Irish forests are important habitats for biodiversity. Biodiversity describes the variability among living organisms and the ecosystems of which they are part. Three conceptual levels of biodiversity are recognised - ecosystem, species and genetic.
Forests are among the most diverse and complex ecosystems in the world, providing a habitat for a multitude of flora and fauna. Ireland’s forests represent an important opportunity to conserve and enhance biodiversity at both a local and national level.
Recent research has shown that Irish forests are home to a diversity of birds as well as nationally important populations of some rare or declining species. These include the Hen Harrier, Nightjar and Merlin. Irish forests may also provide opportunities for other bird species to colonise Ireland as recently the Great Spotted Woodpecker has bred in Ireland and their population appears to be expanding and the presence of forest specialists, such as crossbills and siskin, as breeders in Ireland is due in large part to increased afforestation in recent times. In addition, conifer plantations in Ireland provide strongholds for the native red squirrel. (Irish Forests and Biodiversity, COFORD 2014)
Forests & Climate Change
Trees are the lungs of the Earth. Trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a process known as carbon sequestration and store it in the wood. Ireland as a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol has committed to limiting its greenhouse gas levels to 13% above 1990 levels. Forest areas established as a result of grant aid under afforestation schemes since 1990 are expected to contribute an annual average emission reduction between 1.56 and 2.39 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) over the period 2008-2012. Recent research has shown that Irish forests store between 4 to 8 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year.
Ireland is unique in Europe in that 34% of its GHG emissions is from agriculture which is very high compared to other EU member states. There was some good news recently on the recognition of forest sink credits by the EU:
IBEC Press Release, 25th October 2014
Scope to offset emissions through afforestation welcome
Reacting to this week's European Council conclusions on 2030 climate policy, IBEC, the group that represents Irish business, today welcomed the commitment that agricultural emissions can be offset through afforestation after 2020. IBEC however highlighted the need for early clarity on the rules that will apply to this.
Acknowledging the success of the Irish negotiating team, IBEC Head of Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Dr Neil Walker said: “The new deal marks an important milestone, but is just the beginning of 12 months of tough, detailed negotiations on how individual Member State targets will be implemented.
"Ireland looks set to have very ambitious carbon reduction targets over the coming years, regardless of whether a global deal is agreed at next year's UN climate summit. This will undoubtedly present many challenges. It is important that the EU's approach is flexible, fair and proportionate, so competitiveness and jobs are not adversely affected."
Forestry & Recreation
Forests are among Ireland’s most popular and widely used amenities. This is due to their versatility and suitability for a wide range of activities involving people of all ages and abilities, from afternoon strolls and family picnics to mountain biking trails, hiking, orienteering, paint-balling, tree canopy walks and zip lining (Lough Key Forest Park). Coillte has an Open Forest Policy that allows free public access to all parts of its 445,000 ha forest estate.
Income from forest tourism is important in rural areas from direct income from car parking fees and permits for hunting to indirect income in Shops, Hotels, B&B’s, Pubs, restaurants etc. A report by Fitzpatrick and Associates estimated that 18 million people visit Irish forests every year providing a non-market value of €97 million or €5.40 per person. The total economic activity generated by domestic forest users is estimated at €268 million. Walking tourism, which is generally undertaken by overseas visitors, accounts for a further €138 million per annum.