Preservation of NI Woodland

Heather Simpson learns why we must stick with trees

Ireland is synonymous as the Emerald Isle. But ironically Northern Ireland’s woodlands are lacking in greenery.

If forests are the lungs of the world then Northern Ireland has a serious breathing problem. We have the unlucky distinction of being the second least wooded area in the European Union after Malta.

Only 8.3 per cent of Northern Ireland is covered with trees, compared with the European average of 38.3 per cent. But one environmental charity is on the offensive to redress the balance.

Andy Smith, biodiversity officer with Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland, explains: 'Compared with the rest of the European Union Northern Ireland is the second least wooded area, apart from Malta which has 0.4 per cent of land cover that is wooded.’

Smith maintains Northern Ireland's lack of woodlands is mainly down to historical reasons.

'Ireland was quite densely populated for a number of years but little protection was afforded to forests and woodlands. In England there was a lot of Royal protection from the Kings and Queens for purposes such as hunting. Consequently, in southern England you still find quite extensive woodlands such as the New Forest.

'In more recent history, when the English were here in the 1600s it was perceived that the forests were places for Irishmen to hide, so there was eventually large scale deforestation in the struggle between the English and the Irish.'

But it was Ireland’s rapid population growth in the 19th Century which contributed to the final throes of mass deforestation. 'In more recent years there has been quite a lot of population pressure on the land, especially during the famine when the population reached about eight million.

‘By the start of the 20th century, Ireland was virtually completely deforested so it's really in the last 100 years that forests have made any kind of comeback.’

Man's intervention is not solely to blame. Changes in Northern Ireland's climate have influenced tree cover here. Smith explains, over 4,000 years ago Ireland underwent a change in climate and our weather got warmer and wetter.

The increase in rainfall and the deforestation that had already been carried out dramatically encouraged the growth of bogs and they swallowed up large tracts of woodland, especially in more settled parts of Ireland such as the North and West.

Agricultural practices such as grazing have contributed to Northern Ireland’s poor woodland record. Smith explains: 'The biggest single threat to our woodlands today, is overgrazing, mostly by sheep. I have seen examples both here and in the Republic where old woodlands are being quite heavily grazed. In the long term woodlands won't get the regeneration of young trees and ultimately woodlands may die out.'

However, Smith maintains our woodlands are being protected to prevent further reductions in tree cover. Woodlands are being designated as ‘Areas of Special Scientific Interest’, in order to protect their biodiversity. But Smith explains that enforcement is a problem.

Northern Ireland is not as species rich as other parts of Europe, meaning we don’t have a huge variety of native trees. The majority of our woodlands are non-native conifers. Smith explains: ‘Our most common tree is the Ash, however that would not have been the case if left to nature.’

To combat the problem, Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland has launched the Northern Ireland Tree Campaign. Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland is an environmental charity which promotes the support, development, training and practical involvement of individuals in action to improve the environment. Many of these activities help to build awareness of biodiversity among the population of Northern Ireland and to undertake work to retain and enhance biodiversity.

The volunteers will plant about 200,000 new trees each winter as part of the afforestation scheme. This will range from individual trees to new woodlands stretching to several acres or more.

More native trees will help to enhance both the rural and urban landscapes, increase the diversity of habitats and enrich the lives of the whole community. Volunteers will be planting native species, such as birch, ash, rowan, oak and elder, because they are best suited for our wildlife.

The campaign aims to promote better management of existing woodlands and associated habitats and to celebrate our rich, natural heritage.

Smith explains: 'We call it a biodiversity campaign but trees are the focus because it attracts people's attention. The whole idea is to raise awareness through individuals, groups, schools and communities because they can make a difference. The campaign really shows people what our natural world is all about by planting trees or engaging in environmental activities or lectures.’

Conservation Volunteers’ tree nursery and wildflower nursery contribute to the conservation of our native biodiversity.

The campaign started in April 2003 and has involved about 30,000 people. Conservation Action Teams are run at Conservation Volunteers’ five offices, providing practical volunteering opportunities, which include habitat creation, and management of habitats such as woodlands.

Smith explains: ‘Through this campaign we are hoping to have some impact. Once you get public support then the government will stand up and listen. It is down to the government to protect woodland and to ensure, through, for example, the Environment and Heritage Service and the Forest Service in Northern Ireland, that huge chunks of land are not lost to deforestation.’

However, Smith maintains the campaign is focused on children. ‘We really want to work with primary school children to instil a little bit of wonder, respect and awe of the natural world.’

By Heather Simpson

Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation and the Rural Development Council