History of Forestry in Ireland
Ireland was left with very few native tree species following the Ice Age and a changing climate. Over the centuries, Ireland experienced a near-total destruction of its forests mainly because of human activity and a deterioration of the climate: from an initial forest cover of around 80% to less than 1%. Ireland is the only country in Europe where such complete forest destruction took place.
Initially, the Irish State carried out most tree planting to stop Ireland's deforestation and to decrease Ireland's timber dependency. Most of these state forests were established on mountain land and consist mainly of exposure-tolerant, fast-growing conifers.
Ireland has the lowest forest cover of all European countries: approximately 11% compared to an European average of well over 30%. Co Wicklow has the highest forest cover while Co Meath has the fewest trees. These forests are mostly man-made. Government policy is to bring the national forest cover to 17%.
Since 1991, most tree planting is carried out by private individuals (mostly farmers) with the assistance of grant aid. Nearly half of all forests are now in private ownership. The average size of a forest is less than 10ha (25 acres). More demanding tree species -including broadleaves- are increasingly being planted as tree planting moves from the mountains to the valleys. About half of all these forests are less than 25 years old.
Species that will grow successfully are dependent on a number of factors such as soil, side shelter, altitude, seed provenance, climate, etc. The range of species that grow satisfactorily on exposed poor mountain land is limited while in more sheltered areas with better soil, this range widens significantly. The choice of tree species is also determined by the landowner's objectives. Economic viability is of paramount importance if farm forestry is to be successful as an alternative farm enterprise: it takes oak 120-140 years to mature compared to 30-40 years for some conifers.
Forestry is very new to Ireland and is a very complex activity. Timber is one of Ireland's very few renewable natural building materials, growing for a long time before the economic benefits become apparent and is the basic material for rural timber-based industries. It is an alternative and complementary agricultural land use causing a change in the landscape. Trees can contribute to the landscape in many ways: in hedges, small woodlands and forests. They also store large amounts of carbon helping considerably against global warming and meeting our legal obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. Wood is also a sustainable, renewable and home-grown source of heating and electricity.
Forests become complex ecosystems, wildlife habitats creating a richer bird population for instance while also providing recreational facilities. Many changes have taken place over the last decade. Stringent environmental controls have been put in place dealing soundly with wide-ranging issues such as water quality, biodiversity, harvesting, landscape and archaeology issues. Trees and forests have a lot to contribute to Ireland if managed in an appropriate and sensitive manner.
Trees and forests have an important role to play in Ireland's future.