Some days ago we found a sticker on the window of a shop around here that piqued our interest. The sticker represents an access denied sign overlapped to the shape of a tree, a kind of conifer precisely. We heard that it is the logo of Save Leitrim, a group of people who are raising concerns about the impact of Sitka Spruce afforestation on the social and economic fabric of rural communities and the environment of County Leitrim.
The logo could be misunderstood by those who don’t know the problem – it appears to be a campaign against trees – but local people know what it refers to – the mismanagement of forests throughout the county. The issue is serious and we can talk about it after taking part in one of the meetings organised by Save Leitrim in Drumshanbo and the rally on the 30th of January in front of Leinster House.
Forests in Leitrim are almost entirely monoculture, with Sitka Spruce planted for the production of timber. Local people are very worried about it because there has been an increase in these plantations in recent years and already 19% of the land is covered with forest, mainly this one species, in many cases planted too close to houses. These trees, although not native, find the Irish climate very favorable and they grow blocking out light and creating a very somber atmosphere which is not good for mental health.
It could seem that growing trees – even for commercial purposes – is a good way to absorb carbon dioxide but things are not so simple. As they grow, they do absorb carbon dioxide, but if cut down and burned, that CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. In addition, greenhouse gases are produced during felling, transport, and processing of the wood. From a broader perspective, the use of chemicals and the lack of biodiversity that negatively affects groundwater and wildlife must be considered.
It is a fact that Leitrim was completely covered by trees in the distant past, which for different historical reasons were cut. In our opinion, many local hills seem barren without trees and maybe a smart national reforestation plan could put together the necessity of reducing emissions and the demand of timber for commercial purposes. Save Leitrim doesn’t ask to stop forestry but to think about sustainable solutions such as starting to plant broadleaf trees in order to have more biodiversity.
We asked our Director Leslie O’Hora to explain the issue to us. “The owners of these lands are often large dairy producers from the south of Ireland who decide to invest in forestry and buy the lands here”, said Leslie. “The current government policy is to help these big farmers and give them the chance to receive tax credits if they plant trees. This also is a way to absorb carbon dioxide since Ireland is very bad in terms of greenhouse emissions. Most of these lands were sold by old people since there was no members of their family leaving there anymore, so now local people cannot do anything to stop forestry. Moreover, after planting trees the soil cannot be used for other purposes and so you can only keep going to grow trees. Maybe now forestry investors are starting to see the problem because people complain about it and we hope the government will try to find a solution.”
So, the solution is to start planting indigenous species of broadleaf that, although they need more time to grow, give us better quality wood and create biodiversity. A smart policy should ask to let some of these trees grow indefinitely and use the remainder for timber production. In this way, we could benefit from forestry, for example by creating new parks and woodland trails. We could start talking about spaces to go walking and have fun, both for local people and tourists. In this way, forestry could be sustainable for the region.