Today Ireland has the fastest growing forestry sector in Europe. At the foundation of the state, there was less than 1% forest cover, today that figure is over 10%. While past policies were in place to create rural employment, the current model is creating permanent cover, allowing biodiversity and recreational facilities for communities across the country.
William Bulfin wrote in 1907 “the problem of deforestation is tragically eloquent of the evils of foreign rule in ireland”. We lost 90% of our natural forest cover, and by 1923 our founding legislators inherited an exhausted forestry industry. In spite of this, and beginning from 1% cover, an afforestation program planted 388ha in that first year, accelerating to 10,000 ha in the 1960's and beyond.
Today through modest means we have restored our cover to 10%, Sean McBride's afforestation policies in the 1948 inter party government played a large role in this forestry restoration, meeting the coverage Ireland had some 400 years ago.
Notwithstanding the approvals and environmental protocols that must be met when procuring Irish timber, the following are just some of the benefits coming from our forestry sector:
· 12,000 rural jobs
· It is a locally grown, sustainable construction material
· It is a carbon sink, currently sequestering 312 million tonnes of carbon
· It purifies water
· Prevents soil erosion
· It is a biofuel
· And, it produces oxygen
Education is paramount to secure sustainable forestry. Structural engineer Dr Annette Harte of NUIG has played a vital role with many other stakeholders in the research into the use of home grown timber in the construction sector. Considering we have a multi generational knowledge vacuum in the procurement of timber construction methodologies, her pioneering work is fundamental to the future of Irish forestry and its production of timber in the construction sector.
There is a growing international movement to build sustainably, and the use of timber will meet the criteria of reducing embodied carbon in our built environment. Countries all over the world are legislating with 'Wood First' policies in public procurement. South Dublin County Council was the 1st, and only, local authority to unanimously pass a wood first motion in 2017, with the intention of setting example and promoting the use of timber in the construction sector.
The state must ensure that the sector protects rural communities and the environment they live in. Modern policies are evolving, creating a holistic approach to our forestry, taking account of local jobs, amenities, biodiversity and climate. It is also of paramount importance that we create a more sustainable building sector, where we can build sustainably, safer and learn from current international paradigms.