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.