Biodiversity refers to the degree of variation of life. Forests are the most biologically diverse ecosystems on our planet and are home to more than 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Biodiversity is the cornerstone of the environment on which humans depend for life, and forest biodiversity provides health, recreation and environmental services to humans such as maintenance of air and water quality and carbon sequestration.
Deforestation poses a significant threat to forest biodiversity, which is protected by international, national and regional measures such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (for further information click here), the EU Birds and Habitats Directives (for further information click here) and Ireland's Environmental Guidelines (for further information click here).
Global deforestation is currently estimated at approximately 13 million hectares of forest per year. This is offset by the establishment up to 5 million hectares of forests in previously unplanted open areas every year. This may occur either through active afforestation (planting of trees on land that was not previously forested) or through natural forest expansion on abandoned land. Though neither planting nor natural regeneration can fully compensate for the loss of biodiversity associated with primary forest, in the short to medium term the potential for planted forests to support biodiversity is important in the context of global biodiversity conservation. The importance of plantation forests for biodiversity conservation is greatest in landscapes that have experienced significant loss of natural forest ecosystems and where, as in Ireland, the plantation forest estate continues to expand.
Although forest cover on the island of Ireland was once extensive, deforestation over the past few thousand years has reduced native forest to just 1% of the total land area. Ambitious afforestation targets have been set by the Irish government for timber production since the introduction of the Forestry Act of 1946 and Ireland had the highest reported afforestation rate in Europe between 1990 and 2007. Nonetheless, the current forest cover in Ireland remains low (<12%, with just over 80% of this being plantation forest), well below the European average of 30% forest cover. The Irish government currently has a target to achieve a national plantation forest cover of almost 15% by 2030 through further commercial afforestation. In addition to providing direct economic benefits, forests are recognised as being central to our future green economy as a means of increasing carbon capture and as a renewable energy resource.
The potential for these forests to contribute to biodiversity conservation can be maximised through appropriate forest management at all stages and scales, including site selection, choice of tree species, landscape configuration and harvesting strategies. The PLANFORBIO research programme aims to provide scientific research to underpin appropriate management policy and plans for Irish forestry.