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The importance of trees in Ireland

Ireland's waterways evolved in tandem with our native woodlands. Of the 16,000 townlands in Ireland 14,000 have names related to trees, forests and water. Farm forests are known to reduce the leaching of nutrients from agricultural soils

Ireland’s relationship with trees run over millennia. From the great oak woodlands of the southern plains to the majestic pines of the midlands rising into the juniper and scrub like woodlands of our hills and mountains this cherished relationship between native trees and our cultural heritage run deep into the physic our countryside’s memory.

Our waterways evolved in tandem with these native woodlands. Of the 16,000 townlands in Ireland 14,000 have names related to trees, forests and water. Over time these trees left the landscape because of clearcutting and no planting reduced our woodlands to approximately 1 % land cover.

Today like the phoenix raising from the ashes our native woodlands are slowly reappearing in our country side. The rivers and waterways have never forgot this relationship. Planting new native forests offer many benefits to our waterways. The Native Woodland Establishment Scheme provides opportunities to protect and expand Ireland’s native woodlands and support and enhance our water quality, landscape and cultural heritage.

These forests will minimise soil erosion, reducing the run off of sediment such as silt into our waterways. They absorb and store polluting chemicals. New trees along with the fallen leaves and underground roots fighting for space, light and nutrients in a forests can trap sediments and chemicals and keep them from flowing into waterways. As these trees grow they shade and cool the river itself. They capture the rainwater in the trees canopy and reduces and slow down flood flow into rivers.

Trees are anchored to the ground by its roots. These roots grow into each other. As they do they bind the soil together and allows the soil by the river’s edge to stabilise the rivers bank. New native forest allow unplanted field margins. These unplanted strips follow the rivers course and are colonised by many grass and shrub species which are filled with an abundance wild life. Riparian margins can be as basic as unfenced or fenced grass margins along the watercourse. Some margins will contain hedgerows and trees while others can be wider larger areas, devoted to woodland / scrub or natural habitat. Despite the differences in what they contain, all riparian margins have the potential to protect the rivers and streams they are adjacent to them while enhancing the habitat and biodiversity living along them. It can offer an effective means of breaking the pathway of nutrients or sediments (sources) that can arise from a range of adjoining land uses to watercourses

Forests and benefits to water

Farm forests are known to reduce the leaching of nutrients from agricultural soils and in turn this may affect water quality in adjacent watercourses and aquifers. Research confirms that mature conifer and broadleaf farm forests can reduce both the concentrations of nitrate and the quantity of water draining to groundwater compared to arable and intensively managed pasture.

Along major watercourses and streams within or adjoining farm forests the retention and enhancement of the existing scrub and vegetation cover will help to lessen bank erosion and slow floodwater thereby reducing its impact on the surrounding land. This also maintains wildlife habitats and their role as wildlife corridors.

The Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine (DAFM) is responsible for ensuring the development of forestry within Ireland in a manner and to a scale that maximise its contribution to national socio-economic well-being on a sustainable basis compatible with the protection of the environment. Its strategic objectives are to: 

  • foster the efficient and sustainable development of forestry
  • increase quality planting
  • promote the planting of diverse tree species
  • improve the level of farmer participation in forestry
  • promote research and training in the sector
  • encourage increased employment in the sector

Water-related benefits

A wide range of a range of significant water-related ecosystem services can be realised under the Woodland for Water measure. These include:  

  • reduction in sediment mobilisation and runoff into watercourses
  • interception of nutrient runoff into watercourses
  • bank stabilisation
  • food input into the aquatic ecosystem
  • shading / cooling
  • regulation of floodwater
  • riparian restoration

These are in addition to other ecosystem services such as native woodland biodiversity, habitat linkage within the wider landscape, carbon sequestration, amenity and environmental interpretation.

Get more information on Water Quality Week here