Meet the grandmother looking for root and branch reform on biodiversity

Liz Dunphy meets Sioned Jones, a grandmother on a mission to stand up for biodiversity against Coillte monoculture planting
Meet the grandmother looking for root and branch reform on biodiversity
Environmentalist Sioned Jones. Picture: Andy Gibson.

A CCTV camera spying down from a tree she had planted was the first sign that ‘Earth Protector’ Sioned Jones was being watched.

Once she saw the camera, the grandmother with a degree in biochemistry would wave into it, merrily ignoring the signs that popped up, warning her that trespassers would be prosecuted.

Covered in sawdust, the 61-year-old continued to slice noisily through towering spruce trees with her chainsaw and smile with satisfaction as they smashed to the ground.

Sioned, who moved from Wales to her current home in Kealkill, West Cork, in 1987, was motivated to fell and replant the Coillte forest above her home with native broadleaf trees more than 20 years ago when she saw the area she once foraged for wild bilberries, mushrooms, and nuts being dug up and replaced with Sitka spruce, a non-native evergreen which grows quickly, its branches interlacing and blocking out light to the forest floor.

“I was horrified and appalled when I saw the spruce planted in the valleys I had walked and foraged in for years, knowing it would destroy all the flora and fauna there,” she said.

“A Sitka spruce monoculture obliterates biodiversity. There were frogs, lizards, insects, birds, flowers on that mountain and they all lost their habitat. That whole beautiful and intricate web of life was gone. There is no under-story in a Sitka spruce forest — it’s just cold and dark.

I thought: ‘I cannot let this happen.’ I started cutting them to let light through to the bilberry bushes first, but I grew bolder over time.

“It’s amazing to let light into that darkness when you cut down the spruce. I planted 700 broadleaf trees the first year and 700 more the next. It became a bit of an obsession.

“For years I was quietly cutting down the spruce and creating a beautiful new environment, instead planting oak, hazel, birch, alder, rowan. I actually thought Coillte would be pleased,” she said with a laugh.

But Coillte was not pleased. The body took Sioned to court in February and she was found not guilty of criminal damage but guilty of a lesser charge of stealing wood. Sentencing was adjourned until October.

Relying on ancient law, recent EU law, and UN regulations, she willingly took on the case, hoping that it would be a landmark ruling to protect biodiversity.

“This case was not just about me. It was about protecting the native forests of Ireland which have become so fragmented and vulnerable that they are often unable to regenerate,” she said. 

Sioned Jones (2nd from Right) with supporters, outside the courthouse. Picture: Jim Coughlan
Sioned Jones (2nd from Right) with supporters, outside the courthouse. Picture: Jim Coughlan

“They need land to regenerate into. But 7% of the land of Ireland has been managed by Coillte for profit, giving nothing back to the environment. That needs to change. Every one of us has to give something back to solve this environmental crisis.”

Pulling up at Sioned’s home outside Kealkill in West Cork is like entering a magical fairy land.

Flaming orange montbretia flowers high on the banks, a stream whispers past beds packed with peas, kale, onions, and purple poppies. Giant gunnera so huge it looks like it belongs in a prehistoric jungle looms over young oak, hazel, and rowan trees that Sioned nurtures before replanting when they’ve grown sturdy and strong.

At 61, Sioned is fitter than many 20-year-olds, from marching up mountains through sunshine and snowstorms, carrying 6ft broadleaf trees to plant, or returning with huge spruce logs which she felled.

The old stone house peeks out from behind a traditional half door.

Chalet-style barns and a high stone wall frame a sun-trap courtyard where she has breakfast and lunch whenever the rain stops. She pulled up at the then- empty property on a trip to Ireland from her home in Wales in late July 1987 with her two-year-old son, looking for a place to pitch her tent for the night.

Transfixed by the beauty of the stone-work and saddened that the roof was falling in, she decided to stay and renovate it. She has been there ever since, eventually buying the property 17 years later.

“We needed this place and this place needed us,” she said.

Her adopted home inspired her life mission — to plant acres of forest with broadleaf trees, protecting the environment for the next generations, including for her son, now 35 and working as an engineer in the city, and his three children.

“Up until my late 20s, I questioned what my role was in life,” she said.

“But then, looking around me at this beautiful place, I realised that my purpose was to plant trees.

“I started at this place. Then I saved money to buy another 10 acres to plant with a friend. And in the early 90s I worked for Coillte planting spruce in this area. But that made me realise that I wanted to do it properly, to plant broadleaf trees with care and nurture them.”

Environmentalist Sioned Jones. Picture: Andy Gibson.
Environmentalist Sioned Jones. Picture: Andy Gibson.

Sioned, who some see as one grandmother standing up David-like against a large, State-owned Goliath, believes that she now has the winds of change at her back.

Recent EU law and UN conventions compel Ireland to plant an increasing percentage of forest with mixed broadleaf trees, abandoning the spruce monoculture over time.

The new programme for government also commits to wider afforestation. On July 29, Minister of State with responsibility for Forestry at the Department of Agriculture, Senator Pippa Hackett, indicated that the Government was proceeding speedily with a number of its forestry-related commitments, including the development of a scheme for the creation of native woodlands on State and other public lands and the development of a new portal to enhance public participation in forestry decision -making in Ireland.

Sioned believes that both of these commitments are vital. And although she maintains that she would have legal rights to the land after “managing” it for more than 20 years, she would prefer to keep it in State ownership, as long as she, an “environmental protector”, can help manage it for a newly-woke Coillte.

“Coillte could become an environmental protection agency, like the Forestry Commission has in the UK, taking out spruce and planting mixed broadleaves instead, as an educational, environmental, and recreational space,” she said.

Ms Jones’ relationship with Coillte has already lasted longer than many marriages. In the 90s, she worked for the organisation, planting the mountain with Sitka spruce that she would later fell.

Kealkil, Bantry, West Cork, Ireland. 28th Jul, 2020. Environmentalist Sioned Jones, who was prosecuted by Coillte for illegal felling of its trees. Picture: Andy Gibson.
Kealkil, Bantry, West Cork, Ireland. 28th Jul, 2020. Environmentalist Sioned Jones, who was prosecuted by Coillte for illegal felling of its trees. Picture: Andy Gibson.

In 2012 she received a two-year suspended prison sentence after Coillte reported her to gardaí upon finding cannabis plants on that same mountain. 

However, as in any long-term relationship, there are both fights and reconciliations. Sioned now hopes their relationship has moved into a more positive phase following a meeting with a Coillte representative on July 29, when plans were made about how to move forward with the forest’s management.

“I’ve suggested to Coillte that I help manage the forest so it can provide benefits for biodiversity and the environment, but also for local citizens, the rural poor, and future generations,” she said.

A well-managed forest can produce so much for local cottage industry — for furniture making, woodcarving, firewood, leaves, berries, nuts. The hazel trees I planted there are bearing nuts already. In the past, people lived off hazelnuts. If we have a biodiverse enough environment we have a better chance of survival into an uncertain future.

Coillte’s afforestation plan has relied heavily on planting Sitka spruce, a coniferous evergreen originally from North America. The trees absorb some carbon and are used commercially for pallets, furniture,and pulp.

However, questions have been raised about the carbon sequestration efficiency of non-native spruce trees compared to broadleaf woodland in temperate climates such as Ireland.

The impact on biodiversity of a monoculture spruce plantation is widely acknowledged, including by Coillte.

There are signs that Coillte, Ireland’s largest landowner, is actively moving away from blanket spruce plantations.

Sioned Jones. Picture: Andy Gibson.
Sioned Jones. Picture: Andy Gibson.

Coillte Nature, a not-for-profit subsection of the company, was established in June 2019 with a mission to “deliver real impact on the climate and bio- diversity crises” and a mandate to deliver new biodiverse woodlands which will also function as carbon sinks. Its first project is to convert the commercial forestry on the Dublin Mountains to native and mixed woodlands that can be used for recreation.

Up on the mountain above her home, Sioned is clearly proud of her work, pointing to little oak seedlings “planted by those raucous jay birds” or at rare wild flowers, as tiny white butterflies flutter around her.

She goes to the two patches of forest she has cultivated every day (only one of which she was prosecuted over) to scare off trampling deer. She builds heavy fences around vulnerable saplings to protect them from animals, and nurtures tree seedlings as the forest begins to “choose its own species profile, become its own entity, choose its own direction into the future”.

“I don’t regret anything that’s happened. It’s all part of the journey that’s led here,” she said. “A person has a right to a healthy environment, to clean water, and clean air, and a right to subsist from their local environment.

I’m 61. At my age if I want to see the establishment of broadleaf trees on this mountain above my house, I cannot afford to wait. I have to do it now.

“Under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, concerned citizens are obliged to stand up to protect biodiversity.

“In this case it meant I had to go against Irish law to prevent the spruce from destroying the environment.

“Ireland was a signatory to the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity but Coillte, a State agency has destroyed so many habitats with their monoculture. So it takes someone like me to stand up to protect it.

“So I feel that I’m not breaking the law, I’m actually obliged to do this.

“I’m not a criminal, I’m an Earth protector.”

More in this section

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox