O Foghlu says Hometree’s restoration efforts will be based on advice from ecologists and foresters. But the tentative approach is to bring back forests of pine on the upper slopes of the valley, willow and alder in the floodplain, and oak and birch back in the valley. The group will also work to regenerate blanket marsh areas and protect species-rich grasslands.
But reforestation will not be easy. Some parts of these hills are so devoid of native trees that forests cannot easily regenerate. The heavy rainfall over the centuries has also taken away the nutrients from the soil. James Rainey, ecologist at Trees for Life, a non-profit organization working to redesign Scottish forests, says that although tree growth in such an environment may be slow at first, forests will regenerate if you reduce grazing pressure, protect vegetation from frequent fires and ensure there is a local source of tree seed. “If you meet those criteria, you get recovery,” he says.
However, it is about much more than trees. Rainey says it may need to reintroduce special wildflowers and lichens to get the ecosystem back on track. He also stressed on the need to protect peat bogs and other sensitive habitats in these hills. But he believes that the restoration of temperate rainforests is vital. Globally, they can only thrive in narrow climate zones such as the west coast of North America, southern Chile and western Ireland and Scotland, he says. “We are facing a huge challenge to restore this ecosystem,” he says.
Still, HomeTree’s broader vision will be a tough sell in a country where native forests have long disappeared. “Three to 5,000 years in most of Ireland,” says Ó Foghlu. “They are not really a part of our culture. We have become cowboys, and that is a reality we have to deal with.”
There is also little financial incentive for farmers to restore forests. Many farmers see giving up land for reforestation as permanently taking away economic productivity, says Foglu. The farmers also don’t see how their children can earn a living from the native forests in the future, says O Foghlu. “And from now on you don’t have to say anything to them.”
Many Irish hill farmers are also skeptical of conservation measures in general. In the 1990s, large areas of the western mountains of Ireland were designated as conservation areas. Farmers say this was done with little input from landowners, limited agricultural activity and devalued the land, and that payments in return have declined over time. “The designations in Ireland and the way they are implemented are quite toxic,” said Vincent Roddy, chairman of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers’ Association. “It has probably done more to undermine the biodiversity targets than anything else. …and that is why farmers are skeptical about anything new.”
But HomeTree hopes to make forest restoration worthwhile for farmers. The organization aims to raise at least $13 million from government, business and philanthropic sources to fund its 1,600-acre ambitions. It said it would put $2.7 million of this into a fund to reward farmers who protect and restore forests, organize community events and school programs, and pay for visitor facilities.
Foghlu envisions a future where agriculture and forests thrive side by side. He envisions healthy forest corridors that provide shelter and forage for animals grazing on hill farms, protect water quality and connect large forest areas. “I think you can sell the concept of these forests on the basis that it also benefits agricultural systems,” he says.
If HomeTree can demonstrate this at the Bielenbrück River and its other project sites, the dual purpose of forests and rich farmland in these mountains may not seem so distant.
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