If you go down to the woods today…

TWO out of every five Irish families visit a forest each year and it’s a fair bet that May is among the most popular months for such visitation. Many people regard May as the most beautiful month of the year, a time when nature is renewed and in full bloom.

Trees, bare all winter, again droop under the weight of leaves while fragrant bluebells carpet the ground.

And then there’s the background of birdsong in the branches, which provides another reason for going down to the woods, especially early in the morning, to hear the dawn choristers.

Every year, there are almost eight million visits to our forests and one-third of foreign visitors visit a forest park during their stay here.

Last week, a 50-strong expert group from 10 countries visited the woodlands in Killarney National Park. The park contains some of the finest remaining oak and yew woods, which the visitors had a close look at along with areas which have been cleared of rhododendron.

Due to the increase in planting in recent years, the impression is sometimes given that parts of the countryside are being blanketed by trees, with the highland area along the Cork/Kerry/Limerick border an example. However, only 10% of Ireland is forested, compared to the EU average of 36%. It is planned is to increase the percentage of Irish forests to 17% by 2035. Coillte, the State forestry company, owns and manages over 400,000 hectares (one million acres) of forest. Its programme aims to plant 20,000 hectares of forests per year, but at this rate it would still take 80 years to reach the EU average.

Forestry in Ireland employs around 16,000 people. A further 14,000 farmers have also planted an average of 10 hectares each in recent years.

Forestry is a major Irish industry worth €700m per annum, and is set for yearly growth of 10%. The financial value should rise to over €1bn by 2015, which will make the industry as important as the beef or dairy industry is today.

A recent publication by the Tree Council of Ireland, titled Irish Tree Trivia, contains many interesting facts and points out that forests grow really well here because of our mild winters and high rainfall. Remains of ancient pine forests, which would have grown around 5,000 years ago, can still be found in bogs, in the form of roots commonly known as bog deal.

Modern Irish forestry began in 1904 at the home of Charles Stewart Parnell, in Avondale, Co Wicklow. Tree species from around the world were planted in the estate to see which would grow best in Irish conditions.

Elm, which was a major timber producing native tree, was virtually wiped out about 30 years ago by Dutch elm disease. It is only now beginning to reappear in our hedgerows.

A number of exotic tree species have been brought into Ireland for use in commercial forestry. Most of these, such as Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and Western hemlock, come from western North America, which has a similar climate to Ireland.

Other trees were introduced from Europe and Japan, including Norway spruce, Corsican pine and Japanese larch.

Ireland’s planted forests contain 79% exotic conifers and 21% broadleaves. Over 70 million trees are planted here each year.

Trees take in carbon dioxide from the air and convert much of it into wood. They also produce oxygen. Every year, each hectare of Ireland’s forests takes in 3.4 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere, which helps in the battle against climate change.

The tallest tree in Ireland is a Douglas fir at the Powerscourt Estate in Co Wicklow; this tree is 56 metres tall. The tree with the largest girth is another exotic, a Monterey cypress, commonly known as Macrocarpa. This tree is growing at Killyleigh, Co Down, and is over 12 metres in diameter.

The tallest native tree in Ireland is an ash near Clonmel, Co Tipperary; it is 40 metres tall.

Most trees outlive humans. Nobody knows for sure where the oldest tree in Ireland can be found, but a yew tree in Co Wexford is said to be over 1,000 years. The Brian Boru oak in Co Clare is also said to be over 1,000 years.

The tallest tree in the world is a coast redwood in California. At 112 metres (367 feet) in height, it is almost as tall as Dublin’s Spire, which is 120 metres high.

The largest tree in the world is a giant sequoia, found in the Sequoia National Park in California. It is only 83 metres tall, but its volume is estimated at 1,490 cubic metres, making it a huge tree. The oldest tree in the world is a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California, estimated to be over 4,600 years old.

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