Darragh McCullough: 'It's time to debunk some myths about the supposedly relentless march of Sitka spruce'

Barking up the wrong tree: Without Sitka spruce there would be no commercial planting of broadleaves
Barking up the wrong tree: Without Sitka spruce there would be no commercial planting of broadleaves
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

I'm sick to the teeth of reading lazy, half-assed smear pieces about Sitka spruce. Here are five myths about Ireland's most valuable tree that need to be busted:

1 Sitka is "marching across the Irish landscape" is a popular notion in some quarters. Yet it covers less than six per cent of the country and is accounting for a declining share of plantings in the last 10 years. Currently, it accounts for 45pc of our forest area or 343,000ha, which, by way of comparison, is less than 10pc of the area currently in grass.

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2 Sitka creates biodiversity deserts. "Everything is dead in there. Nothing is living," is another quote I see regularly. But studies by Coford have established that conifer plantations were either neutral or positive for biodiversity. By virtue of the fact that there is so little interference by humans during the lifetime of the crop, wildlife that wouldn't normally cope with the normal farm regime of fertilisers, grazing, sprays and harvest thrive in young forestry plantations. Of course, Sitka forests are dark, quiet habitats when they close canopy, but that is a habitat too.

3 Sitka plantations are unsustainable monocultures. The first two points already weaken this argument, but let's blast a few holes in this bluster too. What is a crop if it isn't a monoculture cultivated in a way that maximises its output? So not all monocultures are bad, and Irish farmers need to fight this idea that their crops are creating 'biodiversity deserts'.

Ireland is in the happy position where it has a patchwork quilt of small fields surrounded by (often) overgrown hedges. While ambitious farmers here have always cursed the small size of fields that they are forced work with ever bigger machinery, it looks like this negative might be out-weighed by the environmental positives it brings in today's world of shrinking biodiversity.

I've stood in farms in places like North Dakota where the average field size was 640ac. These fields were exactly one mile squared, which is how the American Midwest was carved up 150 years ago. When you link up 100 of those fields, you can start talking about a monoculture. Contrast that with the average forestry plantation in Ireland, which currently stands at closer to a puny 17ac in size.

Also factor in the varying age of the plantations, which ensures a range of habitats as the trees move through their growing stages. Then add the fact that at least 15pc of every plantation now requires a deciduous species, along with a further 10pc of the area allocated to more enhanced biodiversity.

So we've got variation in species, age, location and area, which strikes me as the very essence of the patchwork quilt effect that environmentalists value so highly.

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It's not a monoculture - that's the grain heartlands of the Paris basin, the Midwest, the Russian Steppes, the palm tree plantations of Malaysia, or the rice plantations of Vietnam - in fact, the list is endless, but Ireland has no place on it.

4 Bogs and habitats for rare species like the Hen Harrier are being destroyed by Sitka planting. Wrong again, since planting on bogs or areas of conservation designed specifically to protect rare animals has effectively been banned for years. This is, however, a good example of the birds coming home to roost for the forestry sector in particular and agriculture generally. Stakeholders need to cop on early enough to do the right thing when it comes to the environment, animal welfare and food safety. Forestry was planted on peat-lands up to the 1990s that should never have been planted. The obligation to replant on these areas can be waived, and the sector needs to ensure that the same ecological recklessness isn't repeated.

5 The Irish forestry sector would be better off in the long run if it moved away from Sitka. This last point might have some merit, given the sector's dependence on Sitka makes it vulnerable in the case of a new disease or pest. However, the reality is that Sitka and its close relation, Norway spruce, are the only two species of tree that are providing an economic return to landowners at the moment.

Proof of this is the fact that there is practically no interest in deciduous plantations when they are put up for sale. Seasoned forestry investors are only interested in spruce plantations because they are the ones they can see a return on.

So without investment, there would be no forestry industry, which is the one that currently plants close to 4m native-tree species every year. Like it or not, it is Sitka that is underwriting our broad-leaf forests.

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