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New farm forests are backing biodiversity

New farm forests are backing biodiversity

Ireland’s new forests are working to reverse the decline in our national biodiversity and strengthen environmental sustainability. Teagasc Forestry advisor, Noel Kennedy, explains how biodiversity protection and enhancement are at the heart of today’s young forests.

Ireland’s National Biodiversity Action Plan 2017-2021

Ireland’s National Biodiversity Action Plan 2017-2021 describes biodiversity as “the sum of the millions of species and habitats on our planet working together to generate and sustain life as we know it.” The most recent review of the plan reports that a significant proportion of Ireland’s biodiversity is in a vulnerable state.

Ireland’s new forests are working to reverse this decline with the Forestry Programme 2014-2020 prioritising the promotion of biodiversity as a key objective of its planting schemes. As a result, hundreds of farmers and landowners are planting new farm forests designed to protect the habitats and homes of our wild plants and animals and help create new habitats to further enhance local biodiversity.

Adhering to the principles of sustainable forestry management these forests have the potential to grow into the most structurally complex of ecosystems rich in biodiversity.

Protecting existing habitats

The protection of existing habitats and retention of open space are critical to maintaining and expanding the diversity of plants and animals living in our young forests.

15% of the area of new forests is dedicated to Areas of Biodiversity Enhancement (ABEs). Their function is to conserve and encourage biodiversity through the development of diverse habitats and their associated wild plants and animals.

Through the retention of woodland, trees, hedges, scrub, stone walls and old buildings including archaeological sites, a range of farmland birds, mammals and insects are supported for food and shelter. Hedgerows act as important wildlife corridors with external hedges a transition zone for plants and animals between farmland and the developing forest habitat.

Open space deliberately left or otherwise within the forest will be quickly colonized by a variety of wild plants whose food and pollen will support butterflies, hedgehogs, bats and many bird species.

Additional broadleaf trees

Since 2018, all new farm forests must include a 15% component of broadleaf trees. As they grow broadleaf trees offer an enhanced source of food, shelter and nesting sites. Our native trees such as Oak, Birch, Alder and Rowan provide rich habitats for insects, lichens and algae attracting other bird and insectivorous mammals from further up the food chain.

By connecting these trees and areas of biodiversity enhancement with existing woodlands and other natural and semi-natural habitats, farm forests can extend their positive biodiversity impact way beyond the forest boundary into adjoining land and landscapes.

Diversity of species

Every tree - conifer or broadleaf, has its own unique biodiversity features. The more diversity of species in a forest the more biodiversity and ecosystem benefits are likely to be delivered.

The Forestry Programme offers a range of tree planting options including conifer and broadleaf species, native woodland and agroforestry options. Farmers and landowners can choose to “mix and match” planting options to achieve a number of their economic, social and environmental objectives. This may include sustainable conifer timber production combined with native woodland establishment and recreational opportunities in the same farm forest - delivering not only biodiversity benefits but also economic and wider environmental objectives including water quality.

Protection of designated areas

All new farm forests are assessed before planting for their potential impact, if any, on environmentally sensitive designated sites such as Special Areas of Conservation. Where planting is permitted within or adjacent to a designated areas, native woodland establishment is likely to be viewed favourably as offering ecological and biodiversity compatibility in line with the qualifying interests of the designation.

Woodland for water

The Environmental Requirements for Afforestation (DAFM, 2016) set out a suite of practical and effective measures to achieve the protection and enhancement of water quality. Where water quality is protected so too are the aquatic and adjoining riparian habitats which are among the most biodiverse and a common feature in many farm forests.

The “Woodland for water” measure 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. Carefully located groups of native trees can be planted within the setback to introduce a small woodland biodiversity influence and create a more natural looking uneven woodland edge.   

As well as their protective role, the undisturbed setback conserves and over time promotes the development of diverse habitats, their flora and fauna, and overall biodiversity in this critical zone between the water and the forest. Qualifying as Areas of Biodiversity Enhancement, the setbacks are also eligible for an annual afforestation premium payment.

Backing biodiversity

In the midst of a biodiversity emergency Ireland’s new farm forests offer a beacon of hope. Well planned, designed and managed forests, supported by the Forestry Programme, are backing biodiversity through the delivery of multiple sustainable ecosystem services from protecting habitats and supporting pollination to clean water and mental wellbeing. Ultimately biodiversity helps protect us and our entire wellbeing.

Active owner involvement is critical to the ongoing good management and sustainable development of our farm forests. This will ensure that the protection of biodiversity and provision of other ecosystem services continues to grow in all the interactions between our forests, our environmental resources and ourselves.

If you want to learn more about how farm forests can work for us all Teagasc can help. Please contact your local Teagasc forestry advisor or see www.teagasc.ie/forestry  for a range of information about planting and managing farm forests.