Coilltewoods spruced out

I SMELT it before I saw it. The still, moist air of the forest carried the pleasant scent of resin, faint at first, then getting stronger. The path turned a corner and I saw a stack of freshly sawn logs.

The logs were massive, several metres long and some of them nearly a metre in diameter.

Close up, the smell was nearly over-powering. They were obviously from some species of conifer but I couldn’t work out which species because there were no needles or cones round the stack.

So, to satisfy my curiosity, I followed the track of a tractor into the forest. It’s a mixed-species woodland owned by Coillte and managed primarily as an amenity rather than for commercial timber production.

There is an enlightened policy of only felling non-native conifers and these are usually either replaced by native broadleaves like ash or else the area of clear fell is allowed to regenerate naturally.

It was Sunday and there were no loggers at work but quite soon I found the spot where the logs had come from. They were felling some stands of mature Norway Spruce. They were big trees, certainly well over half a century old.

Norway Spruce went out of fashion as a forestry species 20 or 30 years ago. It was replaced by Sitka Spruce which has faster growth rates in high rainfall areas, though it’s not totally frost-hardy and normally produces inferior timber.

Most of the Norway spruce planted in this country nowadays is for the Christmas tree market. It’s the original and traditional Christmas tree of northern Europe, though today it’s losing out to newer ‘non-shedding’ species and to artificial trees.

Many people with an interest in trees find it difficult to tell Norway and Sitka apart. If the two species are growing close to each other it’s easy because the needles of Norway spruce are a dark matt green while Sitka needles are blue-grey — this is particularly obvious in new growth and when the needles are wet.

It’s also easy if there are cones on or under the tree. Norway cones are long, large and smooth — the size, shape and colour of a big cigar.

You’ll sometimes come across the remains of dozens of cones round a stump in the wood which a squirrel has been using as a dining table. Sitka cones are much smaller, the size of your little finger, and have rough, papery scales.

ANOTHER way to decide which species a tree belongs to is to grab the end of a shoot. Sitka needles are hard and prickly, Norway needles are soft.

Norway spruce grows in Norway, as you might expect, but it seems to have arrived there relatively recently from Finland or Sweden because no traces of its pollen have been found in Norwegian peat samples. In most of Europe, native stands are found on mountain ranges such as the Pyrenees, Alps and Carpathians. It only grows naturally as a lowland species in the northern part of its range, in Scandinavia and northwestern Russia.

It’s not native to Britain or Ireland, though there is some evidence that it was here before the last Ice Age. But it was introduced, or maybe re-introduced, at a fairly early date. It’s mentioned in a book called ‘Names of Herbs’ written by a man called Turner and published in England in 1548, though it seems to have been quite rare at this time.

It was probably introduced to Ireland by the Anglo-Normans around the time Turner published his book. But it would have been confined to the grounds and parks of castles and stately homes until the Prince Consort introduced the fad for Christmas trees in 1844.

Around 40 years later it began to be used as a forest crop in this country. *dick.warner@examiner.ie

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