The most recent call to action is from the just published government Nitrates Action Plan and EPA drinking water report.
Recommendations include the fencing of rivers and streams, which only deals with preventing animal wastes polluting the water, it does not address the wider problems of fertiliser run-off, or the river bank and soil erosion.
These issues can be addressed by using underspent commercial forestry funds, to create linear native woodlands planted inside the fences as part of a wider farm forestry initiative.
The Native Woodland Scheme, Rural Development funds, Glas, plus existing funding for removal of commercial conifers from rivers and streams to replant these with native trees are other sources of funding.
The current low forest planting rates, averaging 6000ha per year, mean we will be unable
to reach the national afforestation targets of 18% forest cover by 2045 from the current low of 10.5 %. (Forestry research body Coford recommends a minimum of 10,000 ha, and an ideal of 15,000 ha, to ensure we avoid a deforestation scenario in the future.)
Native trees on farms can also alleviate flooding by reducing and slowing the flow of water from land to river channels, and the sponge effect of their deep roots.
Riparian planting would be especially valuable for this purpose and can benefit the connectivity of habitats in the landscape by providing corridors for the movement and dispersal of species of plants and animals.
This is an opportunity for farmers to integrate trees and agriculture via agroforestry systems. Some limited agroforestry measures are currently supported by the department of Agriculture, but with a poor take up.
Agroforestry combines trees/shrubs and crops or livestock, to create more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy, and sustainable land use systems. With sensitive planning and on the right scale, it can help solve increasing farm sustainability issues as well as low tree planting rates.
According to a United Nations Environmental Programme report from around 2009, the agricultural sector could be largely carbon neutral by 2030 and produce enough food for a population estimated to grow to 9bn by 2050, if proven methods aimed at reducing emissions from agriculture were adopted. Key among these methods are agroforestry, reduced cultivation of the soil, and the use of natural nutrients such as provided by fertiliser trees.
Around 6,000 years ago, the first farmers cleared areas of the natural forest to work fertile soil created by the native trees by their constant leaf fall and mineral nutrient recycling abilities.
Old Irish manuscripts describe cattle and pigs being fed on acorns and forest herbs, in the oak forests, informing us that this idea is not new at all.
It is also normal on European farms to have a percentage of mixed woodlands for their known multiple benefits, which far outweigh any perceived loss of grassland.
What has prevented more trees on Irish farms? The space for necessary informed debate, appears to have been obstructed by the dominance of an established industrial tree plantation model.
This unhealthy situation needs to change, many farmer’s have been turned off forestry, due to negative experiences with this model.
In turn, this has impacted negatively on the potential for alternative natural
sustainable forestry systems on farms.
It is time now to look at farm forestry with fresh eyes and answer the question below, posed by a research paper, ‘New Opportunities and Cautionary Steps, Farmers Forestry and Rural Development in Ireland’, an important read for Irish farmers and farm organisations.
“Important questions therefore include the reason why Irish farmers display an apparent reluctance to become engaged in forestry production, and why the promotion of a resource that delivers on so many of the EU’s stated Policy objectives for Sustainable Rural Development generates seemingly little appeal within the farming community indeed,” the study says.
Agroforestry also meets the environmental objectives of CAP reform, for, biodiversity, water management, alternative energy, and climate change.
It will also help meet some of Ireland’s commitments to EU environmental objectives, including the Birds and Habitat’s Directive, where appropriate, and the Water Framework Directive.
Therefore, the use of broader agroforestry measures, focused on native trees, should be considered as part of a solution to ensure the necessary continued viability of farming in
Ireland, for all our sake. It is time for farmers, who are, after all, the guardians of our environment, to see the forest as a whole ecosystem with multiple benefits, and not just trees for timber.
And it would also help if our policy makers could share this new, old vision for Ireland’s forests.
Andrew St Ledger is PRO for The Woodland League and biodiversity officer with Centre for the Environmental Living and Training.