Reduction of Carbon Emissions of 51% by 2030: Discussion (Resumed)

On behalf of the committee, I welcome to the meeting Dr. Catherine Farrell from Trinity College Dublin, Mr. Paddy Purser from ProSilva Ireland and Dr. Anita Donaghy and Ms Oonagh Duggan from BirdWatch Ireland. I thank the witnesses for appearing before us to share their expertise.

I remind those attending of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against a person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of that person or entity. Therefore, if any statements are potentially defamatory in regard to an identifiable person or entity, witnesses will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that any such direction be complied with. For witnesses attending remotely from outside the Leinster House campus, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege. As such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as do witnesses who are physically present in the building.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I also remind members that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located in the Leinster House complex. I ask that all members, prior to making their contribution to the meeting, confirm that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House complex.

For the information of people watching proceedings online, Oireachtas Members and witnesses are accessing this meeting remotely and only I, as Chair, and staff who are essential to the running of the meeting are physically present in the committee room. Due to these unprecedented circumstances and the large number of people attending the meeting remotely, I ask that everyone bear with us should any technical problems arise.

Dr. Catherine Farrell

I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak this afternoon about peatlands and, specifically, their restoration. Ireland is a global hotspot for peatlands, with over 20% of the national territory covered by peatland or peat soils. Peatlands are valuable ecosystems that form a significant part of the Irish sociocultural landscape. Healthy peatlands are wetlands, characterised by complex interactions between three main factors, namely, water, biodiversity and peat. Tweak one of these components and we effect change in the living system, making them more vulnerable to natural hazards and climate change at the same time.

There are four main types of peatland in Ireland. These are raised bogs, mountain bogs, lowland blanket bogs and fens. Each has characteristic features that arise from local climate and geography. Understanding their past and how they have been used and changed through our activities is key to their restoration and their future.

Healthy peatlands deliver an array of services to people, including control of water flows, water purification, climate regulation and biodiversity. It is the complex web of relationships between water, biodiversity and peat that creates the peatland, maintains it and allows the peatland to store vast volumes of carbon while also acting as a sink for carbon dioxide. Peatlands have been regulating our climate for millennia and although globally peatlands cover only 3% of the Earth’s land surface, they store about double the amount of carbon as is stored in all forests, which cover a ten times greater area.

Healthy peatlands are therefore, without a doubt, incredibly important for our well-being. Changing the water regime by draining, utilising peatlands for timber crops or wind farms or digging out the valuable carbon stock will change the peatland. Our activities have already changed peatlands. The truth is that few pockets of healthy peatlands remain in Ireland, functioning as they should. Peatlands have been changed into sources of carbon dioxide rather than valuable carbon stores and sinks.

Over a quarter of the total area of peatland in Ireland has been drained for grassland and approximately one third has been developed for forestry, with a significant portion of the raised bogs converted to industrial extraction. The remainder comprises commonages and turbary areas. Most of these areas are today acting as sources of carbon dioxide, as well as contributing to poor water quality and loss of biodiversity. The desolate and barren industrial bogscapes of the midlands, the devastating bog slides in Leitrim, Donegal and Kerry in 2020 and the recent fires in Killarney are all legacies of our neglect of these vulnerable ecosystems and are set to continue unless we take action. Restoration, therefore, is essential in order to stabilise peatlands, reverse degradation and bring peatlands back to healthy status.

Every peatland is different and successful restoration requires an understanding at site and catchment level. Passive rewilding is not an option here and active restoration measures are required. The key measures bring us back to our water, biodiversity and peat equation and must be tailored for each site. Above all, rewetting is critical to get peatland plants back in place and reduce peat breakdown. Peat loss equates to carbon loss. Once initial restoration has been carried out, time and aftercare, or a watchful eye, are necessary.

Key to all these steps is people. I mentioned in my opening lines that peatlands are a significant Irish sociocultural landscape. Real, genuine and long-term engagement is required from and with landowners and adjoining neighbours, and a switch towards community-led restoration can ensure long-term success.

In terms of Irish experience, seminal work was initiated by Dutch researchers in the 1980s in partnership with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and since that time, the NPWS, Coillte and Bord na Móna have carried out targeted site level works with plenty of scope to increase in that area. In recent years, European Innovation Partnership projects such as the hen harrier and pearl mussel projects have been breaking new ground, engaging farming communities to alleviate pressures and encourage restorative measures. Non-governmental organisations such as BirdWatch Ireland and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with community groups across Ireland, are leading the charge in conserving and restoring peatlands, as evidenced by the increasing membership of the community wetlands forum.

Given the extent of peatlands in Ireland, their current widespread degradation and their significant role in climate regulation, peatland restoration is one of a number of nature-based solutions, if not the number one such solution, to the biodiversity and climate crises in Ireland. In 2021, the dawn of the UN decade on restoration, we must embrace the potential of our peatlands for what they can naturally deliver. Peatlands in the Irish landscape are unbounded and there are rarely fences or gates around them. Equally, peatlands are multisectoral, with policies for agriculture, climate, energy, the environment, forestry, nature and water management affecting their use. We need a multisectoral approach and instead of draining, digging and planting, we must change our perspectives to enact restoration solutions, creating the policy and economic structure to support this.

A national peatlands unit is required to inform, co-ordinate and execute an action plan to support sustainable peatlands for the people who rely on them and look after them, and equally for water, biodiversity and climate. Peatlands take time to heal but inaction is not an option. We must simply roll up our sleeves and work together across sectors to do it. I thank the committee for its time and look forward to taking questions from members.

I thank Dr. Farrell for that very interesting, informative and clear opening statement. It is much appreciated.

Mr. Paddy Purser

I thank the committee for the opportunity to address and engage with its members. ProSilva Ireland is an all-Ireland organisation supporting the use of alternative forest management systems through the clear-fell system. These alternative systems, which are generally called continuous cover forestry, CCF, do not clear-fell the forests but instead involve thinning trees periodically while allowing the retained forest to grow and develop. ProSilva Ireland is part of a wider European network of ProSilva organisations in 27 countries. We have a diverse and dynamic membership of foresters, forest owners, contractors, ecologists, wood scientists, artists and others.

Well-managed forests can serve many functions. They can produce timber for domestic and industrial use, be places of recreation while enhancing our landscape, protect and clean our water while helping prevent flooding, stabilise and improve our soils, harbour and enrich biodiversity, sequester carbon, shelter farms and be places of inspiration, wonder and calm. Successive forestry programmes and forestry practice in Ireland have concentrated on the timber production function. This has resulted in the successful establishment of a vibrant timber processing sector and vital job creation in rural communities. The clear-fell system has been used to produce timber efficiently to feed this industry.

This management system struggles, however, to deliver satisfactorily the other services that society requires from forests, and this is at the heart of recent protests and anti-forestry feeling in places such as County Leitrim. It is clear that society wants more from Irish forests in the form of the aforementioned multiple benefits. The difficulty is that all these other non-timber products and services to which I referred are rarely, if ever, monetised, and a situation has evolved in Ireland whereby the provision of these services is expected to be paid for entirely by the revenues from the sale of timber. In ProSilva Ireland, we believe that CCF will deliver these multiple benefits in a sustainable way that will rebuild a forest culture, be profitable and, at the same time, deliver a range of environmental services. We know from experience, from CCF forests managed in Ireland and more so from those under longer term CCF management in Europe, that it is possible to sustain commercial timber production while delivering the multiple benefits.

The committee's role is to consider action on climate change and what measures can be adopted to mitigate this very serious issue. There is particular concern that Ireland's biodiversity, which has been under increasing pressure for many decades, should not come under further pressure as a result of climate action measures. Well-managed forests are excellent carbon sinks and we are paying the price, both globally and nationally, for both current and historical deforestation. How we manage our forests also has a significant effect on the efficiency of carbon sequestration and on how they support biodiversity.

CCF is an efficient means of optimising carbon storage in forests as it avoids the large-scale release of soil carbon and the loss of biodiversity that occurs when plantations are clear-felled. In cool, moist, temperate climates like ours, greater than 70% of forest carbon is held in forest soils, most of it in biota, or living carbon, which is dependent on the presence of the overhead forest to sustain itself. This underground biodiversity is very important for the productivity of our soils. CCF provides permanent forest habitats, which keep carbon locked in the forest, including the all-important forest soil carbon. CCF also produces a higher percentage of high-quality and long-life timber products in which sequestered carbon is locked over a longer timeframe, meaning that less timber goes into short-term products such as pulp and pallet-manufacturing and more goes into long-term construction. We can, therefore, supply the needs of our very important, well-established industry while locking up carbon for longer and delivering the other forest functions. CCF also results in more biodiverse, resilient forests, with lower biotic and abiotic risks.

We need forests now more than ever. They have a very significant role to play in climate change mitigation, but to do this they must be resilient themselves. There is no point in us planting, growing and managing forests that are themselves vulnerable to climate change. If our forests are blown down in strong winds, burned up in fires, stressed from drought or infested by disease such as ash dieback, they will be unable to perform their carbon sequestration function.

The good news is that forests can be resilient, and this comes through diversity of species and structure. The richness of forest biodiversity is the strength that makes forests resilient. CCF management seeks to create such conditions through maintaining the forest habitat in order that it will evolve slowly over time, accumulating carbon and enriching biodiversity. We believe that new planting must be robustly mixed with greater utilisation of diverse conifers and native species and that we should cease planting monocultures, the predominance of which we are deeply concerned about. Even aged monocultural plantations are not good at delivering the wider long-term social and environmental benefits of forestry. Concerns about the sustainability of monocultures are not new, and currently, in central Europe, bark beetles are destroying large areas of monocultural spruce plantations that are suffering from drought stress. In Ireland, ash dieback is devastating monocultural ash plantations.

If we want to diversify our forests and make them more resilient, thereby improving their capacity for climate mitigation and biodiversity, we need also to discuss the problem of invasive deer in Ireland. In many parts of the country, invasive non-native deer are now at such high densities that they have a very negative effect on the sustainability and resilience of forests and on their biodiversity value. Invasive sika and fallow deer both preferentially browse young broadleaved and diverse conifer species. For CCF and native woodland practitioners, this is the single greatest constraint in creating diverse and resilient forests. One of the reasons Sitka spruce is still the predominant commercial species planted is that it is the only one that can find its way through the deer pressure. All other species require expensive protection over a sustained period using fencing and tubes. If we can resolve this issue, the groundwork will be laid for nature to get back on track and solve many of the other, bigger issues with biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

We also need to address the legacy issues in Irish forestry and acknowledge that, although well intended, some forests were located in places they should not have been, resulting in significant carbon losses from blanket and raised peats and considerable habitat loss. We must accept that these mistakes of the past must be rectified and the correct way to do this is not by trying to maintain them as productive or necessarily as any kind of forest but instead helping to restore the hydrological function of these areas using techniques such as Ms Farrell outlined. This would yield a much better result in terms of both carbon sequestration and biodiversity restoration. Similarly, we need to be careful that today's forestry practices do not generate more legacy issues for the future, and in this regard, selecting the correct tree in the correct place, without recourse to site modification through drainage, is a good starting point.

It is important that discussions on Irish forestry are balanced, and I say this in the light of a very negative narrative regarding forestry in recent times. While mistakes have been made in forestry that have been negative for biodiversity, there are also many good stories and the overall picture is not all bad. We hear much about habitat loss but in many cases this is better described as habitat change. Just as there are examples of species under threat, such as the hen harrier, curlew, merlin and others, there are many examples of species that have responded positively to increased forest cover, such as the pine marten, red squirrel, red kite, great spotted woodpecker, buzzard, jay, long-tail tit and chaffinch. There is a long list of species with upward population trajectories. It is implicit in any policy that seeks to increase forest cover from the low level in Ireland that this must come with a certain degree of habitat change.

Similarly, despite criticisms, our forests have never been more popular for recreation and well-being. The connection between people and forests, through both their work and recreation, was lost in Ireland, and while it is recovering, the restoration of a forest culture will happen slowly over time. We believe the CCF approach will greatly assist in this regard, as it is difficult for communities to develop a sense of connection with forests that are impenetrable for half a rotation and then cut down relatively soon after they have become accessible. Permanent forests, managed under CCF, offer a much greater opportunity in this regard.

We have to manage expectations of what is possible. Forests, by their nature, take time to plan, grow and transform. Similarly, if we want to achieve a cultural change in Irish forestry, this will also take time and investment. No magic wand can be waved to transform Irish forests overnight. It will take long-term planning, with a refocusing of forest policy and programmes. Forestry has an important role to play in the fight against climate change, but we must ensure our forests are well designed, well managed and resilient if this role is to be optimised. CCF offers a means to achieve this whereby biodiversity can be a winner as well.

I thank Mr. Purser and commend him on the depth of information in his statement. It was very interesting and the committee appreciates that he has gone to the trouble of giving us such a considered opening statement.

Dr. Anita Donaghy

On my behalf and on behalf of Ms Duggan, I thank the committee for the opportunity to present.

People have always had a strong connection with wild birds in Ireland. Species like the curlew, lapwing and the now extinct bittern are mentioned in our songs, poems, prose and folklore. Birds adorn important texts like the Book of Kells. Whether in the garden, along the coast or in the countryside, the presence and songs of birds have given people great joy and respite during the Covid-19 pandemic. Wild birds are also indicators of the health of the environment, and many of our regularly occurring species are monitored to detect changes in populations and in the world around us.

In April 2021, BirdWatch Ireland and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Northern Ireland jointly published Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland 2020-2026, our fourth assessment since 1999 of what is commonly known as the BoCCI list. This is a quantitative assessment based on the most up-to-date information that is available from a range of studies. Using a traffic light system, BoCCI indicates the conservation status of bird species on the island of Ireland by placing them on three lists - red, amber or green - indicating whether the species is of high, medium or low conservation concern.

The key message is that more birds than ever are now red-listed in Ireland, which is the highest status of concern for their population. A total of 54 Irish bird species, or 26%, are now on the red list. An additional 79 species, or 37%, are now on the amber list and 78 species are on the green list, meaning they are not currently at risk. This means that 63% of Ireland’s bird species are now in trouble, either in Ireland or in other parts of their range, and about a quarter of all our birds are suffering a decline here in Ireland. Not only are some declining species becoming more threatened but even recently common species are declining too.

The main groups of birds of concern are those of wetlands, farmland and our marine environment. Ireland is an important wintering area for migratory water birds that breed at Arctic latitudes and migrate southwards using our estuaries, coastal bays, rivers and lakes as staging posts or wintering areas. We used to host well over 1 million water birds during winter but this number has decreased by a shocking 40% since the mid-1990s.

Since Ireland has been farmed for millennia, many bird species have found a niche in Irish farmland, where they breed, over-winter and stop off on migration. In 1999, 11 farmland birds of meadows, arable, pasture and upland habitats were on the red list. Today, one of these birds, the corn bunting, which is an arable specialist, has become extinct and a further eight new species have been added from across all farmed habitats, indicating a continued marked decline in the quantity and quality of these important areas for biodiversity in the past 20 years. Shockingly, the kestrel and snipe were until recently widespread on farmland and are now on the red list. The kestrel has suffered a 28% decline in its breeding population between 2006 and 2016 and the snipe has declined by over 50% in the past 25 years. Ireland will possibly be the first European country to lose the iconic curlew as a breeding species.

With regard to seabirds, three species were added to the most recent red list, the kittiwake, razorbill and much-loved puffin. Since the departure of the UK from the EU, Ireland is the most important member state for four of the red-listed seabirds.

Ireland is losing its diversity and abundance of bird species. We are at a tipping point and we are deeply concerned about what the next BoCCI will look like if concerted action is not taken now to safeguard our wild birds.

Ms Oonagh Duggan

I will go over some of the causes and what needs to be done. Climate change is playing a part in the decline of some species but the loss of and degradation of habitats, pollution, predation of nests and chicks, and disturbance caused by human activities are the most significant reasons for decline. Specifically, the stepped-up and continued intensification of agriculture, afforestation on high nature value farmland, inadequate protection of hedgerows, peatlands and other habitats, overfishing and unmanaged recreation are all taking a toll. On top of this, the failure to enforce environmental laws, inadequate environmental assessment of projects and plans, and poor mitigation measures are, on their own and cumulatively, leading to this poor outcome for wild birds and associated biodiversity.

Unfortunately, sectoral policies and plans are undermining policies and legal obligations to protect nature. In addition, chronic underfunding of the National Parks and Wildlife Service means this creates significant challenges for us to be able to continue to protect biodiversity as the response is inadequate. Under EU and national law, all wild birds are protected but Ireland is failing to protect them and the habitats they need.

Protecting and restoring biodiversity must be at the heart of all Government land use policies and decisions. Failure to halt losses and reverse trends will mean further breaches of international legal obligations. It will also hamper our ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

We must meet our target to cut emissions by 51% by 2030 and every sector must play its part. In addition, landscape-scale restoration of habitats to complement absolute emissions cuts is critical. Nature-based solutions for climate action, some of which the meeting has already heard about, will help wild birds but preventing catastrophic decline and extinctions will require a significant, co-ordinated and sustained effort of targeted and resourced measures. These include supporting high nature value farming and pulling back on the intensification of agriculture; providing generous agri-environment schemes in the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, to support farmers to farm with nature; a new forestry model that protects the biodiversity we have; resourced species recovery plans, enforcement of environmental legislation; urgent designation of new marine protected areas; and the sensitive deployment of renewables both onshore and offshore.

BirdWatch Ireland is playing its part through the restoration of peatlands in counties Donegal and Sligo, working directly with farmers in counties Galway and Leitrim to save the curlew and a range of other species, as well as other survey, monitoring, conservation and awareness-raising projects.

The tide of public opinion has turned as declines in environmental quality become more obvious. We must listen to the science and act to protect our valuable heritage so that our countryside and coast does not go quiet for the lack of birds.

I thank the witnesses for their informative statements and will help the committee as we go forward. This meeting is confined to a maximum of two hours. I propose that each member be given two minutes to address questions to the witnesses to ensure that all members have an opportunity to pose questions. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I have a question for Dr. Farrell on peat-based soils that are currently used for agriculture. What is the appropriate approach to take to these lands? Does she have examples of good practice where farmers have maintained farm incomes while simultaneously restoring these peatlands?

Dr. Catherine Farrell

The Chairman has asked me the most difficult question of all. This is an area that is still evolving. The science is telling us that draining peat soils for agriculture leads to emissions in carbon dioxide and also nitrous oxide. There are some new initiatives. New European Innovation Partnership, EIP, projects are looking at addressing this issue.

The most recent cutting-edge project is the FarmPEAT project, which is being led by the same team who set up the pearl mussel project. This is an evolving and probably very sensitive space. These are brand new innovations to try to reduce emissions from these areas and they require a sea change in the approach of farmers. We have to try out this approach, set up different trials to see what we can do and what savings can be made through raising the water level. We are not on our own because this has been trialled in other countries. Those trials are probably the best examples we can draw on. The case scenarios are learnings from Germany, which is trying to promote raising the water level in drained peatlands and implement what are called wet farming practices. It is a matter of trying to find ways we can farm these areas in a manner that farmers would not lose income, could continue to farm these areas, albeit in a more sustainable way, and would not be penalised. It is about incentivising that.

This is very much an evolving space that requires real engagement with farmers. In my experience, such engagement is key as farmers will tell us what will work on their land. Just as every bog is different, every field is also different. It must be based on real trials on the ground and learning from our colleagues in Germany and the Netherlands who are also faced with these issues and high levels of emissions. I hope that answers the Chairman's question.

I thank Dr. Farrell for her response, which certainly does answer my question. Can she cite examples in Ireland or internationally that the committee could examine?

Dr. Catherine Farrell

Yes, I will. The Greifswald wetlands group in Germany has done considerable work. It is working with landowners in the area. The peatlands there are somewhat different from here in that they are mainly fen areas. Solutions are tailored for the area and Germany is also working to drive policy changes through the EU Common Agricultural Policy to support wet farming practices. I will bring together some examples and share them with members in the supporting information I submit.

We would appreciate that.

I thank the witnesses for their interesting presentations. As the Chairman said, there was great depth to them. Following on from Dr. Farrell’s statement that this is an evolving situation, much of what we are attempting to do is at the cutting edge of our understanding of systems, their capacity to capture carbon, the impacts on diversity and the level of interactions. When discussing any ecological system, action in one area may have an impact one could never envisage in another area. We are learning a great deal as we go. Do we have enough data and information and is enough money being put into research on these issues? This is a question for the four witnesses. Are we putting enough money into research without seeking an output from it? Sometimes when we put money into research, it is for a specific purpose but sometimes we have to do it for the sake of research to get the results we need. Do we have those data?

Dr. Farrell mentioned that a quarter of our peatlands are now grassland. What percentage of our natural peatlands are in their natural state or have been remediated? What proportion is in public ownership, which would make it easier to address than dealing with land owned by private individuals?

On forestry, what is the percentage of clear-felling that is applied across the State? What percentage would come under the continuous forestry model Mr. Purser referenced?

I read recently that BirdWatch Ireland had updated the red list, which now includes 54 species, an increase of 23. I find it baffling, and this does not only relate to bird species, that scientists identify particular species that could potentially become extinct or endangered and we do not immediately put an action plan in place to deal with that. They go on the red list and then we forget them until they disappear. Would an action plan be useful or is it an approach we should be taking?

I ask the witnesses to answer the questions as succinctly as they can as the time available is limited. I ask Mr. Purser to respond first this time.

Mr. Paddy Purser

I thank the Deputy for her questions. She asked about research into the delivery of new technology and the way we think and manage our land resources, in my case the forest resource. There have been a number of research projects and there is a research project under way on continuous cover forestry in Ireland. There is also research on diversification of forest management and integration of the delivery of multiple resources.

As to whether there is enough research, that is a difficult question to answer. Forest research is different in nature from much laboratory-type research because what is needed is long-term research. As the Deputy can imagine, one does not get results from forestry overnight or in one year or even in two years. Sometimes the results are 20 years down the line before one can draw conclusions from a research study. What is important is that long-term research projects are funded. That is happening but we are at quite an early stage in the process in relation to continuous cover forestry in Ireland.

Regarding the percentages of land management of continuous cover forestry here, we do not have an exact figure. ProSilva Ireland estimates that it is between 15,000 to 20,000 ha, approximately. It is probably significantly more than that if we include areas that are not managed but would be categorised as not ever going to be clear-felled for different reasons, including access and so on. I am talking about areas that are managed and owned by farmers, Coillte and private landowners who are seeking to manage their forest actively under continuous cover forestry management. It is not a statistic that is recorded in the national forest inventory but it should be recorded. I am doing the mathematics in my head but the total area of forestry in Ireland is about 770,000 ha, so CCF accounts for in and around 5% of that.

Ms Oonagh Duggan

I will respond first and Dr. Donaghy can contribute afterwards if she wishes. Dr. Donaghy is in Donegal and I am in County Wicklow so we are poles apart. I thank the Deputy for her questions. There is a need for much more research, especially surveying and monitoring, as well as conservation research on wild birds in general. Unfortunately, this sector was underfunded for a long time but things have picked up in the past year, which is great.

As regards what happens when a bird is added to the red list, the critical question is taking the action to ensure that the species can be turned around. It requires a co-ordinated approach among a range of Departments. For a curlew, for example, that would relate to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications in respect of renewable energy. Many cross-cutting actions would need to be implemented by all Departments. Where we see things falling down is the lack of implementation and also in the fact that policies are still not in line with retaining our biodiversity. It is really hard to ensure that species action plans are infiltrated or integrated completely into these policies. With regard to the hen harrier, for example, the hen harrier European innovation programme has been a great programme. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was very brave in taking on all the European innovation partnerships, EIPs. They were a new departure for the Department and they are excellent projects for working with people on the ground to take action. However, we are still waiting for a hen harrier threat response plan. We hope to see that soon from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. There is a multitude of measures that can be taken to save species when they get on the red list. There is just a need for the will, funding and a co-ordinated approach to get there.

I thank Ms Duggan. My apologies for pushing her along, but we are limited by time. Does Dr. Farrell have anything to add?

Dr. Catherine Farrell

Yes. On the question about research on peatlands and systems in general, the current research I am involved in is about mapping out the data gaps in terms of assessing ecosystems. The first gap is that we do not have a national peatland ecosystem map. We have indicators of where peatlands might be. The second gap is that we do not even know what depth of peat we have across our peatlands. In the 1940s and 1950s there were peatland research centres across Ireland because value was seen in understanding our peatlands, what they were doing and how we could use them to the best effect. For us to focus our research, time and energy now, it would be on what the services are, what values and benefits we can receive from restoring our peatlands, how they work and how we can restore the peatland system to work with freshwater systems, and also in line with all the work Mr. Purser spoke about in terms of restoring post forestry.

We would know nothing without research. In terms of its strategic alignment, it has been somewhat ad hoc to date and quite reliant on the interest of a few researchers in Ireland, who really lack support and have to compete for grants as they arise. From a peatland perspective, given their role in 20% of the landscape, the water benefits and all the things relating to water quality and the provision of water and supporting our biodiversity targets, we must have a more strategic and holistic view.

It is impossible to know where to start as each subject here could merit a separate session. I will launch straight into my questions. I have specific questions for each witness, and I will start with Dr. Farrell. Her opening statement was quite strong. She said that peat and bog restoration could be the number one tool in the battle against climate change. I wish to delve into that a little further. Regarding timelines for rewetting bogs, what length of time does it take from beginning the process of rewetting a bog to getting a bog that is starting to perform and capture carbon and starting to resurge biodiversity?

Second, we have recently seen the news that cranes may potentially breed in a bog in County Offaly. I remember driving all the way to Wexford from west Cork to see my first crane in Tacumshin. With that reintroduction of wildlife, is there a socioeconomic potential benefit from the expansion of bogs and the biodiversity in nature that will flourish there? Have any studies been done of the potential economic value of tourism where there is a healthy bog?

My final question relates to horticultural peat. It is something we have to discuss. There is demand for horticultural peat and there is a shortage of it. The alternative that has been looked at is the import of horticultural peat, which one would imagine would leave quite a large carbon footprint. Could Dr. Farrell discuss that debate on what the right approach is for the provision of horticultural peat?

I have a brief question for Mr. Purser regarding monoculture plantations such as Sitka plantations. Could he comment on the carbon sequestration value of monoculture plantations? Is there any sequestration value compared with a mixed woodland? Will he comment on the biodiversity value of mixed woodland compared with the biodiversity value of, perhaps, a Sitka plantation. In addition-----

There are two minutes left.

I have one more question for Ms Duggan of BirdWatch Ireland

The Deputy can finish his questions.

She mentioned that there has been a 50% reduction in the snipe population. I assume this is due to drainage of wetland, loss of wetland and loss of habitat, as one of the issues. She spoke about proper agri-environment schemes and what a new green deal would look like. Can she give examples of agri-environment schemes or farming for nature or farming for biodiversity schemes which have successfully resulted in an increase in biodiversity, an increase in bird species, successfully capturing carbon and also helping to keep money in farmers' pockets?

There are so many more questions and it is very difficult to get them into two minutes. If the witnesses could start with them, that would be great.

I call on the representatives of BirdWatch Ireland first.

Ms Oonagh Duggan

Dr. Donaghy will take that question.

Dr. Anita Donaghy

The Deputy asked about snipe and the 50% decline in the snipe population. Yes, it has largely been due to habitat loss and degradation, that is, damage to peatlands, loss of wetlands and degradation and fragmentation of habitats. That in turn has led to a serious increase in the levels of predation. That is not just for snipe but for all the ground nesting birds, including curlew and lapwing, but particularly snipe. Predation by general predators, crows and foxes, in particular, has a very serious impact on the ability of these birds to produce young every year. The reason we are seeing sustained declines is failure at the nesting chick stage in general. That is on top of what is happening to their habitats.

The Deputy asked about agri-environment schemes as well and if we have any examples of the successful implementation of schemes. Obviously, successive agri-environment schemes in Ireland have become more targeted at biodiversity. The green, low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, for example, has increased its suite of priorities for adoption, and that is welcome. We all have mentioned the EIPs. For many reasons that is the route we would want to see - agri-environment payments being delivered in a much more local and targeted level where a suite of biodiversity is encapsulated in one scheme.

The Shannon callows agri-environment project was a precursor to the current draft of the EIP. The restoration of farm bird populations is not something that can happen in the short term. There are not many examples of the implementation of agri-environment schemes resulting in increases in populations in a relatively short time because it takes much longer to restore these bird populations.

Dr. Catherine Farrell

The first thing to remember regarding the timelines for rewetting and the associated carbon benefits is that most peatlands in Ireland are drained and are emitting carbon. Rewetting studies undertaken to date have shown we can reduce the carbon emissions. It will take time for these sites to revert to being carbon sinks. Reducing emissions is better than allowing things to just happen anyway. In the meantime, let us look at all the other benefits and co-benefits that go along with that rewetting in respect of water and biodiversity.

That brings me to the question regarding cranes. This is a fantastic development. All along the Shannon corridor the habitat is evolving and emerging for this iconic species. When I was working in Bord na Móna on restoration, there was great engagement and excitement from the Golden Eagle Trust and BirdWatch Ireland regarding the potential for all these Shannon bogs to become a hotspot for ecotourism. That prospect was discussed at the time and Bord na Móna was interested. Looking right along that Shannon corridor, it is a wetlands wilderness park, as John Feehan described it so eloquently 20 years ago. These ideas have been around for some time but they must be explored seriously because these are the types of initiatives that create sustainable jobs for local people. Large-scale projects such as wind farms do not really sustain local populations and communities whereas ecotourism projects would.

On the horticultural issue, we do not have an alternative to peat at this time. We must find whatever is going to replace peat. I am aware that Bord na Móna had some great trials on developing alternatives. That must be brought back on to the research agenda because we cannot continue to use peat. It just makes no sense, so we must research the alternatives.

Mr. Paddy Purser

I thank Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan for his questions. We cannot ignore that Sitka spruce is far and away the most productive forest species in Ireland. It is incredibly efficient at sequestering carbon because of its growth rates. The difficulty we have with Sitka spruce is not with the species itself but the management of it. Growing it monoculturally causes difficulties for biodiversity and resilience, which is a point I will come back to. The forestry management system which clear-fells trees like a crop means that 50% of the resulting volume does not go into long-term carbon storage, and is instead turned into sawdust, sawmill waste, etc. Some of that is used to substitute for other fuels in drying and heating, so it has its benefits from a carbon perspective but it is not going into long-term carbon sequestration.

After clear-felling there is a release of soil carbon because much of the carbon is held in the forest soil. This is highly dependent on the soil type. Mineral soils are less carbon-emitting than more organic soils. It is the forest management type which is important. Even though planting a new monocultural forest of Sitka spruce is incredibly efficient at locking up carbon for the duration of the rotation, the problem is what happens at the end.

The position is similar with regard to biodiversity. Removing the forest sets back all the biodiversity gains which were slowly achieved in that forest over time. Biodiversity does adapt. Thinning a forest increases biodiversity levels. Continuous coverage forestry carries that process on ad infinitum, effectively. Therefore, instead of removing the forest and having to start again - biodiversity has to start again after a carbon release - the CCF approach allows species to adapt slowly. There is gradual enrichment and accumulation of carbon, and natural processes come into play. CCF therefore has economic and climate benefits.

Returning to the monocultural aspect and biodiversity, if we plant these forests as monocultures, there is a major risk factor involved. We witnessed this in central Europe. I do not know if members are aware of this but climate change is already having a devastating effect on European forests. That is particularly the case with monocultural forests, which have been pushed outside their normal range because the timber production function has been prioritised. Climate change has resulted in drought stress in those forests. The bark beetle, a secondary pest, is destroying large areas of these forests right across central Europe, in Czechia, Germany, France, Belgium and Slovakia. All those countries are suffering huge losses to the ravages of the bark beetle. Once those-----

I will allow Mr. Purser to finish but I ask him to do so as quickly as possible to be fair to all the members. We have limited time.

Mr. Paddy Purser

The final point is that once those monocultural forests are dying, they are no longer storing or locking up carbon, but releasing it. For this reason, we must make our forests resilient and we do that by diversifying them.

I will not get a chance to come in again, so I thank all the witnesses. This is a fascinating and eye-opening session. I thank the witnesses for those answers.

I thank Mr. Purser and the other witnesses, and Deputy O'Sullivan. I agree with the Deputy that we could do much more on this issue. It is a very interesting subject, and I feel we are only scratching the surface here. Before I bring in Senator Boylan, given the time constraints, I suggest that members prioritise questions to prevent the witnesses having to answer a whole string of questions in the time we have available. Having said that, I recognise there is much to deal with. If members wish to ask a series of questions, the committee will facilitate the witnesses in responding with written answers after the meeting, if they so wish. I ask members to be mindful that I will push the discussion along because I want to be fair to all of them.

I will keep it brief. I have no speeches, just questions. I thank all our guest speakers for their excellent presentations. My first set of questions is for Mr. Purser. What are the greatest barriers to continuous cover forestry in Ireland? Do we need a new forestry strategy, or are there legislative changes we could make to incentivise landowners to go in that direction rather than with a monoculture crop?

Did Mr. Purser say that continuous cover forestry is not included in the forestry inventory?

If that is the case, was CCF not included Ireland's National Accounting Plan 2021-2025, the report submitted to the European Commission in September 2020 which sets Ireland's forest reference level, FRL, for that period? If the mitigation impact of CCF was accounted for, it would mean emissions from monoculture forestry are even higher? I ask Mr. Purser to clarify that point.

In her opening statement, Dr. Farrell called for a national peatlands unit. Where should such a unit sit? We have seen the problems that arose with regard to the biodiversity centre, short-term contracts, who owns the data, workers' rights, etc. Does Dr. Farrell believe the unit should sit within the Department or should it be in the National Parks and Wildlife Service?

That leads me to my final question, which is for all our witnesses. What would they like to see emerge from the review of the National Parks and Wildlife Service? Would they like it become a stand-alone agency with powers of enforcement?

I thank Senator Boylan for staying within the two-minute time limit.

Mr. Paddy Purser

I thank Senator Boylan. In relation to the barriers to continuous cover forestry adoption in Ireland, the primary barrier is a cultural one. For most of the foresters who have trained in Ireland and the institutions which promote forestry in Ireland, this is a new practice. We are all learning. Even those of us in ProSilva Ireland who have been at this for 20 years are still learning how to do this and introduce CCF in an economically sustainable way for forest owners. This involves a major training requirement and cultural shift which is being well supported by the forest service in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It has a CCF grant scheme, which is being well received. There are good examples of new entrants being mentored into the practice.

As I said in my introductory statement, the biggest constraint to the practice of CCF in Ireland is the unsustainable deer populations that we have. CCF practice and any kind of diversification of our forestry sector with native species or diverse conifer species require them to get through an army of invasive deer which are rampant in our countryside. This is hugely expensive to the Department because it pays grants to help us with this. For me as a practitioner, the deer issue is the number one issue.

On the Senator's question on the national forestry inventory, I will have to check the position and revert to her in writing.

Dr. Catherine Farrell

On a national peatlands unit, I am a great proponent of cross-sectoral action. One of the models that has worked well and shines out for me is the EPA catchments unit. It works right across different sectors. It has great engagement with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and groups right across Ireland. It is supporting initiatives such as the local authority waters programme, LAWPRO. We need a model such as that which would engage with the geological side and the EU side, through the Department while also overlapping with climate. It must have the ability to cross and break down silos. That is the general model that I believe would work well.

On the National Parks and Wildlife Service, I think the answer was in Senator Boylan's question. The NPWS needs to be a stand-alone body with powers of enforcement. For me, the model is the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, which has clear leadership and accountability, is well resourced, sets clear targets and smart objectives and has a network of supporting initiatives. In the interests of finding a positive solution, there are some models that work well in Ireland and we need to look to those.

I am not sure if the Senator directed questions specifically to BirdWatch Ireland.

Ms Oonagh Duggan

There was one question on the NPWS. BirdWatch Ireland contributed to the review process and we look forward to its outcome. We want to see some additional examples of how this type of agency or entity has worked well in other countries. We are keeping an open mind on whether it should be an independent, stand-alone entity. There will always be a master Department in charge of an agency and there will always be connections with that Department. No entity is completely independent.

What is needed - we hope to see it in the review - are proposals for internal restructuring, building on the knowledge base of current staff and increasing staff. It would be great if we could see what additional funding will be provided. This has been the weak point for a long time. We have not seen the NPWS operating as it could operate for many years.

We will have to wait and see what the review looks like but we are hopeful that it will lead to a budget proposal. Everybody around this table will be looking at this. We need to see support for implementing the findings of the review when they come before the committee.

The committee looks forward to seeing that review.

I thank all the witnesses. This is an incredibly interesting discussion.

The 60% of the forest land in Ireland that is managed is likely to be a net emitter until 2025. I ask the witnesses to comment on clear-felling. As has been mentioned, much of the sequestration is in the soil. How much of that could be potentially reduced by a thinning approach? How much of the remaining 40% of afforested land and new managed forestry that is less than 30 years old could be converted to diverse forestry? I am referring to forest that is already planted. I was interested in what was said about bringing biodiversity back into currently afforested land by moving towards continuous cover and more broadleaf forest.

Will the witnesses comment on the practice of having a decorative flourish of broadleaf around the edge of forestry and the importance of having an integrated diversity within our forestry? I am interested in hearing specifically how much of the emissions loss is due to clear-fell and how much could be done if we brought in a thinning mandate now for managed forest land.

Under the mandate for the protection of peatlands, only the finest specimens have been protected and in many cases, they have not been managed. I ask the witnesses to comment on the management of existing special areas of conservation, SACs, on which cutting is still taking place, and the need to expand that network of both SACs and national heritage areas, NHAs. What might be the ladder or trajectory for degraded bogs, from rewetting to rehabilitation and then habitat restoration.

I ask the witnesses to comment on our target of having 30% of land designated as protected areas in the context of biodiversity and climate benefits. How much of our forestry and peatland could bring us towards that target?

My final question is for Birdwatch Ireland and I am happy to get a written answer if we run out of time. Mention was made of inadequate protection of hedgerows and I ask the witnesses to comment on that as well as on the use of environmental impact assessment tools in the context of birds, water, habitat directives and so on. Could they be used more? They are used on Natura sites vis-à-vis birds but should they be used more generally? I would also welcome comments from the witnesses on urban biodiversity and marine biodiversity in the context of bird life.

I will invite Dr. Farrell to respond first but would remind witnesses that we are very happy to receive supplementary written answers.

Dr. Catherine Farrell

That is a very big question. What we need to do is make a thorough assessment or inventory of what we have in terms of our peatlands. We selected out the cream of the crop, as it were, back in the 1980s and 1990s but sadly we allowed their continued and ongoing degradation. Some of those examples that we designated as SACs are of a lower quality than areas that exist outside of the SAC network. We need to get back to assessing what is there and looking at the inventory but it is not just about conservation. It is also about reducing the risk of devastating events such as bogslides, fires and so on. We have to combine these conservation aims with reducing the risks relating to degraded peatlands. A national inventory is required.

We must target areas that are hotspots for nature conservation and look after them but also those hotspots that are going to cause huge problems and lead to huge costs to the State in terms of water and carbon loss and potentially, the loss of human life at some point. The important thing is to get them all back on a trajectory of recovery. I have worked on degraded peatlands and often the ones that are outside the network can give back the most in terms of a minimal intervention. The more degraded the system is, the easier it is to work with in some ways because one can start to push it back and get positive responses. I would not be prejudiced against a peatland because it is not as good looking as the next. They all have their role. Each peatland has to be assessed at site level and catchment level and there is no easy way around that. Doing that will make a hugely significant contribution. It also overlaps with Mr. Purser's work in terms of the areas that should be restored under forestry and the areas that can remain under this continuous cover forestry, with added benefits for biodiversity. They all need restoration and they can all contribute to that 30% target.

Mr. Paddy Purser

I thank Senator Higgins for her questions. Carbon accounting is a very specialised subject and the answers will depend on a lot of different assumptions. It is one of those subjects where one can get the answer one wants depending on what assumptions one makes. I do not think it is my place to guess. There are national experts in that field so I am not going to get into the figures on it. What I will say, however, is that we can improve on our carbon sequestration figures in forestry by retention, thinning and diversification. However, we must be realistic as I said previously because it is not possible in many cases to do this. Often crops have gone too far, are too mature or have been grown too long without intervention and to intervene now would destabilise them and could cause massive windblown events, or similar. In many cases, we are looking at felling, redesigning and replanting with a reverse mix and a reimagining of the future management. That would be appropriate in many cases.

On the actual design, the Senator referred to using diverse species around the edges of plantations to hide or screen industrial or monocultural plantations. Policy initiatives to date have allowed or encouraged this. While we are pushing for greater levels of diverse planting, what happens is that a lot of it becomes compartmentalised so we end up with smaller monocultures. All of the diverse species go into one field and all of the broadleafs go into another but the largest part is the commercial, monoculture spruce. It is a diversification of sorts but it is not real. It does not allow for future transformation of management to continuous cover forestry. A redesign should involve the integration of species at planting stage. We have submitted proposals to the forest service on that.

Ms Oonagh Duggan

I will respond to the question about degradation of hedgerows and the use of environmental assessment tools. Ms Donaghy will respond to the other elements of that question. There is no law to protect hedgerows. They are protected by proxy under the Wildlife Act and by regulations relating to agriculture such as the environmental impact assessment, EIA, regulations relating to restructuring of land holdings, where linear features in the landscape are protected. However, the thresholds when it comes to those EIAs are really high. A landowner does not have to seek EIA screening from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine until a certain threshold is met so we do see quite an amount of hedgerows falling through the cracks in those regulations. We are calling for a bespoke law to protect hedgerows. Under the Wildlife Act, restrictions aimed at protecting breeding birds mean that there is no cutting or burning of vegetation allowed between 1 March and 31 August. Quite a number of bird species use hedgerows which is where the protection comes into play. They are so important in the landscape and we would like to see a law protecting hedgerows in their own right, especially some of the older hedgerows. Some are hundreds of years old or more. They are not the same as young hedgerows.

I am sorry but we must move on. If Ms Duggan wishes to follow up with a written answer, we would appreciate that. I invite Dr. Donaghy to respond quickly to the last part of Senator Higgins's question. We have three members waiting and they will only have seven minutes each at this stage, which is less than the other members had. In that context, I ask Dr. Donaghy to be brief.

Dr. Anita Donaghy

In terms of the urban environment, there is only one species on the red list, the swift, mainly because of the loss of nest sites and the demolition of old buildings. There are a couple of other species on the amber list that have moved straight from green to amber, including mallard and greenfinch. These common species are suddenly being flagged up and we need to be aware that once-common species are no longer safe and are also declining. In terms of the marine environment, we are very seriously threatened and a lot more research is needed on diet and productivity in particular. We can provide more information in writing.

Thank you, we appreciate that. Deputy Bruton is next.

In terms of our Paris obligations, to what extent can peat or forestry contribute to the targets we are setting for 2030 and 2050? Allied to that question, do we need to change the way the inventory is measured at EU level? It is my understanding that neither peat nor forestry falls into the existing inventory.

The big question then is how to drive both peat restoration and forestry, which are far below where they ought to be, even with relatively timid ambitions. How do we drive them up to the levels of hectares per annum that we need to get to? In particular, what is the role of Bord na Móna and Coillte, two State bodies with much experience. Coillte has done relatively little planting and Bord na Móna is embarking on a programme of restoration. Could we support that in going faster and further, bringing a wider community with it?

Mr. Paddy Purser

On the question of targets, as the Deputy indicated, we are well below afforestation targets and therefore we will be falling behind even what was signed up to as a forestry commitment in Paris with every year that we fail to reach baked-in targets. The Deputy asked how we drive the recovery in this and that process is under way with wide industry support. Although the process has support, the outcomes are on the line. I refer to Project Woodland, which the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, initiated through her Department. There is widespread support for the process in the forestry sector and engagement in it. There are four strands in this, with one specifically looking at how to reach the targets that have been set. Another of the strands looks at what is an appropriate target over the next ten or 20 years, along with what is an appropriate strategy around that?

Within the forest research area, there is a Council for Forest Research and Development, COFORD, committee that is also looking at land availability. It is doing good work in that regard. There are processes in place but the Project Woodland initiative must be given a chance. Everybody who should be involved in that process is involved and everybody is working hard to achieve its aims.

Dr. Catherine Farrell

We are back to the question of having an inventory of what we have and setting clear targets around our peatlands. The peatlands per se are not included in the national inventory reporting and we must address that. If we were to start including them, how would it affect our accounting results? We need to align the data we have, identify the gaps and inform the process so we can make a proper and appropriate assessment of the peatlands we have.

On the restoration work that is ongoing and whether we can up the ante and scale up, the Deputy mentioned the work in Bord na Móna. My sense is that work is being well supported. Let us remind ourselves that this is approximately 5% of the total peatland resource that we have. Coillte certainly has potential and it should be supported. The Coillte Nature initiative was set up to take on these legacy areas that do not have any commercial value per se but are now recognised as having amenity value and can be converted for the purposes of peatland restoration for water and climate benefit and biodiversity value. It is something that should be supported.

The real wins come with farming communities, as that is where the majority of lands lie. They are outside the semi-State bodies. We must support these communities in stopping degradation even before we move to restoration. The degradation must stop, which means reducing grazing or even removing grazing animals from uplands entirely. Then we must start looking at how they can be supported through farm support schemes and CAP measures to implement restoration.

There is no big bang solution but we must work in a way that supports communities that are biting at the bit to get involved with wetland and peatland restoration. That is a framework to follow in deciding what we must do in moving on with restoration.

Ms Oonagh Duggan

I support Dr. Farrell's comments. Farmers have not been found wanting in responding to results-based agri-environment schemes, where results can be seen on the ground. They should be rewarded for those activities. There is great scope for increasing CAP funds in the strategic plan to help farmers not only to restore peatlands but to undertake landscape scale restoration for biodiversity, and that is about restoring habitats, as well as supporting or restoring semi-natural grasslands and wetlands all over the country. It is an exciting time and we must recall that we are in a biodiversity crisis as well as a climate crisis, so we must really work together on this.

I thank everybody for what has been a fascinating meeting today. Much has been covered. I sometimes wonder how different policies might be if birds could vote. It is great to hear Ms Duggan say it is an exciting time because when we look through the list of species that have moved from green to amber and amber to red, it feels a little overwhelming, to say the least.

It is great to hear that results-based schemes are having an impact. What more can be done around that? Are we looking at pure investment at this stage to support farmers? I suppose the same would apply to peatlands.

Continuous cover is the gold standard but what are we talking about for silver standard, for example? Sometimes that can get left out but perhaps it will come out in the wash with Project Woodland. What could be suggested that will get us some way there, although it might not be the gold standard of what we are looking for in forestry? We are in a crisis with forestry, from production and felling through to biodiversity.

Mr. Purser mentioned that this is not so much to do with the type of forestry but how it is processed and the soil. Does he have any comments to make about soil and the kind of investment we need to make in soils in order to ensure forestry is doing the best job it can? I know organics have been mentioned.

Many of the questions for Dr. Farrell have been covered but one of the concerns we have as a committee is how fast this can happen in order to get us to where we need to be climate-wise when we are looking at sequestration. I thank the witnesses and I am very conscious of the time left.

I do not believe there was a question for BirdWatch Ireland.

Ms Oonagh Duggan

I have a comment. In the past year in particular, but also prior to that, even back to the heritage Bill campaign, we saw a public response to the proposed weakening of the laws protecting breeding birds. The response was phenomenal.

In the past year, we have seen people return to taking an interest in birds and nature as a means of respite and to get away from the bad and sad news we are hearing all the time. That has been reflected in the membership increase at BirdWatch Ireland and a major increase in interest in nature generally. The tide has turned. The public are behind measures and initiatives. They want to see change, biodiversity restored and climate change tackled. There is where I see the hope. This as an exciting time. The red list makes for pretty depressing reading but there is a momentum now, which includes momentum for Deputies and Senators to help us to get to where we need to be.

Dr. Catherine Farrell

To respond to the questions of how soon is now and how fast can all this happen, the science, the basic framework from which we can build and target, is there. It is a matter of moving to the engagement phase. As Ms Duggan said, this is an exciting time. Farmers are realising the works they are doing do not align with what they know is right for the environment. The appetite is there but incentives are needed.

Mr. Paddy Purser

Senator O’Reilly’s question regarding a silver standard is a difficult one to answer. There are many different types of woodland. If the priority is promoting biodiversity, native woodlands are definitely the area to prioritise. The difficulty is on the economic side. We are asking private landowners to deliver the forestry programme and many are planting native woodland. I planted 11 new native woodlands this year on behalf of private owners. That is a major gesture on their part for the country and there is no economic reason for doing so. That is the difficulty. That is why when we talk about forest management we try to talk about delivering sustainably on all three of the cornerstones, namely, ecology, economics and the social aspect of sustainable forestry. There are different systems. The CCF system is able to deliver to those functions in a balanced way. We continue timber production through harvesting timber and selling it to the timber industries but by not clear-cutting the forests, we are retaining the forest ecosystem, allowing it to evolve and develop, and storing and locking carbon the whole time.

As regards a bronze standard, as I indicated in a previous answer, there are circumstances where it is not possible to transform a plantation forest in the current rotation. It would need to be felled using best felling practices and then redesigned, restructured and replanted. That applies to many of the forests in this country, which are simply not possible to transform.

On the question on soils, I would refer to my presentation and some of the legacy issues. The way we invest in the soils that are suitable for forestry is by planting them in a diverse way. Planting a monoculture does not respect the soil because one ends up with a very simple structure beneath the ground and that is not good. A diverse structure is needed underground as well as overground and that is what the soil will indicate and benefit from. It is not through any action we do directly with the soil but through the secondary benefit of having diverse species planted on the soil.

I thank Mr. Purser. Last but not least, I call Deputy Cronin who has been waiting patiently.

I thought I had raised my hand remotely several times but it disappeared and I ended up at the back of the queue each time.

This has been a very interesting meeting. We heard about the custodian approach and were given the wisdom of the ages. I have a question for Mr. Purser. We have to get buy-in. We must have the necessary humility in our actions and attitude towards forests, biodiversity and climate change. The forest resonates in our psyche as humans as a place of shelter, almost of magic, and Mr. Purser spoke of a magic wand. How do we best communicate the idea that we are no longer masters of the universe and we have to become servants of nature?

Mr. Purser also mentioned deer. Is he proposing a cull of non-native deer on the basis of their interference with native woodland? I heard that native woodland was not as badly devastated as other woodland as a result of the fire that broke out in Killarney National Park. Can Mr. Purser confirm that?

I have a brief question for either of the witnesses from BirdWatch Ireland. Their presentation was magnificent and powerful. We heard during the week about the return of the crane to Ireland after 300 years. I do not think people know that 63% of birds are at risk. Our left hand is destroying what our right hand is doing. To imagine a spring without birdsong would be horrendous. We have to get that message out. I would welcome comments on that.

Mr. Paddy Purser

I thank Deputy Cronin. Her question on how society value forests is a cultural one. I do not know if I have all the answers to it. We are a culture which fell out of love with forests. Forestry is a relatively new thing in communities again. We should not forget that at the turn of the last century we were down to having 1.5% forest cover. It is now at 11%. The European average is between 20% and 30% range and in some countries it is more than 50%. We are far behind in terms of having a forestry culture. Many of the forests we have, particularly the private forests, are first generation forests. We have not gained access to them and they have not been thinned. They have not yet appeared from behind the hedgerow. That is a slow process that will take time.

A game changer in how we value forests would be on the natural capital front, by recognising and valuing this natural capital that is provided by forests and offering that value to the forest owner. If the forest owner was not dependent on the timber income to deliver all the other products and services from the forest, and in a similar way to the results-based schemes referred to in the other presentations, forests could deliver much more efficiently and forest owners could be rewarded for the delivery of all those other functions which make forests magical and beautiful places to be in. That aspect is being discussed in Project Woodland, which should issue guidance on it.

Regarding deer, it is a difficult but critical topic. Deer do not respect individual land ownerships. They range across huge areas of land and multiple land ownerships. With respect to the way culling is licensed, plenty of deer culling takes place but not in as organised and systematic way. What we need are localised round-up deer management groups where neighbours co-operate, targets are set and people work together to achieve a particular deer density target.

It is a particularly big issue for native woodlands. Native species are struggling to regenerate because of browsing pressure and the same applies to existing native woodlands.

There was a question relating to fire and the Deputy was 100% correct. Mature native woodlands are far less vulnerable to fire. In fact, they are almost repellent to fire as it sweeps through the landscape. We have a problem with younger native woodlands that are recently planted because we still have ground vegetation. The preceding ground vegetation is still present on site. Young native woodlands can be vulnerable. However, it is different for mature native woodlands because they are more diverse and have a higher moisture content at ground level. They tend to be bypassed by fire or stop fire in the landscape in Ireland. The same applies in other western European countries. An example of this was in Portugal, where fires ripped through eucalyptus and pine plantations but when they came to a riparian native woodland, they stopped. Such fires might hop over native woodland but the surviving forests in the landscape are the native forests.

Ms Oonagh Duggan

There was a reference to being masters of the universe and a question on how we change our approach. The pandemic has shown us that we are not masters of the universe, especially given the likely links or origins of the pandemic with the trade in wildlife and loss of habitat. If there was ever a message, that is it. We have been able to address the pandemic by treating it as an emergency.

Two years ago, we declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. What we need to see now is action on that. How do we increase awareness of the losses of birds? It would be great to see the media discuss it more. We see many nice nature films and television programmes. These are important to raise awareness, but we need to see more programming on the reality of what is happening, the losses of species and the challenges to restoration of populations.

We have an opportunity now to restore populations. Between the forestry programme, Project Woodland and the Common Agricultural Policy we have the opportunity to invest in restoration. This should be at the heart of all decision making relating to restoring biodiversity and tackling climate change.

Dr. Catherine Farrell

I will reinforce the comments by Mr. Purser around national capital accounting and the national capital approach in terms of recognising different values relating to different services. That is one approach I am currently working on in terms of presenting a more holistic framework of how we get benefits from restoration. It can also help us to target other hazard areas.

Many services are returned but we have not heretofore recognised the value of these services. They are almost like the hidden values and hidden wealth within our forests and peatlands. There is momentum presented by this committee. It is in the gift of the committee to drive restoration for climate and biodiversity. The key understanding is that biodiversity underpins climate; they are not separate issues. Therefore, we have to hold difficult and awkward conversations on where we have to bring them all together. We cannot separate the water from the peat, the wood from the trees, the fire from the landslide. It is very much an integrated approach.

There have been some great initiatives by the Water Forum recently. I want to flag two particular publications. One is the Framework for Integrated Land and Landscape Management. The forum has also published a document on the co-benefits of water and peatlands. It is hosting a session on Friday and I recommend that all members attend. There is extensive ongoing work in this area and the session is to raise awareness among people such as members of this committee in order that they can start to bring this into their conversations.

I thank Dr. Farrell for notifying us of that event. We will circulate the details and encourage all members to attend if they can.

We are out of time. I was going to ask Mr. Purser about the economic gap between clear-fell forestry and continuous cover. If he has information or analysis of the economic gap that exists, perhaps he could forward it to us. I am mindful that the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine deals regularly with forestry. I am unsure if Mr. Purser has had the opportunity to appear before that committee. Perhaps we could try to arrange that. I could speak to the Chairman of that committee if Mr. Purser has not done so.

I thank our witnesses for their contributions and opening statements. As I said, they were most informative. The answers were fantastic. It has been a remarkably engaging session. My thanks to members of the committee for their good questions, as always. I reckon we are the most switched-on committee in the Oireachtas at the moment. I know members are working hard and I thank them for that.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.35 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 25 May 2021.