Schizophrenic Coillte

I regularly bring groups walking on Coillte managed land. Although virtually exclusively non-native afforestation, nevertheless these habitats do support a range of wildlife and afford good long off-road walking routes. You can ‘get lost’ in these huge conifer plantations, forget about the world outside for a while and enjoy the fresh air. 

If lucky, you might spot Kestrel, Merlin, Red Deer, Pine Marten, Otter, Red Grouse and small birds, like Coat Tit, Treecreeper, Goldcrest, Pipits, etc. These are not the ‘dead zones’ some would like us to believe. Low in biodiversity they are, but ‘dead’ they certainly are not.

I wrote a reasonably positive blog entry some weeks back about the good native forest restoration work ongoing under the EU-Life project. While I know that positive work is currently being done in places like Clonbur Wood and other sites, I also know that very little good is being done on the so-called Millenium Forest at nearby Tourmakeady Wood, where the site is severely infested with Rhododendron. A decade back, Coillte brazenly declared on the signage within Tourmakeady that the Rhododendron was to be eradicated. Nothing of the sort has happened.  

I am a pragmatist who realises that commercial conifer plantations play a role in Ireland’s rural economy and that the state-owned Coillte is not going to stop its main business any time soon. I avail of their open door policy to walkers, cyclists and so on and appreciate that.  

My gripe, however, has more to do with the way it behaves itself. While on the one hand waving its flag about Clonbur et al, on the other hand it seems to have abandoned Tourmakeady.  

Eskeragh, North Mayo

Eskeragh, North Mayo

On Wednesday, I visited another restoration project, this time at Eskeragh, north Mayo. This EU-Life project is about blanket bog restoration. Here, Coillte openly admits to having virtually destroyed the natural habitat, through drainage and conifer planting in the 1980s. It has removed the conifers, blocked up drains in order to allow the site to waterlog once more and has even installed a nice attractive boardwalk with accompanying explanatory panel for visitors. 

Good for them, I hear you cry. 

However, no more than a few kilometres away, I then visited a vast plantation at Carrowkilleen / Carrowgarve. Here, you see the ‘real’ Coillte at work, away from the PR and the public.  

Felling has recently taken place here on a vast scale, far greater than what might be considered reasonable. The destruction is terrible, leaving a landscape of mangled tree stumps, broken branches, churned up ground, compromised water quality and heavy machinery tracks. I hear you say “well, that’s the price you pay for commercial forestry on a large scale”. I reiterate that it does not have to be on such a massive scale all at once.  

The problem here is wanton environmental damage being perpetrated at these sites. I found this upturned drum of gearbox oil dumped in a water channel. You can clearly see that the spout is open. Further along, Pipits and Wagtails dipped their beaks in oil-polluted puddles. A large tyre was dumped in another water channel. This is disgraceful behaviour and demonstrates clear disregard for the environment Coillte claims to care for at other sites.  

So, Coillte, go ahead with your commercial non-native plantations, but why not carry out your business in a responsible and environmentally respectful manner. Oh yeah, and give us more native broadleaves. Oh yeah, and hand over your bogland and forest restoration project sites to an independent body that might actually care and be focussed on sustainability, environmental care and biodiversity.  

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Coillte and Native Woods – Is It Possible ?

Coillte is the Irish state-owned commercial forestry management entity, controlling around 7% of the national territory. Almost all of the trees planted on the company’s estate are non-native conifers, including Sitka Spruce, Norway Spruce, Lodgepole Pine and others. Many of its sites in the West would be considered near ‘dead zones’ in terms of their very poor species diversity, both flora and fauna. We all know of sites where the sun does not penetrate to the monoculture plantation floor and where birdlife and mammal life is low in diversity.

In a remarkable move, however, Coillte became involved in an EU-Life Natura 2000 project back in 2006, with the aim of restoring small bits of its estate as priority native woodland habitats. This week, I attended the two-day conference, which closed this four-year, € 2.6 m project.

On the second day, attendees visited Clonbur Wood, on the Galway – Mayo border. Various Coillte personnel introduced us to the interesting aspects of the wood, which is associated with limestone pavement. Large scale removal of non-native trees has taken place and native species planted in their place. There is real hope that this site, of almost 300 ha, can return to being a wonderful, diverse native wood.

Native trees present include Ash, Hazel, Birch, with some Oak, Juniper and Yew. Animals present include fox, badger, pine marten, red squirrel, lesser horseshoe bat and otter.

As one part of my three- and five-day walking tours in Mayo, I bring small groups on to Coillte managed lands. In 2010, I will be adding this wonderful new amenity at Clonbur, where walkers can see first hand this impressive project to re-establish a native limestone pavement woodland in this part of the West of Ireland.

See here for information on Clonbur Wood.

For the EU website on the LIFE Project, see here.