Sense is needed on tree debate

Plant all types but exercise care

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

During the past decade we have spent millions on planting native species of trees with the aim of establishing new areas of native woodland, often surrounding them with costly deer fencing. We have also spent millions, in general, in supporting the planting of broadleaf species. Unfortunately, such planting often took place on sites where broadleaves don't thrive. Not only did Government help with the planting of broadleaves but our Forest Service also insisted that they be planted as part of our afforestation programme.

I must quickly state that more than 70pc of my own woodland is stocked with broadleaves and many other landowners have done the same. We have done so principally because we like broadleaved trees and we like the environmental and landscape benefits of mixed woodland -- as opposed to monocultures of any one species. We also have the sites and conditions that suit the establishment of broadleaf woodlands. However, we are fully aware that this is largely a philanthropic gesture that will, hopefully, ultimately benefit our successors, but it will undoubtedly create a financial burden in our own lifetimes.

It is time to question the perceived benefits of planting only our so-called native species and whether the money could have been spent in better ways. I use the words "so called" because the argument still rages about what really is native or not. We are continually making fresh discoveries as science and technology provide us with a more accurate picture of our ancient history. Pollen counts can be misleading and scientists are still very unsure regarding what animals and plants should or should not be called native. If a tree thrives in our soil and climate, and regenerates naturally here, then there seems little point in not planting it, especially if it has good commercial potential and creates key habitats for wildlife.


There are endless arguments about whether certain species, such as Scots pine, are in fact native, and undoubtedly much of our so-called native stock of oak, for example, may well have been originally sourced from abroad.

The usual means of defining what is native or not is to decide if it was growing in Ireland before the last ice age and before Ireland became a true island. That was 10,000 years ago and it was pure chance that some species were placed here while others that now prosper in our soil, such as beech, had not arrived at that point.

Does this mean that we must remove all beech, hornbeam, sycamore and other valuable species that now thrive here? Doing so would be total nonsense and would ignore the manner in which the natural world adapts to change.

It is fascinating to see the way in which birds, mammals and insects seize opportunities and find a niche for themselves in an evolving landscape. Man has changed the developed world's landscape beyond recognition. It is our responsibility to ensure that there is room for the natural world in this altered environment.

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There are examples everywhere of how nature adapts to such change. Peregrine falcons nest in cities, on ledges in high buildings. Swallows and house martins nest in the eaves of our houses and farm buildings. Barn owls are so named because of the way they adapted to live in barns. Manx shearwaters nest in their thousands in rabbit burrows, yet rabbits were introduced only relatively recently by the Normans. Lime trees provide food for thousands of insects yet they have only been here for around 300 years.

To say that native species are the only valuable trees for wildlife is to totally ignore the evidence that is all around us. A close examination of non-native woodland reveals a host of wild creatures that would otherwise struggle to survive in our agricultural landscape. The red squirrel and nightjar survive only because of our conifer woods, while multitudes of plants, mosses and lichens thrive on the bark of our so-called exotic species.

We must plant many more trees and do so responsibly but, while doing so, we must use common sense. Rather than reacting to the views of a small number of extremists, we need to accept the scientific evidence of what is genuinely valuable. We need many more trees for fuel and construction. We also need them for the landscape and the environment.

We must keep planting them all, native and non-native, to ensure we have a viable and diverse stock of well-managed, mixed woodland to sustain us in the future.

Irish Independent

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