Project 1

Biodiversity of Afforestation sites





Ireland has established a legal and institutional framework to support Sustainable Forest Management (SFM). As part of this process the importance of biodiversity and its assessment has come to the fore. Forestry is a very important industry in Europe and is becoming increasingly important in Ireland. With the industry planning to have up to 15% of the Irish landscape planted by the year 2010 (current forest cover is 9%) there is a drive to arrive at national indicators of sustainable forest management. The species of trees being planted are mostly exotic conifers, though there is a shift in the last few years to plant more deciduous broadleaves.

Afforestation in Ireland is no longer confined to the poorer uplands, and the types of sites being planted are quite diverse, ranging from heath to different types of grassland. The changes in the landscape that are being brought about by afforestation activities are quite significant, and have led to questions about the implications of afforestation for biodiversity in the Irish landscape. Scientific data showing how land use change affects biodiversity are scant, and there is debate about how to approach optimising the landscape for biodiversity. New areas of forest (broadleaved or coniferous) will potentially provide support for (or encourage recolonisation by) some components of biodiversity. Potential losses of open-country biota, dependent on the 'traditional' cultural landscape of much of Ireland must also be considered, however. Additionally, whilst a certain amount of the country has some protection status (such as National Park or the European designation Special Area of Conservation), there are important areas for biodiversity outside of these designations, in which some afforestation will be scheduled to take place. There is currently no protocol for assessing the biodiversity of such areas, and for projecting how afforestation activities may affect them.

Previous biodiversity studies of Irish habitats currently being afforested have been somewhat uneven, but show that each broad category (heathland, unimproved grassland, etc.) includes some distinctive and highly localized plant communities (e.g. lowland heath, a rare vegetation type away from coastal areas); collectively, they include several major elements in Ireland's plant and animal diversity. Each category includes a number of scarce and rare species, including legally protected species. Because of the absence of a functioning biological records centre in Ireland, standard inventory data which would normally underpin strategic planning (in particular for forestry) are not available. For this reason, the development of the forest industry and conservation of biological diversity may come into conflict. If biodiversity were to be assessed for potential sites such conflict might subside as decisions could be based on objective scientific data.

The project also links closely with sub-project 3.1.2: Assessment of biodiversity at different stages of the forest cycle and sub-project 3.1.3: Investigation of experimental methods to enhance biodiversity in plantation forests. The approach to the assessment of biodiversity in the sites will be similar in each project and this is outlined in the overall BIOFOREST project description. A combination of structural, functional and compositional indicators will be used, the emphasis in this sub-project being on the compositional ones.

Main Objectives

·         Develop methodologies for biodiversity assessment and identify indicator species in important habitats which might be subjected to afforestation

·         Compare species composition between a  range of recently afforested sites representing different habitats, and non-afforested equivalent habitats

·          Assess the efficacy of the Forestry Biodiversity Guidelines and recommend improvements


·         Review  methodologies used overseas for biodiversity assessment of potential forest sites, indicating those most relevant to Ireland

·         Inventory and evaluation of representative groups within the plant and animal communities of a range of representative sites prior to afforestation.

·         Identify species (or other features) which might be useful indicators or predictors of biodiversity

·         Identify the main issues in long-term monitoring of potential forestry sites, and the role of site maps in GIS format

·         Inventory potential afforestation sites for a range of taxa and log data in a format compatible with user databases

·         Assess the changes in botanical and faunal composition and diversity in sample sites during the initial period subsequent to planting.


The above objectives were achieved by using 24 paired study sites and comparing recently afforested sites with adjacent, closely comparable sites that have remained unplanted. Close liaison with Coillte, Forest Service, private forestry companies and other land owners was required to locate the sites, and the BIOFOREST Project thanks all landowners in particular for the use of their lands.. The location of the sites was stratified according to habitat type and included unimproved grassland, peatland and lowland agricultural sites. Eight replicates of each site type were used.

A targeted approach to the investigation of the biodiversity was used:

·        Literature searches and consultation with forestry and biological institutions internationally were used to draft a suitable methodology for assessing the biodiversity of afforestation sites in Ireland.

·        Current knowledge on the biodiversity of habitats most usually used for planting was assembled and used to reinforce the choice of indicators of biodiversity in each habitat type.

·     With the guidance of the two above reviews, surveys of  flowering plants, ferns,  mosses, liverworts, birds, spiders and hoverflies were conducted in a number of study sites. Rare and threatened species and any special indicators were highlighted.

Results and Conclusions

Field surveys were completed throughout Ireland (see map). Eight pairs of sites were surveyed in 2002. Major habitat types in the study were improved grassland, unimproved wet grassland and peatlands, including blanket bog and wet heath. Each pair contained one five-year old afforested site and one nearby unplanted site. Sixteen pairs of sites were surveyed during the field season of 2004 comprising the habitat types outlined above.

Results and conclusions of this project were presented in a substantial technical report which will be available in electronic format from COFORD:

Smith, G.F., T. Gittings, M.W. Wilson, A. Oxbrough, S. Iremonger, S. O'Donoghue, A.-M. McKee, J. O'Halloran, , D.L. Kelly, J. Pithon, A. O'Sullivan, P. Neville, F.J.G. Mitchell, P.S. Giller, V. O'Donnell and T.C. Kelly (2006). Biodiversity Assessment of Afforestation Sites. BIOFOREST Project 3.1.1 Final Report. Report prepared for COFORD and EPA.

In addition to this major final product, the project produced other reports and theses as shown below, and contributed to the BIOFOREST Project overall Synthesis Report. and the major database product. The other products are:

Gittings, T., A.-M. McKee, S. O’Donoghue, J. Pithon, M. Wilson, P.S. Giller, D. L. Kelly, J. O’Halloran, F.J.G. Mitchell, S. Iremonger, A. O’Sullivan and P. Neville (2004). Biodiversity Assessment in preparation for afforestation: A review of existing practice in Ireland and best practice overseas. Report prepared for COFORD and EPA.

A report entitled Project 3.1.1: Biodiversity assessment of afforestation sites was prepared by Jacqeline Bolli during her five-month work placement experience with BIOFOREST in TCD. Jacqueline submitted this as part fulfillment of her Environmental Sciences degree in ETH, Zürich, Switzerland.

A report entitled Relationships between Sitka spruce forest flora and surrounding land cover patterns was prepared by Deborah Tiernan on her work with some BIOFOREST data and remote sensing information, submitted in part fulfilment of her Master's degree in Environmental Resource Management in University College, Dublin.


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