Seanad Éireann - Volume 131 - 11 March, 1992

Adjournment Matter. - County Wicklow Woodland.

Mr. E. Ryan: I welcome the Minister of State but I am disappointed the Minister, Deputy O'Malley, is not here. However, I am sure the Minister of State will pass on what I say to him. I ask the Minister [1338] to rescind the decision of the Minister for Energy to grant a licence for the felling of 323 trees in Tomnafinnoge Wood, Coolattin Estate, County Wicklow.

I know this part of the country extremely well and that is why I have a personal interest in it. Many other people are also interested in it. It is a very beautiful part of the country. I have visited it over the past 20 years, and noticed even as late as last Sunday, how the beautiful forests are disappearing. Other people fought against this. My two colleagues, Deputies Jacob and Roche, have worked very hard to ensure that further erosion of the woods does not take place. The former Taoiseach, Deputy Haughey, and the Minister for Energy at the time, Deputy Smith, stopped some of the tree felling. It is a matter of great regret that recently a licence was granted to fell a further 323 trees.

The reason people are so concerned was summed up very well for me when I visited there last Sunday. I said to somebody that these woods are part of our heritage. They have a very important place in our history and for future generations. I said that to grant a licence to cut down these trees is like telling somebody they can knock down a Georgian square. One of the people with me said “No, you are wrong. It is like giving a licence to knock down the last Georgian square”. This is why I feel so strongly about it. Tomnafinnoge Wood is the last original Irish oakwood and that point cannot be lost.

I do not know if the Minister has visited the area, I do not know if he has seen the beauty of it and the destruction of other parts of the wood. I can arrange for him to see Tomnafinnoge Wood and also see all the other woods like Brow Wood. He can then come back and tell us if he is happy with what has happened and with the way Bridgefarm Company are undertaking the felling and replanting of these trees. This is not a personal thing. I just believe the Minister, for one reason or another, is being told that something is [1339] happening and I am not too sure if he is getting the full story. Tomnafinnoge Wood is the last remnant of the oak-woods once blanketing the Watson Wentworth estate which during the 17th and 18th Centuries comprise of virtually all of south Wicklow: 56,000 plantation acres or 37,000 hectares in all. The property passed to Earl Fitzwilliam in 1782. Estate documents survived and have been researched and published which provide a continuous and detailed record of native wood management in south Wicklow throughout the 18th Century. These estate records include coppice and scrub wood surveys at the beginning of the 17th Century. The survey shows, and I quote their researcher, Melvyn Jones of Sheffield City Polytechnic, that the woods concentrated in Shillelagh and Rathdrum.

Represented the remnants of a much more extensive woodland cover and had been cleared relatively recently. A survey of 1656, for example, gave a figure of 5,609 plantation acres of woodland in Shillelagh alone... Besides the coppices and scrub woods there were also the famous Shillelagh oaks in the deer park at Coolattin, numbering 2,150 according to the survey of 1728, when they were described as “the glory and ornament of the kingdom of Ireland” and valued at £8,317.

It has been established that Tomnafinnoge Wood, like all other former woods in this area, was managed by the “coppicing with standards” method. When a broadleafed tree is felled or falls over, it does not usually die but undergoes a remarkable regeneration. Bereft of its branches, the root system channels all its energy into regrowth. New shoots quickly sprout and grow straight and true towards the sunlight. That is a very important point.

I was there on Sunday and the trees that have been planted are not growing [1340] straight and true to the sunlight. They are not fenced in as they should be. Some of the area is used for deer hunting and the hunters sit on tall seats so that when the deer come out to graze they can shoot them. The tops of many young trees that were planted have been eaten by deer. Their growth is stunted and the replanting programme, for example in Brow Wood, at this stage is becoming a farce.

This type of growth results in a crop of many useful poles from a single stump. Coppicing harnesses this natural process to produce a regular supply of certain types of timber in various forms. There is evidence that alder trees may have been coppiced in England as early as 3,000 B.C. and by the Middle Ages the technique of coppicing with standards was established. In this system, standards such as oak or elm were allowed to mature alongside the coppiced wood.

The Watson Wentworth estate records show that cutting cycles varied from 16 to 33 years with an average cycle of 25 years. The Melvyn Jones study reports that each fall of underwood standards usually consisted of a large number of young trees, wavers of about 20 years of age, presumably saplings or single poles retained from coppice stools together with a small number of more mature trees grown on through a number of coppice cycles. The wavers were thinned at later falls leaving a few selected trees to reach full maturity. The proportion of wavers to black barks varied. The 1748 scheme stipulated that in each fall 10 black barks and 50 wavers per plantation acre would be left.

Hence we see that rather than using a system of felling and replanting, our forebears found it is much more economical and efficient to impose a system of coppicing on already existing woodland. Woods were felled particularly where the soil was good and desired for tillage but in the case of such a splendid wood as Tomnafinnoge, whose history is so well documented, we have living trees, reproducing trees, embodying an unbroken [1341] lineage extending deep into Ireland's past. When we consider the long-lived results of these traditional silvicultural practices which include careful fencing and ditching to prevent animal intrusion and grazing in coppices it seems the present day experts in the Department of Energy should feel humbled that all they can come up with is a plan that would leave us with one tree out of ten by the year 2,000.

Incidentally Brow Wood, known in the 18th Century as Thickson's Brow, was in 1728 just a scrub wood but it was converted into a coppice by the estate managers who noted that “if well reserved and fenced will make as good a springe if not the best in Shillelagh”. By our century Brow Wood had developed into one of the finest oak woodlands in the area but it fell under the chainsaw a few years ago and under current management practices it has reverted to scrub status.

The Department say they are happy with what has happened and that Bridgefarm Company will undertake to do the replanting very well. In 1986, the Bridgefarm Company applied for planning permission to cut down trees in Brow Wood and stated:

It is proposed to extract the specified trees which are fully mature. All are shown on the attached list and constitute only approximately 25 per cent of the total number of trees in this particular area. The remaining trees will be retained and interplanted with two year old oaks. This should ensure that the character of the wood can be preserved which otherwise would not be possible if the mature trees began to rot and fall over...

Our replanting programme at Coolattin is well on target. We have succeeded in planting 200 acres in 1985...

The Department of Botany in Trinity College carried out a private study and said that approximately 10 per cent is [1342] actually planted. In other words, they have only planted 10 per cent of oak trees and the rest are evergreens. They have not maintained the character of the woods: they have totally destroyed it. In the past two weeks a private report was made by an expert on Coolattin Wood with Tomnafinnoge Wood obviously in mind.

The report stated that any woodland can be looked at in terms of (1), commercial venture: (2) amenity; (3) ecological value, wildlife, etc. The promotion of any of the above as a primary aim will result in a management difference in both types and intensity. On that basis valued judgments can vary enormously and should only be accepted when the context in which they are made is clear. This contribution recognises that the whole woodlands are at least of unique amenity, historical and ecological value.

As regard health and maturity, the report stated that the overwhelmining majority of the trees are in exceptional health. Most are approaching or have reached maturity, a state in which an oak can remain for 100 years. Very few display the classic signs of over-maturity such as shedding of limbs, cavities, die back in crown, epicormic growth, etc. From a wildlife point of view a much higher percentage of dying and dead trees would be preferable. The author of the report said he saw few trees subject to wind blow and that those were in particular waterlogged areas. With regard to danger to the public the report stated given the above, the charge of danger to the public is hard to sustain. The report said that most of the oak would be more than acceptable in any Dublin park. A tree is only dangerous if there is a target, for example, pedestrians, houses, etc. Given the probable frequency of visitors to this woodland in strong weather it must be assumed that the risk factor is very low.

On planting and monitoring, the report said replanting is offered a mitigating or [1343] a minority measure in the event of the trees being felled. It said that in the Brow Hill area replanting after the last felling the following is evident — no effective fencing, many young trees cropped by deer, elevated heights suggest deer are actually encouraged; (2) rampant invasion by laurel with no obvious attempt to clear it — some invasion by rhododendrons; (3) a very slow growth rate on most young trees suggesting a lack of weeding on a programmed basis; (4) intermingled and sporadic planting of conifer not obviously nursery trees — this suggests no clear policy on whether oak or conifer woodland is the preferred aim; (5) rabbits; and (6) invasion by willow and birch uncurtailed. The report commented that if the replanting of Brow Hill is representative of the general attempt to replant, then a lack of confidence in the monitoring procedure and the success of replanting would be a reasonable stance.

The report stated that in Scotland, on some sites attempts to regenerate oak forests after felling have failed due to a rise in the water table. It is postulated that with the removal of the trees and the huge transpiration of water the soil has been left too water-logged for oak to grow. It said the appearance of willow and birch on Brow Hill suggests this as a definite possibility at least worthy of investigation before felling permission is given. The report said it makes sense to allow the woodlands remain and take advantage of periodic dry years to seed naturally. Any deep drainage in the area would on the other hand, affect the mature trees. The drying out of land after clear felling is associated with subtropical areas rather than wet temperature zones.

The report said it is accepted that virtually no oak woodland in Britain or Ireland is natural. However, many woodlands have evolved from the natural woodland and for this reason are of special ecological worth. According to the report it is too simplistic to say they [1344] were planted as a crop and should be harvested as a crop. The report stated that in Britain, woodlands are categorised as: (1) ancient, grown naturally since 1600; (2) ancient semi-natural woodlands, regenerating on ancient woodland sites; (3) recent semi-natural 130 years of natural succession; and (4) recent, planted and managed in the last 150 years. It said that in ecological terms categories (1) and (2) cannot be recreated once they are destroyed. Before felling permission is given, an investigation of historical documentation and ecological study should be made in determining the exact nature of these woodlands and the appropriate type and intensity of management.

The report commented that many of the question raised are outside the field of a forester or any one profession. Many developments of much less environmental impact now require an Environmental Impact Study. They can be made at the discretion and direction of the Minister for the Environment. Only an EIS would supply the information to make a balanced decision on this site. It said the right to full explanation of an asset is curtailed on various grounds in many aspects of Irish business life, that Coolattin could be deemed a special case and the same criteria could be applied. The report said the owner could realise the value of this asset by selling the land and trees to the Office of Public Works or to a private foundation. The price would be based on the real market value of the trees rather than a hypothetical valuation, long term lease of sale to the Office of Public Works or Wicklow County Council, or the sale lease of amenity use and control of woodlands to the above. It said a tree preservation order excluding the above option may get around constitutional obstruction.

Given the past record of the Bridgefarm Company I would have strong reservations about trusting them to do the work they say they will do. The matter should be fully investigated. I am amazed [1345] that this has happened. The trees they have planted are quercus robur, an English oak. The trees which were originally there were Irish oak which do much better on acid soil. The quercus robur do not do well on acid soil. The oaks they have planted are of such poor quality they will never regenerate into the kind of oak forest that is there at present.

I appeal to the Minister and to the Government to rescind this order and let people use this wood. We talk about urban renewal but what about rural renewal?

Visitors could come and look at the wildlife and life cycle of an original Irish oak wood. I appeal to the Minister to look at the benefits that could accrue to the local population around Coolattin and Tinahealy. All these trees are exported to Germany. Fifteen miles of oak have been exported to that country; not one single full-time job has been created.

If we were to set up a business and fell these trees in an orderly fashion we could manufacture very fine furniture. Recently Gay Byrne on “The Late Late Show” had a programme on newly established Irish businesses. What surprised me was the number of small furniture companies in Cork and other places who were exporting to Scandinavia, one of the most difficult markets in the world. If we were to set up small furniture factories around Coolattin and use oakwood we could create many jobs and protect something that has been handed down from one generation to another.

I appeal to the Minister and the Government to stop the felling of these trees. I understand the Minister, Deputy Molloy, is in America and that is why he cannot be here tonight. As I said, it is not a personal thing. I do not believe that the Minister, if he visited the site, would agree to what has happened and what could take place in the future.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. N. Treacy): At the outset I [1346] want to make it clear that there is no disagreement that Tomnafinnoge Wood in Coolattin, County Wicklow, is without doubt a place of great interest and an outstanding local amenity. It is the Minister for Energy's position that the rejuvenation and regeneration of this woodland requires active management, including felling. Doing nothing is not an option if the woodland is to be preserved and developed for future generations. Simply leaving it as it is will result in further deterioration.

The wood is a plantation which was laid down by man rather than a natural woodland and it has been downgraded over many decades. This has come about in two ways. First, the repeated selective harvesting of the better trees over a long period this century has left a residue of poorer quality, overmature trees. Secondly, the advancing age of the trees, up to 250 years, has rendered them physically moribund, and indeed dangerous at times and will curtail the future lifespan of these trees.

Natural regeneration has in places given rise to a considerable understory of immature trees, saplings and seedlings. These need to be released from overhead competition if they are to thrive and help to form the next mature generation. The plan, which I will outline later, builds on this unique feature of this woodland. Remedial action is needed elsewhere too as for example, where rhododendron is growing in the wood and which, if not treated, will spread, thus eliminating other ground vegetation, preventing regeneration and making the area inaccessible.

The objective in the programme which has been approved by the Minister for Energy who is at present in the United States, is to preserve and improve the woodland while recognising that individual trees have matured and will be felled and replaced.

The background to the decision to grant licence is that the areas were subject to a tree preservation order made by [1347] Wicklow County Council covering Coolattin. In 1985, the owners applied to the council to fell trees within the area known as Tomnafinnoge. On 19 May 1987, Wicklow County Council granted a consent to fell under the tree preservation order and the owners subsequently gave formal notice to the Minister for Energy under the Forestry Acts of their intention to fell 2,137 trees at Tomnafinnoge in accordance with the council's consent. The Minister for Energy exercised his option to prohibit the felling to enable the proposal to be fully examined.

There followed an extended period during which considerable field work was undertaken at Tomnafinnoge by the professional staff of the Forest Service of the Department of Energy. Arising from this and following extensive discussion with the applicant and discussions with Wicklow County Council, a forestry management programme based on what is known as the group felling system was agreed.

The objective of the programme is to achieve the regeneration and rejuvenation of Tomnafinnoge Wood with minimal disruption of landscape and amenity values. It involves felling only over-mature trees over an extended period. Younger trees, as I have already mentioned, will be left to form the next generation. In addition, replanting with broadleaf trees will be undertaken where necessary so that the woodland is fully stocked with growing trees.

It is essential to outline what exactly is involved in this programme, bearing in mind that while the overall plan has been agreed in principle its implementation will only be sanctioned by licence on an annual basis thus ensuring that each stage is satisfactorily completed before moving to the next.

The group felling system involves cutting over-mature trees in scattered patches each covering less than 0.5 hectare, 1.2 acres, and replanting where the existing stock of younger trees is inadequate [1348] thus avoiding the sudden impact caused by clear-felling of an extensive area. Regeneration of the whole wood is prolonged by extending the timing of the group removals.

In the case of Tomnafinnoge, the whole area has been divided into three equal blocks and it is proposed that necessary felling be carried out in three separate phases. If each phase is carried out in the shortest possible time the process will take at least ten years to cover the entire woodland.

The first phase would be spread over a period of three years. In year one, about two-fifths of the total number of over-mature trees in the first block will be removed in groups leaving the remainder. I wish to emphasise that only over-mature trees will be felled, the considerable under-story of younger trees and saplings will be preserved. All areas not already fully stocked by natural regeneration will be replanted with broadleaf species, mainly oak.

The whole process will be repeated in the second block in the following year. The third block will be treated similarly in the third year. Felling will then cease for a year to ensure the replanted areas are properly established before the next cycle begins. The final phase will start at the earliest, in year nine, and be spread over two years.

At the end of this period about 10 per cent of the original mature trees will still remain together with all existing immature trees, young growth and the newly planted crop which will by then cover the remaining ground. Suggestions that the wood will be devastated are without foundation. References to the removal of 90 per cent of the trees refer only to the over-mature trees and ignore the significant numbers of younger trees. These will not be felled but will be specifically preserved. These proposals are in full harmony with good forestry practice and, if agreed by the county council and implemented, will lead to a rejuvenation and regeneration of Tomnafinnoge [1349] Wood with a spread of trees of different ages and a more balanced growth cycle than is now the case.

It is against this background that on 13 December 1991 the Minister for Energy issued a licence to the owners to fell 323 trees under the first phase of the management programme. The prohibition order issued in 1987 remains in force in respect of all but these 323 trees.

The Department of Energy will monitor the silvicultural operations closely and will licence felling on an annual basis to ensure that essential felling is undertaken in a most sensitive way. I expect the owners to deliver precisely on the requirements for each stage but if they do not no further felling will be allowed. In relation to work done elsewhere on the estate, inspections by the Forest Service also confirm that replanting and maintenance, while it may not look attractive now, is of an acceptable standard and will lead to the re-establishment of woodlands in those areas.

The trees subject to the felling licence, as well as other trees, are covered by the tree preservation order issued by Wicklow County Council and may not be felled without a valid consent. The 1987 consent which the owners have is not in accordance with the programme approved by the Minister for Energy and will require revision. Any preservation of woodlands or individual trees for amenity or landscape purposes is the responsibility of the council. It is now a matter for the council to take a decision in relation to its own order whether felling can go ahead.

In a wider perspective, I wish to point out that the Minister for Energy is concerned at the adverse impact which this controversy over the harvesting of mature trees can have on his efforts to promote broadleaf planting generally in the country. As I mentioned at the outset, Tomnafinnoge is a planted woodland and if the Minister's target for increased broadleaf planting can be achieved nationally, there is no reason [1350] Tomnafinnoge should be an isolated example of such planting in this country for future generations. New and improved grant schemes have recently been announced by the Minister for Energy on behalf of the Government which specifically encourage increased planting of broadleaf trees throughout the country.

I would like to pay special tribute to Senator Ryan who has a personal interest in this matter and has given the House such a tremendous amount of detail in relation to the present position and the historical perspective. I know that many Members of the House including the former Taoiseach, Deputy Haughey, and the present Taoiseach, Deputy Reynolds, have taken a personal interest in this matter, and I know of the interest many other politicians and the public at large have in the famous Coolattin Woods.

The Taoiseach asked for an immediate report on the matter last week and I expect he has that report by now or, if not, he will have it this week. I will take what Senator Ryan said on board and will convey his feelings to the Minister for Energy. It will then be for him to consider what has been said there tonight.

In conclusion, I assure this House that the limited felling recently approved by the Minister for Energy, is part of a wider and strictly controlled programme, which recognises the importance of Tomnafinnoge and aims to restore the woodland to the former excellence associated with the woodlands in this area in the past.

Mr. E. Ryan: I thank the Minister. If that is control, I would not like to see it if it were out of control because in the first phase 323 trees will represent 90 per cent of the trees in ten years time. That is the bottom line. That is the end of Tomnafinnoge Wood. Bridgefarm Limited on their record, cannot be trusted. Nobody can look at those woods and say [1351] those people can be trusted to do the job properly. I ask the Minister to take on board the private study that has been done. Would it be possible to carry out an environmental impact study before the woods are touched?

Mr. N. Treacy: If a private study has been done a copy should be sent to the Minister for Energy together with a request from Senator Ryan, on behalf of [1352] those interested, for an environmental impact assessment to be carried out. I could not give a commitment on behalf of the Minister for Energy regarding these matters but I will convey to him the sentiments expressed by Senator Ryan on behalf of the many people who are interested in the unique heritage in Coolattin.

The Seanad adjourned at 9.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 12 March 1992.