by Martha O'Hagan Luff, The Conversation
Despite its green image, Ireland has surprisingly little forest. Across Europe, nations average around 35% forest cover but in Ireland the figure is just 11%, one of the lowest on the continent.
This hasn't always been the case. Thousands of years ago, more than 80% of the island of Ireland was covered in trees. Over many centuries they were then almost entirely chopped down to make way for fields and pasture and by 1925, only 1% was forested. The only trees that remained were on land that was unsuitable for any type of agriculture.
For a number of decades the government has paid farmers and other private landowners to plant trees on their land in place of intensive agriculture. But these grants have so far fallen short of reaching their target of 18% forest cover.
Until recently forestry was considered valuable only as a supply of timber to be harvested. This explains why, of that 11% of the Republic of Ireland that is forested, the vast majority (9% of the country) is planted with spruces like the Sitka spruce, a fast growing conifer originally from Alaska which can be harvested after just 15 years. Just 2% of Ireland is covered with native broadleaf trees.
The current grants neglect many things. For instance, once planted with trees, the land must remain permanently in forestry which acts as a "negative nudge" for landowners who may want to keep their options open. Tax incentives for continued forest cover might provide less of a psychological barrier.