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Jeshua Taucher and George Percival in one of the fields at Tomagcody, Ballycanew where the trees are been planted in the seeled off area which can be seen on the far side. Pic: Jim Campbell
Group who participated in the planting of trees at Oulart Lodge, Ballyfad on Friday. Pic: Jim Campbell
Biodiversity zone outside the SRI centre in Courtown.
Tiffany Brockman, James Glakin, George Percival, Kai Volk-Evans and Rob Maiden.
January 25 2023 12:00 AM
As 2022 came to a close, volunteers with Seal Rescue Ireland’s Habitat Restoration Project shared a milestone moment – the 15,000th tree planted since the initiative began.
While many of these trees are only saplings now, their positive impact will expand far beyond the gardens and fields in which they’re planted for many years to come. As humans face a number of crises with climate change, biodiversity and mental health, starting at ground level – literally – could be the way forward if we want to reverse the trends.
The Habitat Restoration Project was founded by Seal Rescue Ireland (SRI) in response to the growing number of health issues the SRI team were witnessing in seal populations. Recognising the interconnectivity of everything in the environment, they looked to the land when considering their response to poor water quality, climate change impacts, and some of the many other threats facing seals.
"At SRI, our whole ethos is about holistic conservation. It is founded on the rescue, rehab and release of seals, but they are an ambassador. They are an umbrella species. By highlighting their plight, we can begin to address the issues facing all wildlife and people, and socioeconomic infrastructure as well. The seals are kind of like the symptom at the end. The things showing up on them are indicating problems in the ocean and wider environment,” explained Manager of the Habitat Restoration Project at Seal Rescue Ireland, Jeshua Taucher. “The Habitat Restoration Project was developed because it is a good way to engage the community. With terrestrial and freshwater habitat restoration, you can bring people out and get their hands dirty. You can bring volunteers out there to spend an hour or a day there and they can have a beneficial impact. Rather than being at home being worried about the news about climate change and biodiversity loss and thinking there’s nothing you can do, this project can show you that there is. People can get out and be part of their community and have a purpose where they feel like they are part of the solution rather than focusing on the problems.”
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The benefits of restoring Ireland’s native forestry are as large and diverse as the forests themselves. Firstly, the root systems of the trees can act like a sponge, helping to remove pollutants which would otherwise end up in waterways. This need for this function is particularly evident on reading the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “Water Quality in Ireland Report 2016 to 2021” released late last year. The report notes that just half of all water bodies in Ireland are in satisfactory condition, with significant declines in water quality being recorded in the last five years. In Wexford, just four of the river bodies monitored were determined to be in high ecological status, with 41 in good ecological status, 30 in moderate ecological status and 12 in poor ecological status. All rivers should be at high or good status to meet Ireland’s obligations to the EU Water Framework Directive.
"The national trend is that water quality is degrading. There has been some improvement in priority areas for action but generally, water quality is degrading and that has huge human health implications,” explained Jeshua. “In Courtown, we are a coastal town. I have drone images from after a moderate rain here. There is just a big plume of sediment which carries all types of pollutants, sewage, nitrates and phosphates. It is not hard to see the impact. All you have to do is stand in the harbour after the rain and look at the pollution. As a tourist and residential area, it is not acceptable. It is unsafe for people to be around.”
Wexford has experienced first-hand the devastating impacts of flooding and, in light of the climate crisis, such severe weather events are expected to become more extreme and more frequent. Planting trees can help to slow down the flow of water and ultimately, reduce the impact of flooding on local infrastructure and communities.
"With the flooding on Christmas Day 2021 and the flooding we saw recently, there can be an easy fix like finding the dip in the road in one section, or putting a wall up. But that’s just going to exacerbate this issue somewhere else. We need to look at why is this happening and ultimately, it comes down to the fact that Ireland used to be a forested nation and our ancestors grew up as forest people. Over time, both for necessity and survival, that has changed. Now we have such low levels of forestry. What has happened over the last few centuries or more is that water has sped up faster and faster and faster over the land as all of the natural processes have been removed from the land,” he said. “With climate change, we are going to get much wetter, colder, windier winters and much, much drier summers. I don’t know if the Irish public or the authorities or the farming industries have really thought that through. So we need to start thinking now. We are already being affected by climate change. We need to get into having these conversations.”
Addressing the flooding issue requires stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, and the overall landscape said Jeshua.
“I think there is a really important conversation to be had with local authorities, community groups and public state bodies around upland restoration. Ultimately, that is where the water begins to pick up speed. Once it reaches your coastal town, the water is going at an extremely fast speed and it hits there and causes massive flash flooding. Ultimately, there is nothing you can do in that one area. You can keep building walls but, with climate change, you’re going to have to put another brick on every year because there is going to be larger and larger extreme weather events. So we need to take the focus away from ‘this house was destroyed’ to ‘let’s look at the catchment and what’s going on up there’.
We are going to have to start using nature to heal nature and heal communities."
Increasing forest cover in Ireland also has a knock-on effect for biodiversity, as Jeshua and the team have observed through their projects. Using GIS mapping tools, the team have been monitoring the various habitats they are working with and the changes that occur over time. All of this information is publically-available, so anyone can review what areas have been planted and the changes that have occurred as a result.
“We record everything that we put in. We do bio-assessments to record all of the different flora and many fauna that come in. We can use the managed area next to it – the area that continues to be mowed for example – as a ground zero for comparison,” he explained.
"One example of a project where we have seen change is at Glenn Abhainn in Riverchapel. Within one year, it went from having four species in the managed area – grass, clover, slugs and moss – to 38 different species in the restored area. That didn’t even include the trees that we planted. That was just due to letting life grow.”
Habitat restoration can allow the lives of humans across the country to flourish too, explained Jeshua, who said that their own projects have involved people of all ages and backgrounds.
"We are in a biodiversity and climate crisis and a mental health crisis so this work is incredibly important. Engaging communities in the restoration of, literally, our life systems is important. I think it is something a lot of people can get involved in to feel that purpose they might be yearning for when they feel so anxious about the issues we are facing as a society,” he said. “After Covid, we became so secluded and the community spirit has been impacted because we got so used to being at home. Getting out, doing something positive in nature to restore it and doing something bigger than just yourself is a really good way to reinvigorate community.”
With 16,000 trees now planted, the Habitat Restoration Project is certainly flourishing. However, by planting seeds in the hearts and minds of the community, the SRI team hopes to continue to expand the project. The team hopes to onboard more people willing to offer some land back to nature through tree planting – whether it’s a garden corner or several hectares of unused land.
"Most foresters will only work with these projects when they have a certain number of trees. However, there are some people who want to plant 10 or 100 trees on a corner of their land. We’re trying to bridge that gap by improving accessibility to restoration,” he explained.
"It’s like a patchwork quilt. Ireland used to have 80 per cent native woodland. In order to restore that, we have to find little patches everywhere, start to build up that patchwork like a quilt and start connecting those up as well. It starts with people in their backyard saying ‘I don’t actually use that bit of land, I want to restore that to nature’ and for them to see the value in that and get invested in that and watch it grow and change.”
The focus of habitat restoration discussions is often on planting new trees but, while this is one key component of the SRI project, it is not the only one. Jeshua is quick to stress that planting new trees is not a replacement for protecting the native forestry we still have.
“We can plant 15,000 trees but they’re not at valuable as one or two oak trees,” he said. “It is important we engage people in the protection and restoration of healthy ecosystems as well as engaging people in the restoration of degraded ecosystems as well.”
While there are plenty of resources and organisations out there to support people in getting involved in habitat restoration, the team at SRI are happy to offer assistance, be it information or hands-on support.
“If people are looking at doing some planting, they can contact us and we will either support them or connect them with the right people,” said Jesh. “We bring the landowners on the journey with us. If we are working with someone, we always listen to the landowner and what their vision for the land is. This is your land, you are the steward of this land. How do you want to see this over the next 10 or 15 years and how do you want this to look for your kids or your grandkids?”
"There is so much opportunity and room for this to happen. We don’t want to be the only ones out there doing it, and we are not. If we can use this as an example to share with local authorities, to share with landowners, to share with government representatives so they can make informed decisions around the value of this and how this is a solution and an opportunity, we can start to incentivise it, to make more people want to be involved in this kind of work, and then we can step back and allow it to naturally grow.”
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