Why we need to reforest Northern Ireland

6 Sep 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 Sep 2019

Pic: Luzasz Szmigiel, Unsplash

New research tells us that restoring our ancient forests is both the cheapest and most effective way of tackling climate change. Northern Ireland is the second most deforested part of Europe. We should therefore be at the forefront of change.

Our island was once a great forest whose trees were so valued they were protected by the ancient Brehon laws. Scope has previously charted Ireland’s terrible ecological disaster that has left Northern Ireland with just 8% of its landmass covered with trees, and the Republic, just slightly better at 9%.

For reference the figure for the UK as a whole is 13% and the European average is 35%.

There is an awful lot that can and must be done to start to reverse this appalling figure.

First the evidence. The Swiss-based Crowther Lab uses big data to analyse the global ecology and biodiversity loss and uses its findings to find solutions to climate change world-wide.

We know that climate change is caused by human activity. However we also know that the climate is regulated by carbon exchange – whereby carbon released by organisms in the soil is captured by plants, most effectively by trees. This regulates global temperatures. Human intervention – cutting down forests and denuding soils affects this cycle.

The Crowther Lab researches how changes to the forests and soil affect climate change and what we can do to alleviate that.

Last month it published ground-breaking research. It concluded that restoring our forests would capture two thirds of man-made emissions. It has always been known that trees absorb carbon. What makes this report special is it is the first time the impact has been quantified and, even more remarkably, it states where new trees should be planted and which species would be best.

It builds on previous research from the lab that shows that the global number of trees is approximately 3.04 trillion. Currently more than 15 billion of these are cut down every year and the total number has fallen by 46% since the start of human civilisation.

The Crowther Lab finds that if we increased the current number of trees by  a third, once mature they would absorb 250 billion tonnes of carbon to offset the current 300 billion extra tonnes in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

Increasing forested areas by a third is the equivalent of the size of the USA. However the study finds that this number of new trees could be planted across the globe without affecting existing agriculture or cities.

The organisation  has  gone as far as publishing a map on its website which shows potential locations for planting, including lists of recommended species. A glance at Northern Ireland reveals large areas which could be forested.   

It is a formidable and urgent challenge. Formidable because of its global nature and  urgent because it takes decades for trees to mature and comes at a time when the destruction of forests continues unabated. The wholescale and apparently government-sanctioned devastation of the Amazon is testament to that.

Yet momentum is gathering. Earlier this month the Ethiopian government claimed its citizens had planted  350 million saplings in a single day as that country sets out to reverse deforestation. In 2016, 50 million trees were planted by more than 800,000 people in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh again in a single day.

There is widespread popular support for the reforestation and governments are beginning to act.

Closer to home things are on the move as well. In February the Belfast Metropolitan Residents Group announced plans to plant one million trees across the city – albeit over 15 years.

Similar urban projects are springing up across the world, in a revival of a tradition started by the Victorians. City trees don’t just combat pollution, they also provide shade and reduce flood risks.

Reforestation may well be one of the most pressing global priorities and we live in a part of the world that can make an important contribution. However it sits pretty low down the list of policy initiatives in Northern Ireland.

Here it is the responsibility of the Forestry Service – whose published strategy is dated 2006 and was signed off by the former junior direct rule Minister Jeff Rooker.

It acknowledges the lack of trees in Northern Ireland, commits to increasing forests and cites a public opinion survey which showed that 75% of people wanted to see more forests here. One of its key objectives was “a steady increase in tree cover”.  

A key passage is this: “Within NI we should aim over the next 50 years to double the area of forest largely through transfer from agricultural use to forestry. The current rate of afforestation of 500ha per annum is not sufficient to meet the demand for new afforestation. We will therefore optimise funds available under the NI Rural Development Regulation Plan within the constraints of the National funding allocated to the afforestation programme.”

Doubling the forest area would mean that Northern Ireland would reach 12% tree cover, still one of the lowest rates in Europe. Sadly we are falling short even in that ambition.

The 2018/19 annual report from the Forestry Service states that grants were distributed for just 238 hectares of new forest with approval for 177 hectares more.

This is not what is required.

For farmers tree planting is cost neutral because of grants. And there is also plenty of unused land in public ownership. If it were planted it would save the cost of maintenance.

To date the Woodland Trust reports success with the Ministry of Defence which has given over unused land at Magiligan and Ballykinler for tree planting. Sadly government departments and local authorities have been slow to take up the challenge.

So what needs to be done?

For a start it’s not right that Northern Ireland’s strategy for dealing with an urgent global crisis should be 14 years old. An incoming government should inject momentum into forestation and develop an ambitious new strategy, properly resourced.

All public bodies should examine their land assets, planting where appropriate. There is a lot of scope here – not just with unused land but also in the grounds of schools and hospitals and the like.

A major publicity campaign should be launched to engage with the farming community and the public to bring the trees back.

There needs to be civic activism as well. The Woodland Trust has a number of resources on its website which include guides to setting up local campaigning groups and how to protect urban trees.

Everyone has a stake in the environment and everyone can play a part in improving it, whether in persuading your local school to plant a few trees or to put one or two in your garden. This cannot be left to policy-makers alone.

The Woodland Trust also sells native trees at various sizes and provides comprehensive advice on how and where to plant them.  Joining the fight against climate change can start with planting a single tree.

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