This post first appeared online at in January 2018

To quote the Woodland Trust on the 7th January 2018, “We’re thrilled to announce that… we plan to create an exciting new Northern Forest”. No, despite some local communities thinking otherwise, this does not relate to any unofficial plans for Counties Leitrim, Cavan, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo but a project that “will embrace the major cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Chester and Hull as well as major towns across the north [of England]”.

One assumes that as the Northern Forest will “deliver major environmental, social and economic benefits that complement the significant growth, investment and new infrastructure that is planned for the north of England” that it will be broadly welcomed by the region’s communities. The Trust goes on to say that “It will deliver a better environment for all by: improving air quality in our towns and cities; mitigating flood risk in key catchments; supporting the rural economy through tourism, recreation and timber production; connecting people with nature; and helping to deliver improvements to health and wellbeing through welcoming and accessible local green spaces”.

In contrast, two Irish MEPs, Marian Harkin and Mairead McGuinness have been visiting localities in the north of the Republic who are seriously concerned that their communities are disappearing into newly planted tracts of commercial softwood forestry. It is a situation that is only likely to get worse as more planting is encouraged to help meet GHG emission targets. And that planting will happen where economic values of land are lowest and where alternative land uses cannot compete.

One would imagine that the environmental lobby would be happy to see more tree planting but no they are fickler than that. Apparently, they like monocultured conifer plantations only a tad less than Ireland’s failure to halt rising GHG emissions. Frankly, conifer plantings are a pretty blunt instrument to address GHG emissions with, but they are indicative of Ireland’s response to climate change.

Extensive, typically suckler beef, has been identified as the sacrificial cow with respect to land use change. She is an easy target when you do not account for the carbon sequestration side of her grazing. As we move into an era of fines linked to GHG emissions, the economic output of land using activities will become an increasingly important factor [and one that over-rides the ‘we have low GHG per unit of food’ argument] and that will focus more attention onto extensive beef production. Complicating the scenario is, nonetheless, how do you value the role of cattle in managing our landscapes and preserving/enhancing the biodiversity that they encapsulated within them?

Simply, conifer plantations are a poor-quality, knee-jerk reaction to Ireland’s GHG situation. It is one that avoids looking too closely at the sacred cow. One has also heard the plantings being justified on the basis that Ireland has a natural advantage when it comes to producing softwoods, because they grow fast. That high-quality softwoods come from much higher northern latitudes where land values are low, and thus where trees can be grown very slowly, is a fact that seems to have slipped under the radar. Unless cheap is a primary motive, you buy Scandinavian or Siberian.

A common complaint from those in the way of the New Irish Northern Forest is that commercial plantings are competing for agricultural land with local farmers who are trying to grow their businesses. The blunt response is, of course, to say that it is simple economics, if they cannot pay the asking price they cannot access the land. It is a line that is not going down well with local communities who see farming as the fundamental centre of their existence. As that is the case and with such at stake, this debate needs to move up a level or two.

As an aside, are we fully exploring the agroforestry options? Although most land will not be well suited, should we be planting fruit and nuts, either as orchards or integrated with livestock systems? If GHG mitigation is crucial, maybe we should again be planting fruit on the best land, rather than keeping cows to produce milk for milk powder for export to whoever can be found to buy it. Maybe Irish folk would appreciate the chance to buy a more diversified range of local produce? And then we should be looking at how we can integrate forestry with extensive meat production.

There is, of course, a fundamental weakness when it comes to producing more specialized food products either on valuable landscapes or within agro-forestry systems, and that is the lack of routes to markets for such produce. If all farm produce is reduced to a commodity by the supply-chains, whether it exits the farm gate as premium or not, what chance is there to obtain a market-derived, premium price? The fact that food processing seems to be excluded from rural development funding programmes, only makes this serious shortfall situation worse.

Irish farmers on tough terrain need to be producing valuable produce, period. Their local communities need to be able to process, enhance and add value to that produce. It is the systemic extraction of the very raw materials that local communities need to be processing that is destroying rural Ireland, albeit that those communities on the marginal lands are going first. It is nothing new and it is happening in upland and marginal regions everywhere. Whether one chooses to address the problem head on or not is another matter.

There is an on-going, probably deepening, rural crisis that can only be addressed through highly coherent, economic and environmentally-focused rural development planning that has farming and food at its centre. It is not happening. It is a policy failure that needs to be called out. Instead we are choosing to sweep many Irish communities under a carpet of conifers. There must be room for more trees, for more woodlands, even forests, but they must coexist with thriving rural communities.

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