Described as Ireland’s ‘richest and most important natural habitats’, native woodlands are key to wider countryside biodiversity, water protection, landscape and heritage. They also provide the basis for eco-tourism enterprises and represent an ‘invaluable resource for local communities and school children’ to enjoy and to learn about their local heritage and the wider natural world.

Irelands Native woodlands killarney

Killarney National Park Co. Kerry contains the largest area of native woodland in the country. It sustains a wide range of plant and animal species that require extensive areas of native woodland. (Photo DAFM)

These and other sentiments were voiced at the launch of Management Guidelines for Ireland’s Native Woodlands — a joint initiative of the Department of Culture, Heritage & the Gaeltacht and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, written by Dr John Cross and Kevin Collins, who together combine woodland ecology and forestry expertise.

Combating threats

The full-colour publication explores appropriate ways to expand and to manage Ireland’s native woodlands, which cover just 1% of the landscape ‘and need active management and expansion to combat threats such as overgrazing by deer and invasion by rhododendron’.

The book celebrates native woodlands — ranging from ancient oak and ash woodlands dating back before the 1660s, to naturally emerging woodlands such as birch wood colonising cutaway bog, to recently planted woods.

Topics include grazing, natural regeneration, invasive species, deadwood and afforestation. Guidance is also given for specific native woodland habitats.

Cross and Collins contend that native woodlands protect and enhance water quality and aquatic systems, and can contribute towards tackling environmental challenges in the context of the Water Framework Directive; conservation of freshwater pearl mussel; creation of corridors and ‘stepping stones’ between natural and semi-natural habitats; carbon sequestration; and landscape enhancement.

Sensitive landscapes (e.g. a national park or catchments of high status objective waterbodies) are examples where habitat linkages and protecting water and associated aquatic ecosystems and species ‘are highly relevant’.

Aquatic Buffer Zones, also known as ‘water setbacks’ on new forest sites, are described as: ‘An area at least 10 metres in width and created alongside a stream, river or lake, within which forestry operations are limited in order to protect water from direct disturbance and the runoff of sediment and nutrients.

Within the context of afforestation, the ABZ (or ‘water setback’) remains generally undisturbed to allow a protective strip of natural ground vegetation to emerge. The creation of appropriate ABZs is a general requirement attached to licences / approvals issued by the Forest Service for regulated forestry activities.’