important role of trees for storing carbon, with experts reminding us that we need to raise our forestry levels to tackle global warming.

Forests cover about one third of Europe, having increased over the past 25 years due to farmland abandonment, but Ireland has the lowest forest cover of all European countries at only 11%. EU commissioner for agriculture Phil Hogan has said we need to wake up fast, recharge our forestry policies, and start making real headway in using trees for carbon storage.

The Government’s target is to have 17% of land planted by 2030 and there are generous grants for farmers. However, farmers are unwilling to plant better quality land and usually opt for wetland and bogs. This removes even more habitat for wildlife, such as the extinction-threatened curlew.

Organisations like Birdwatch Ireland are unhappy with the way forestry has been planned up to now and is calling for tighter regulation of areas where planting is allowed.

Another issue is an over-emphasis on planting sitka spruce and not nearly enough native, broadleaf trees. This holiday weekend may well provide the last opportunity for people to see our trees in all their glory. The oak and yew woods of Killarney, a personal favourite, comprise the largest surviving examples of our ancient, native forests.

On a tranquil morning, the range of broadleaf trees creates a stunning background, with the mountains reflected on lake waters and the roars of red stags echoing through the valleys during the annual mating, or rutting, season.

You don’t always have to go too far off well-worn tracks to experience the magnificence of trees. The Blackwater valley comes to mind. Also, the main road from Cork to Macroom has a wealth of woodland and an avenue of tall, stately trees in varying shades of yellow caught the eye at Farnanes in the sunshine a few days ago.

The national forest park at Gougane Barra, Co Cork, close to the source of the River Lee, is always worth a visit, with at least 20 types of tree and a numerous species of plants and wildlife.

St Finbarr’s oratory, on the lake, is a haven of peace while there are several walks, trails and viewing points.

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