How forestry grants could reduce river floods – a Q and A with Tony Lowes

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This Q and A article appeared in the Irish Examiner on 13 February 2014. 

Pay upland farmers forestry grants instead of the EU and exchequer-funded  payments they get now, suggests environmentalist Tony Lowes.

Trees on the high ground would hold  water at source, which would  greatly alleviate river  flooding, says the Friends of the Irish Environment  Director.

 ‘Research has shown that water sinks into the soil under native broadleaf trees at 67 times the rate at which it sinks into the soil under grass. This is due to the roots of the tree transforming the ground into a spongy reservoir which will absorb water and release it slowly.’

 He claims that upland forestry, including  existing scrub, would also provide essential wildlife corridors and amenities for recreational users as well as counting for Ireland’s carbon credits — as well as alleviating flooding without expensive, limited engineering solutions.

You envisage that it would be revenue neutral. Does this essentially mean upland farmers could get as much EU aid for letting the area run wild as for managing their livestock?

Scrub is a legitimate form of forestry – in some counties it forms up to 14% of the forest inventory. But it still has to be managed. Invasive species have to be removed. Woodlands need developing.

In places where sheep can not reach – the edges of inaccessible ridges, say – you still have birch, ash, oak, with alder and willow on the wetter ground. These will spread, sheltered by gorse and heather. That’s how a native woodland develops. The scheme would be complementary to the Native Woodland Schemes and environmental schemes like AEOS.

By the time the forestry premiums end the farmer can take advantage of the changes proposed in the new Forestry Bill. These mean that owners will now be able to harvest 15 cubic metres a year without a felling licence. That’s sustainable harvesting the yield of about 4 hectares of mixed native woodland – more than enough fuel to heat a modern home and provide all the hot water necessary – year after year. That’s the vision.

For this to work, the EU would first have to be persuaded to go along with it. How likely is that?

This is just what European policy wants.

This requires that member states practice ‘sustainable’ forestry:

‘Sustainable forest management means using forests and forest land in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfil, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions, at local, national, and global levels, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems.’

This is a far cry from our 1996 policy based on fast growing softwoods in short term plantations that are clear felled.

Listen to the latest EU forestry goals:

‘To maintain and enhance forest cover to ensure soil protection, water quality and quantity regulation by integrating sustainable forestry practices in the Programme of Measures of River Basin Management Plans under the Water Framework Directive and in the Rural Development Programmes…’

Funding should be directed towards what they call ‘High Status Water Bodies’. Source protection is the most cost effective way of providing high quality drinking water. New York City’s water requires no chemical treatment because of the state funded management of the upstate water sheds. This actually saves the City billions of dollars.

Would it have to be done on a large scale, in order to alleviate the threat of river  flooding? 

It would of course. But look at the targets of the 1996 Irish Forestry Strategy – 20,000 hectares a year! All right they only achieved that in one year before the level fell off, but even now we are afforesting 8,000 hectares a year. Is that a large scale?

The studies that took place in Wales at a place called Pontbren which showed the astonishing ability of trees to absorb water estimates that full reforestation of the catchment where the Severn rises would reduce the flooding peaks by around 50% in the ever flooding downstream towns of Shrewsbury and Gloucester.

And money spent here will have a far more significant impact than raising banks and straightening rivers. That only increases the rate of flow and separates the rivers from the rural land, dramatically decreasing the area of the traditional floodplains – and making downstream flooding worse. Trees absorb that water.

Is it not true that government policy is going in the opposite  direction to this proposal?

If you mean by the ‘opposite direction’ plans to canalise rivers and build Thames style barriers – yes. It’s a deeply ingrained dream in the Irish psyche that you can drain the Shannon.

It isn’t like that. More technology won’t stop the flooding.

Sheep farmers in the UK have shot this down, saying a healthy, successful rural population needs a thriving sheep sector. Can your suggestion accommodate sheep farming?

I don’t hear about threats to sheep farmers when the forestry plantations are put in. No one is forcing sheep farmers off their land.

You have to ask if the strategy of grubbing up scrub, rock breaking and digging more drains make sense? The animals have nowhere to shelter and the beneficial insects and wildlife are gone.

What has happened is the subsidy rules have enforced the mass clearance of vegetation from the hills – and this isn’t good for anyone.