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Farm Forests – Delivering on Biodiversity and Water Quality

Farm forests are a multi-functional resource – delivering for timber production, as a land use resource and offering favourable financial returns. Forestry Specialist Tom Houlihan gives information on their contribution to biodiversity and water quality.

What can farm forests deliver to landowners and communities? Land use optimisation, timber production and favourable returns may be obvious benefits. However, incorporating trees and forests on the farm is also a great way to deliver a positive environmental ‘footprint’. It is well known that forests play a key role in our battle against climate change and the protection/enhancement of both water quality and biodiversity are further key environmental deliverables.  Well-sited and designed new forests and sustainably managed existing forests can efficiently deliver these environmental benefits.   

 Delivering with Forest Species

All forest types and species deliver biodiversity benefits. Our native woodlands, for example, are a key environmental resource and unique in terms of their associated biodiversity. The collaborative BIOFOREST project concludes that plantation forests (e.g. spruce and other species) can make a positive contribution to biodiversity in the landscape when well planned and sustainably managed. Forest management planning affords us opportunities to enhance both structural diversity (e.g. varying species, age classes, proportion of open areas) and biodiversity in such forests (COFORD, 2014). The expansion of productive conifer forests in a sustainable way provides timber for processing, construction, bioenergy and many other uses. It can also divert logging away from (and helps protect) natural forests. To quote Sir David Attenborough: ‘Wood is an extraordinary renewable resource and taking it from well-managed forests benefits forests and the planet, but on their own, natural forests can't supply all timber that we need

The Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine (DAFM) Forestry Programme offers a range of 12 planting categories. They include commercial conifer and broadleaf species, native woodland and agroforestry options. Since 2018, the minimum percentage of broadleaves is 15% for all new planting projects. A new farm forest can incorporate a suitable mix of such categories and over the years, many forest owners have incorporated mixes of conifers and broadleaf/native species, which deliver both economic and environmental objectives.

Delivering with New Forests

Farm forest design and establishment practices have progressively transformed over recent decades. A range of initiatives currently in place under the second cycle of the Water Framework Directive aim to minimise any negative impacts and help realise the significant environmental benefits of forests. In assessing planting application, the Forestry Division of DAFM considers potential impacts across a range of issues and sensitivities.  Landowners and foresters employ a suite of practical and effective measures to achieve the protection and enhancement of water quality. The Environmental Requirements for Afforestation (DAFM, 2016) help ensure that the establishment of new woodlands and forests is carried out in a way that is compatible with the protection and enhancement of our environment, including water quality, biodiversity, archaeology and landscape.

Delivering Safeguards

New forest design includes safeguards against the risk of sediment and nutrient runoff into receiving water bodies. Water setbacks (Plate 1) are key features that help deliver water quality and biodiversity over the life of the forest. Simply put, setbacks are undisturbed and largely unplanted areas adjoining water bodies and a range of other environmental features in the forest. They provide additional biodiversity and water protection during operations such as timber harvesting. Sediment traps (Plate 2) are also important safeguards along the site drainage network (on sites where drainage is necessary) and at the end of all new drains.  Drainage water is then effectively filtered as it makes its way over natural vegetation within the water setback before it reaches a receiving water body.

Plate 1: An effective water setback (Source: DAFM)

As well as mandatory broadleaf components, all new forests also incorporate areas for biodiversity enhancement (ABEs). These ABEs make up 15% of the application area and include retained habitats, hedgerows, and open spaces. These are detailed in a biodiversity map for each new forest application. As well as their protective role, ABEs conserve and encourage the development of diverse habitats, native flora and fauna, and overall biodiversity. Features are selected to deliver the best quality ABEs, while also protecting watercourses and archaeological sites through the use of water setbacks and exclusion zones that are established for environmental protection during forest operations.

Woodland for Water

This exciting measure may be a useful component in new farm forests. It combines an undisturbed setback along with the creation of adjoining native woodland in appropriate locations adjacent to water bodies to both protect and enhance water quality (Figure 1). It can offer an effective means of breaking the pathway of nutrients or sediments (termed ‘sources’) that can arise from a range of adjoining land uses (agriculture, commercial forestry or build environment) to receiving water bodies. The measure may be appropriate in sensitive catchments and watercourses. The good news is that, as well as achieving a host of environmental benefits, landowners may avail of the grants and 15-year premiums (up to €680 /ha./year) through the existing DAFM Native Woodland Establishment Scheme. 

Figure 1: Representation of Woodland for Water Measure

Initiatives Delivering Enhanced Sustainability

The Woodland Environment Fund (WEF) provides an access point for individual businesses to help expand Ireland’s native woodland resource. Businesses can support additional financial incentives to encourage landowners to plant new native woodlands that they may not have otherwise planted had that additional support not been provided. The initiative provides a shared platform for Government, the business community and landowners to work together to help meet planting targets set out in the Climate Action Plan. Under WEF, businesses can be associated with individual native woodlands and use the environmental benefits linked to these forests to demonstrate that they are meeting their responsibilities to the local environment and Ireland’s communities.  

A highly successful DAFM pilot scheme was launched 2019 to stimulate the transformation of existing forests, including conifer broadleaf and mixed forests, to Continuous Cover Forestry (CCF). The approach supports silvicultural systems where restructuring of the forest is required to provide conditions for an uneven aged and permanent forest. CCF harnesses natural forest processes such as natural regeneration of trees, mixed species, increased biodiversity and natural forest development (forest succession). Potential changes over time to forest management such as the adoption of Continuous Cover Forestry and low impact silvicultural systems on appropriate forests sites can also deliver benefits in terms of biodiversity, water quality and landscape.

Delivering the Message

There is a growing realisation of the significant role that farm forests can play in delivering for the environment as well as the pocket. Good design, timely planning and sustainable management are key to optimising these benefits  Teagasc  supports forest owners and other farmers in ensuring that knowledge is shared and best practice is carried out in relation to all interactions between trees, forests and our environmental resources.  Why not have a chat with your local Teagasc Forestry advisor today or log onto www.teagasc.ie/forestry?