Native Woodland and forestry are under constant threat the world over, Co Clare is no different, falling privy to the intrigues of industry, invasive species and a lack of incentive for landowners.
Environmental Scientist Ray O’Foghlú believes that pockets of native woodland within West Clare are repositories of ecological riches but they face many salient threats. “We are living in a severe climate and biodiversity crisis. Native woodland has a phenomenal role to play in that”.
There are several threats to native woodlands, Ray outlined. Firstly, deer are a massive threat due to overgrazing, halting the natural regeneration of the land. Many foresters refrain from planting as deer have an immense appetite for native species. Invasive species such as rhododendron and cherry laurels also pose big problems, he noted. Finally, farm policy fails to support the active reforestation of native woodlands.
“Despite pockets of emerging woodlands making a comeback, we are still losing out to grazing. Farmers are penalised for allowing scrub to emerge on their land. Scrub is the first stage of new woodland. By seeking out and clearing, they are removing the forests of the future,” he told The Clare Echo.
Government grants to landowners fail to address the economic imbalance between planting native trees and planting spruce woodland. Ray informs that native woodlands take between 80 to 100 years to mature, whereas spruce will take between 30 to 40 years. “You get a return in your lifetime and you can get a pension with a spruce plantation. With the native woodland, really you are planting it for the next generation. There are generous grants, but they are not enough. I think it needs to be looked at how can we adequately reward farmers for allowing native woodlands to grow.”
Ray alludes to hidden gems speckled about the county in the form of temperate rainforests. These are found in the nooks and crannies and steep hills of West Clare. They are oak woodlands that are heavily influenced by high rainfall and moderate temperatures. They have heavy growths of mosses and ferns, he adds. Ray believes that the key is to incentivize landowners to allow these pockets to grow on their lands and connect them.
Reforestation has almost ground to a halt at the moment, due to blockages in licensing for both spruce and native woodlands. Hometree are an organisation that assist individuals in planting on their land and even pay a small dividend for allowing them to do so. “There are a lot of amazing individuals all over the county who are doing great work, but I think they need a lot more support from the government. One of the big problems is that it’s incredibly bureaucratic. If someone wants to plant a hectare of native woodland, they need to get a registered forester and go through a whole load of environmental certification. This is correct and proper, but it is a barrier for those who just want to get on with it.”
Huge opportunities are left untapped with regards to native woodlands, he believed. He points to water pollution in West Clare, where trees along riverbanks can be a solution through the filtering and buffering of nutrients and bacteria, stopping them from getting into the water. Increasing biodiversity and protecting our coastal and river waters is the key here. “That’s a big area in my opinion. We need to be planting along the riparian or river zone.”
With regards to the future of native woodlands in Clare, Ray would love to see a plan that focuses on what we have already. This involves identifying forestry already there. These are ecologically rich zones that would otherwise take 100 to 200 years to grow in a green field plantation. Effective incentives to landowners are paramount and connection between these woodlands is essential. “They are much more effective ecologically if they are connected, as opposed to dotted around once off,” he states. Red squirrels and Pine Martin are two mammals Ray has noticed that fall foul to this isolation.
Ray would like to see a cohesive plan for native woodlands in West Clare, touting them as a potentially huge tourist attraction. “I am often the only person in these native woodlands when I am out exploring. People think they are just a load of scrub.
“There is one particular one between Lahinch and Rineen. It’s a beautiful, tall oak farm. If that were cleared in the morning nobody would notice. We need to connect with these places. If you don’t understand them, then how can you possibly protect them,” he concluded.