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Managing native woodland resources on our farms

To fully appreciate how valuable native woodlands are for our well-being and for biodiversity, take a slow walk through a mature oak and birch woodland during a full bloom of bluebells and just breathe in the fragrant air.

Forestry Development Officer Jonathan Spazzi has more information on our native woodlands.

To fully appreciate how valuable native woodlands are for our well-being and for biodiversity, take a slow walk through a mature oak and birch woodland during a full bloom of bluebells and just breathe in the fragrant air.

Bluebells in a private native woodland in County Clare

We know that Irish native woodlands were on  the verge of extinction at the beginning of the 1900’s when less than 1% forest cover remained. Since then, following the foundation of the Irish State, remaining native woodlands have been secured and, in more recent years, new woodlands have been planted. One grant-aided scheme that has been to the forefront of native woodlands resurgence has been the Native Woodland  Scheme (NWS) administered by the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine (DAFM). The scheme provides essential financial help to farmers and landowner towards the protection and enhancement of existing or emergent native woodlands on farms. Find out more here Native Woodland Conservation

It also provides generous grant and premium funding (the highest premium rate payable of all forestry schemes) to landowners wishing to plant new native woodlands as a complement to their farm enterprise. Read more Native Woodland Establishment

Five year old new native woodland recently planted in County Tipperary

Close-to-nature management

Valuable fragments of what were once larger native woodlands still remain on many farms and new native woodlands are being planted on farms under the NWS. All these woodlands provide important biodiversity and recreational functions and can support water quality protection by acting as important water protection buffers on a farm.  Timber, ranging from firewood to high quality furniture grade, can also be produced in native woodlands. Such woodlands may not be an option on all sites as ground conditions or other sensitivities might be limiting factors.  Where hardwood timber production is an objective and the site is deemed suitable, a close-to-nature management approach can help fully integrate biodiversity conservation and production objectives.

Firewood (left) and quality oak boards for furniture making (right) arising from native woodland low-impact thinning operations.

Close to nature management is applied by understanding the way a woodland naturally functions and evolves, and by observing its development over the years in order to integrate timber harvesting within its natural development. Management here needs to be flexible and “adaptive”: able to respond to changes and adapt to new circumstances. Professional expertise is often required to assist owners in the management process and the NWS scheme and other DAFM schemes can provide financial support to owners to meet those and other costs.

Close-to-nature management, to include timber production, is increasingly promoted and adopted across Europe. It is underpinned by European Sustainable Forest Management Policy as it is seen as one possible strategy to increase forest resilience in the face of predicted climatic change

The webinair at the link below further explores opportunities to integrate timber production with ecosystem services in native woodlands and explains how appropriate management can generate valuable products while strengthening resilience and biodiversity. View webinar here

Managing Invasive species and deer browsing

In many cases the initial management of existing native woodland is concerned with controlling the spread of invasive non-native species such as rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum) and cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus).

These evergreen shrubs were introduced into Ireland’s parks and gardens from the 1700’s and have found Irish conditions very suitable. Their seeds are readily spread by birds and the seedlings thrive in the shade of other trees. If unchecked the plants grow quickly, mature and overwhelm the under storey of native woodlands which in turn prevents the growth of other sapling such as oak, ash, hazel or wild cherry.

Felling and controlling stump and seed regrowth of rhododendron and/or cherry laurel is a common operation as part of native woodland conservation management and this operation is funded under the NWS.

Sapling of non-native trees such as sycamore and beech, if present, can out-compete the growth of saplings of native trees such as oak. If this is the case natural regeneration control and, possibly, the removal of mature beech and sycamore trees might be necessary as a way to control the seed source. Another important threat to native woodlands is deer browsing. In recent years we have seen an increase in populations of deer across Ireland. This has put pressure on young native broadleaves trees which are particularly palatable to deer. More information is available on the Teagasc website here

In areas with high deer density, all naturally regenerating seedlings are destroyed and many young trees are damaged.

Oak seedlings (left) and bare forest  floor without any flora or tree regeneration in a high deer density area in a native woodland in County Kerry (right).

In the long term this situation will lead to woodland decline as canopy trees will over-mature and die. To protect native woodlands from excessive deer damage, deer-grade fencing can be erected around the perimeter. In this case it is important to make sure that the fence is monitored and maintained over time as a single breach (i.e. a fallen tree branch) is often enough to allow access to a large number of deer. In moderate deer density areas protection with individual tree shelters can be used in existing woodlands with good results and can be used in combination with a deer culling programme to maintain the deer numbers to an acceptable level. Funding for fencing and individual tree shelter is provided as part of the NWS.

Regenerating oak in a private native woodland in County Clare using individual tree shelters against fallow deer browsing in combination with some deer culling.

A resource for present and future generations

Native woodlands, both existing mature woods on farms or arising from more recent planting, are a very important resource in the local environment and for rural communities as they fulfil a wide range of services, from water protection, landscape, biodiversity, recreation and local timber production, all essential to societal well-being.

Native woodlands are very resilient natural systems but in recent decades have become increasingly threatened by many factors such as  invasive species, deer browsing and climatic changes.

Sensitive and careful management, now supported by public funding, is key to ensure that this very valuable resource will continue to thrive for decades and centuries to come for the benefit of current and future generations.