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For The Love of Trees

Bringing together the disciplines of ecology, geography, economics, engineering and statistics, and funded by independent; philanthropists, Trinity’s FOREST project  aims to objectively explore the challenges, opportunities, and trade-offs involved in delivering a socially just, environmentally sustainable and financially viable afforestation programme in Ireland.  For my part, I am looking at some of the young native woodlands that have been planted over the past 20 years, with a view to understanding their ecological value and the ecosystem services they provide.  With these new native woodlands being promoted as a critical tool to address the joint crises of climate change and biodiversity loss in one shot – Are they living up to the hype?

With a total forest cover of 11% in Ireland only 2% is considered to meet the criteria for classification as native woodland, the rest comprising mixed or non-native forests the majority of which are fast-growing sitka spruce ‘tree farms’, loved by many foresters but fiercely opposed by others.  The legacy of past afforestation programmes have left us with these predominately single species forests, which provide benefits in terms of wood products and carbon sequestration.   Dense monocultures however have little benefit for biodiversity, are frequently a significant pressure on waterbodies, often produce wood of lower quality, and while forestry practices have evolved in recent years, for many sites, the carbon balance sheet might not look so rosy if past land use, drainage, and planting methods were to get factored in.   In this context, the planting of native woodlands for the multiple benefits they can provide, in addition to a longer term timber yield, has garnered increased attention.

An oak sapling in a woodland planted in 2009

As a starting point, I’ve spent the summer tramping around many of the sites planted with native trees under the Forest Services’ Native Woodland Scheme or similar planting approaches.  Aside from some ad hoc studies, there is little information on how these young woodlands are doing. Aware of some stories of failed young ‘tree cemetery’ woodlands, the increasingly obvious effects of ash dieback, and tales of success achieved through natural regeneration rather than planting, I was apprehensive about what I would find.

It’s hard not to feel humbled when you’re in the presence of a mature tree, a wonder of nature driving up from the earth over years with such singular life force, however a woodland or forest is so much more than just the trees. Can these young native plantations, typically planted in fields used previously for some form of agriculture, get to a point where the flora and fauna that characterise woodlands firstly find a way in, and then start to interact to deliver a dynamic woodland ecosystem? The more sites I walked through I found myself feeling that, given the right start, the trees know what to do. The youngest sites, full of baby trees often almost overtopped by an aggressive neighbourhood of grasses, look worryingly vulnerable.   Many of the owners and foresters I met talked sadly of losses during dry springs of recent years, a challenge that will no doubt increase with continued climate change.  In many sites the failed trees were dutifully replaced though, and the new forests got a second chance. 

Spot the trees – A woodland planted in 2020

Transformation starts after a few years as the trees develop.  These 5-10 year old sites were thrumming with wildlife, the abundance of bird, mammal and insect life particularly notable, with the increased shelter and structure provided by the young trees clearly providing roosting, foraging, resting and nesting areas.  They are not by any means a functioning woodland ecosystem, but their value for biodiversity is obvious.

After 10 years or so, depending on the site and trees planted, things generally start to look a lot more woodlandy.  The oldest sites I visited were planted 15-20 years ago, with tree canopies closing in, the ferns, bluebells, wood sorrel and mosses start to emerge.  I’m not sure whether these new arrivals were always there in the soil, biding their time, or find their way in, or a bit of both.   The sensory load that a woodland delivers is also palpable in the damp musty aroma, crunchy twigs underfoot, soft mossy surfaces and dappled light.   Decay, so crucial to a functioning woodland system, is clearly evident.   The owners of these sites are always thrilled telling me ‘you wouldn’t have believed it when it was planted, they were only knee high’.  I even found myself on one occasion not quite believing a site could have ever been a pasture field, and double-checking my information.  That said, just how woodsy the woodland has become varies between sites, and this might come down to factors such as how intensive former agriculture use was, whether the sites were wooded in the past or how close they are to other wooded areas.

The lost canopy  – An ash and oak woodland planted in 2008

Though overall pleasantly surprised at many sites, there were also young woodlands clearly battling for their lives.  Ash was planted in many native mixes before dieback hit.  Certain landowners, usually those with a good forester advising or with knowledge of trees themselves, were quick off the mark and had it out and replaced quickly.  In other sites, the owners have been watching the ash slowly die, frustrated and disheartened, but not quite sure what to do.  With the loss of ash, the way the site was planted matters to the outcome for the wood as a whole.  In a site where ash was put in rows with intervening oak, the effect of the dieback could be almost beneficial for the remaining oaks, like a managed thinning.  Where large blocks of ash were planted however, the woodland ecosystem that was establishing is effectively lost.

A large block of ash woodland planted in 2006,  but now lost to dieback.  An adjacent alder wood was thriving.

Deer in Wicklow seem to find their way into woodlands, despite the best efforts of those involved, with nibbled trees, particularly oak, faring poorly. The cost of fencing and tree-guards, and the ongoing monitoring required to ensure they remain effective, is an onerous commitment for both the forester and landowner.  You don’t need a research project to tell you that for these forests to survive in the longer-term, natural regeneration processes will need to be supported, and that won’t happen if deer aren’t controlled.  In many sites, oak trees were also clearly being affected by a powdery mildew, which though it doesn’t kill them can limit their growth.  In general, the oaks’ slower growth relative to other commonly planted species seems to stack the odds against it by just giving it more time in a vulnerable state for something to defeat it.  A lot of oak has been planted under the native woodland scheme.  It makes sense that that increasing the diversity of trees species planted wherever conditions allow would best buffer the future woodland against the risks of these multiple threats. 

Hope in an Acorn – In oak and scots pine woodland planted in 2007

Then there is the question as to whether woodland is the ‘best’ habitat for the land in question at all, the issue being that ‘best’ may be subjective.  A number of sites I visited where trees were faring well have equal potential to make nice grasslands if management were to be targeted at such.   Then there were several areas that were particularly damp or particularly dry and which, with trees dead or stunted, would appear to be intent on reverting to their former wetland or dry grassland habitat.

So, who are planting these sites and why?  It was a real highlight to get to meet and talk to the owners or foresters involved.  There were a definite cohort of owners planting for the love of native trees, with a view to enhancing biodiversity and potentially leaving a legacy for their families and for nature.  These owners often also had other areas of their land devoted to old woodlands, meadows, winter bird cover and natural regeneration, and usually had a walking trail through their woodland so they could savour it on demand.  Some had sought out the native woodland scheme despite their foresters and farming neighbours strongly advising against ‘wasting their good field’ on it.   Another broad grouping were the farmers who planted native woodland, often alongside other parcels of broadleaf or conifer plantations, on land that wasn’t of much benefit to them for farming anymore for one reason or another.  They were pleased to see it growing, and happy with a payment for land which was sometimes their ‘bad field’ and a burden.  They often admitted to not having step foot in their woodland for years.  There were also a few sites where the contact person was a manager of a larger landholding, having little knowledge of the woodland or who planted it, and in once case not aware it existed. 

A woodland planted in 2013 – now at an excellent height for its branches to slap you in the face repeatedly

The question gets asked whether planting should really have a role at all in the establishment of native woodlands.  With nursery stock of varying quality, potentially harbouring pathogens, and the challenges of a changing climate, could our native woodland establishment approach fail in the long-term?  Many argue that with patience, natural regeneration will deliver better and more resilient woodlands for us.  Allowing woodland vegetation to regenerate naturally serves as a foundation for ‘rewilding’, a loosely defined concept, but one that at its core involves the restoration of food webs and the recovery of ecological processes.  Of course, even such rewilded forests will need some level of ongoing intervention, as the diseases, deer and invasive plants that have found fertile ground in the remains of our crumbling natural ecosystem will otherwise scupper the best laid plans. As a farming nation we long ago lost the skills associated with a culture of having working woodlands within the farm setting, and so any broad scale woodland establishment within our farmed landscape is a hard sell even if the landuse policies shift to facilitate it, but this is particularly so for natural regeneration approaches given perceptions associating it with land abandonment. 

A small but passionate group of foresters are strong advocates for the native woodland scheme.  The management of planted native woodlands, particularly if close-to-nature practices are employed as they age, really draw on a foresters expertise and deep knowledge of trees and the environment.  Ultimately native woodland scheme sites,  when planted appropriately and with oversight of skilled foresters, do appear to provide a starting framework for a woodland which will, hopefully, also support natural regeneration as it ages to help sustain it in the long term.

It’s easy for the debate to get polarised, with proponents of rewilding often pitted against those in favour of a continued focus on non-native monocultures to support the timber industry.  If we are to treat these climate and biodiversity crises with the urgency they deserve, we need all options available, as it seems our best chance of success lies with embracing diverse forests, both native and non-native, both planted and naturally regenerated, but all delivering multiple benefits for climate and biodiversity.   

Kate (last on the right) pictured with the rest of the FOREST project team.

About the Author:

Kate is an Ecologist, nature-lover and PhD student based in the Dept of Botany, Trinity College.  She is 1 year into her PhD research being completed as part of the FOREST project and supervised by Jane Stout and Fraser Mitchell.

Farm Zero C: Can dairy farming be carbon neutral and biodiversity friendly?

A Trinity College team lead by Prof. Jane Stout is involved in a project led by the Bioeconomy Centre, BiOrbic, and backed by Carbery dairy Co-op and Teagasc, which aims to make the dairy sector carbon neutral. At the same time, it aims to improve on-farm biodiversity and pilot farm-scale natural capital accounting. Such an ambitious goal has been supported by a €2 million Challenge Prize from Science Foundation Ireland.

In contrast with the European average of about 10%, the agricultural sector in Ireland accounts for roughly a third of total greenhouse gas emissions. Of this, 58% can be attributed to methane produced in the rumen of cattle and sheep [1]. The agricultural sector is expected to cut greenhouse emissions at least by 25% by 2030. It is therefore crucial to lower methane emissions (together with carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide) and the Farm Zero C project aims at doing exactly that (while improving biodiversity at the farm and still having a viable business). This would be a world-first example and could kickstart a wave that would make the whole sector sustainable.

The focal farm for this project is called Shinagh Farm, a demonstration site in west Cork acquired by dairy co-op Carbery a decade ago to make it an example of sustainability, and operated together with Teagasc. Its current extension is about 101 hectares and 250 dairy cows roam its pastures for about 300 days a year.

The 250 cows at Shinagh pose for the photographer.

The Farm Zero C consortium (headed by SFI’s BiOrbic bioeconomy research centre’s Kevin O’Connor and with Jane Stout from Trinity College, Fionnuala Murphy of UCD, James Gaffey of Munster Technological University, Johan Sanders of Grassa NL and Laurence Shalloo of Teagasc) won a €2 million grant to make it happen.

The question though is: how do we do that? After all, the metabolism of dairy cows is a given and the prosperous Irish dairy farm sector doesn’t want to reduce animal numbers. A holistic view must therefore be taken and the whole production process must be streamlined to achieve neutrality.

The Farm Zero C project, working with the farmers at Shinagh farm, have already achieved 20-30% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and implemented strategies like using protected urea as a fertiliser to minimise nitrous oxide emissions (a very potent greenhouse gas), biorefining grass, installing a wind turbine and solar panels.  To improve biodiversity, new hedgerows have been planted, areas of wetland and grassland fenced out, to achieve the target of 10% natural habitats (over 8% of the total is already classified as “natural”).

The wind turbine installed at Shinagh.

To track how changes in the way the farm is managed influences these environmental benefits, we need a tool that enables us to account for all the outputs of the environment that are relevant and have a benefit to us, often termed ‘ecosystem services’. These are the result of processes like carbon sequestration, water purification, biomass production, pollination and landscape creation, among others. Each one of them stems from healthy stocks of natural capital of an ecosystem (soil, water, plants, animals), and results in flows of ecosystem services (climate regulation, soil maintenance, clean water, forage, recreation/cultural amenity). Through the natural capital approach [2] we can account for all of this and make sure we reach carbon neutrality without damaging the flow of other ecosystem services (there are synergies but also trade-offs between the services).

The UN has proposed a framework called SEEA-EA (System of Environmental Economic Accounting – Ecosystem Accounting) to do exactly this. This has already been adopted in Ireland (see the INCASE project) and many countries at country or catchment scale and for the first time it will be applied at farm scale at Shinagh. Working with Professor Lars Hein, at Wageningen University, we will apply Ecosystem Accounting principles to Shinagh, to develop Natural Capital Accounts. The project will run until July 2023 where a full assessment of the natural capital and ecosystem services will have been completed.

The SEEA framework for NCA [3].

The model at Shinagh will also be implemented at 10 other collaborating farms and the aim is to apply it to 5,000 other dairy farms in Ireland within five years and then abroad.

About the author:

Fabio Delle Grazie is a Research Assistant working with Prof. Jane Stout at Trinity College for the Farm Zero C project. Fabio is also completing is PhD on the ecosystem services of turloughs.

Links:

[1] https://www.teagasc.ie/environment/climate-change–air-quality/methane/

[2] Introduction to Natural Capital Accounting – YouTube [3]https://www.ideeagroup.com/natural-capital-accounting/ncp-and-seea/

Forest Ecosystem Services (For-ES)

There is growing global concern about the condition of the environment. From biodiversity loss to climate change, the natural world is changing. As the problems are becoming more evident, possible solutions are developing. There is evidence that maintaining old forests (Humphrey, 2005) and increasing young forests (Rozendaal et al., 2019) can help combat some of the problems being faced. Forests have the ability to act as a carbon sink (Luyssaert et al., 2008), storing large amounts of carbon in the vegetation and soils (Eswaran et al., 1993; Jobbágy and Jackson, 2000). Not only that, but forests also provide habitat to many species, provide storm and flooding mitigation, provide recreation facilities for people, and other ecosystem services.

Comprising 31% of the Earth (FAO, 2020), forests are a major ecosystem type. However, they are being lost at an alarming rate. With education and tighter enforcement, deforestation has decreased but it is still approximately 5 million HA each year (FAO, 2020). The effects of deforestation will not be localised events. The major deforestation events in the Amazon and the Congo will have massive global repercussions, having the ability to change global weather patterns for example (Avissar and Werth, 2005).

Ireland was greatly deforested in the past as a result of land clearing for agriculture. The realization of the need for forests in the past century has led to an increase of forestry in Ireland. The Irish government wants to increase the current 11% forest land cover (DAFM, 2020) to 17% by 2030 (Forest Service, 1996) which has proven to be difficult (DAFM, 2020). New initiatives are introducing forests back into the Irish landscape, making conversion from agricultural land profitable for landowners. As these forests age, the issue of maintaining them will grow in importance, as will managing the multiple benefits they deliver for people. 

Figure 1. Percent forest cover in Ireland from 1625-2025 (DAFM, 2020).

Partnering with Coillte, an Irish commercial timber company and the largest forest owner in Ireland, the For-ES project will pilot the creation of natural capital accounts for approximately 20 different forest types throughout Ireland. This will allow decision makers to determine and compare the ecosystem services and benefits derived from different types of forest, and to track those over time. Model sites will be selected to encompass a variety of forested ecosystem types (different species present, age classes, etc.). Data on timber production, carbon sequestration, water retention, biodiversity and recreation will be collated for each forest. A structured decision-making approach will be used, and ultimately the project aims to create a decision support tool. The tool created will be intended for the use of Coillte employees and private forest owners. Strong and close communication with stakeholders is pertinent to ensure that the tool created for them will be used by them. 

System of Environmental Economic Accounting – Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA)

Without frameworks and standards, tracking ecosystem services would be difficult. However, the United Nations recently ratified the System of Environmental Economic Accounting Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA). It is a framework that connects ecosystems and their services to the economy, evaluating ecosystem “stocks” and their quality for the “flow” of ecosystem services. The For-ES project will be using the SEEA EA approach. Ecosystem services is a term that has a number of different definitions and this project will be using the definition from SEEA EA “Ecosystem services are the contributions of ecosystems to the benefits that are used in economic and other human activity…use incorporates direct physical consumption, passive enjoyment and indirect use” (UN, 2021). Under this definition, ecosystem services are directly connected to human wellbeing. Another term that needs a clear definition is ecosystem asset. The SEEA EA defines ecosystem assets as the “the contiguous spaces of a specific ecosystem type characterised by a distinct set of biotic and abiotic components and their interactions” (UN, 2021). Assets provide the ecosystem services. The ecosystem service can be provided by one asset or as the result of many assets working together. Ecosystem assets are the main unit used throughout ecosystem accounting. They contain information about extent, condition and ecosystem services both in physical and monetary terms.

The SEEA EA creates different accounts with different classifications (Figure 2). The three stock accounts are ecosystem extent, ecosystem condition, and ecosystem asset accounts. The ecosystem extent is the size and type of the asset. The condition is the quality of the asset. The ecosystem asset account is a monetary account which encompasses all ecosystem asset monetary values in an ecosystem accounting area. The flow accounts are the services that ecosystems provide. Ecosystem extent and ecosystem condition are physical accounts, meaning they are measured by a non-monetary quantity. Ecosystem services can be a physical or monetary account determined by the audience and the questions being asked.

Figure 2.  Stocks and flows in the SEEA EA (UN, 2021).

The SEEA EA can be seen as a bridge connecting statistics, policy, science and economics with the united goal of preserving nature. The SEEA EA can be incorporated into national and international policies (UN, 2021), which will provide and accountability factor. Changes in these accounts can be attributed to degradation, conservation, etc., a feature that was missing in system of national accounts (SNA) or GDP (Edens et al., 2022). The SEEA EA is an approach that can be used in conjunction with SEEA CF and alongside SNA. Economics is embedded in the environment and should be seen as such (Figure 3). 

Figure 3. The framework for ecosystem accounting (Dasgupta, 2021).

About the author:

Kathleen Conroy is a first year PhD student on the DAFM-funded For-ES project supervised by Jane Stout, Yvonne Buckley of Trinity College Dublin. Kathleen has a MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation from TCD and a BSc in Environmental Science from University of Massachusetts Boston.

References

Avissar, R. and Werth, D. 2005. Global Hydroclimatological Teleconnections Resulting from Tropical Deforestation. Journal of Hydrometeorology6(2), pp.134-145.

Dasgupta, P. 2021. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. London: HM Treasury.

Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine (DAFM).  2020. Forest Statistics Ireland 2020 (Wexford: Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine, 2020),  https://www.teagasc.ie/media/website/crops/forestry/advice/Forest-Statistics-Ireland-2020.pdf

Edens, B., Maes, J., Hein, L., Obst, C., Siikamaki, J., Schenau, S., Javorsek, M., Chow, J., Chan, J. Y., Steurer, A. & Alfieri, A. 2022. Establishing the SEEA Ecosystem Accounting as a global standard. Ecosystem Services, 54, 101413.

Eswaran, H., Van Den Berg, E. and Reich, P., 1993. Organic carbon in soils of the world. Soil science society of America journal57(1), pp.192-194.

FAO. 2020. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020 – Key findings. Rome. 

Forest Service. 1996. Growing for the future: a strategic plan for the development of the forestry sector in Ireland. Stationery Office.

Humphrey, J.W., 2005. Benefits to biodiversity from developing old-growth conditions in British upland spruce plantations: a review and recommendations. Forestry78(1), pp.33-53.

Jobbágy, E.G. and Jackson, R.B., 2000. The vertical distribution of soil organic carbon and its relation to climate and vegetation. Ecological applications10(2), pp.423-436.

Luyssaert, S., Schulze, E., Börner, A., Knohl, A., Hessenmöller, D., Law, B.E., Ciais, P. and Grace, J., 2008. Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks. Nature455(7210), pp.213-215.

Rozendaal, D.M., Bongers, F., Aide, T.M., Alvarez-Dávila, E., Ascarrunz, N., Balvanera, P., Becknell, J.M., Bentos, T.V., Brancalion, P.H., Cabral, G.A. and Calvo-Rodriguez, S., 2019. Biodiversity recovery of Neotropical secondary forests. Science advances5(3), p.eaau3114.

United Nations (UN). 2021. System of Environmental-Economic Accounting— Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA). White cover publication, pre-edited text subject to official editing. Available at: https://seea.un.org/ecosystem-accounting.

NovelEco: Is it time to rewild our cities?

If you work in the environmental sector, whether as an academic, professional or volunteer, you may have noticed the term “Rewilding” gaining significant interest over the last decade. But what exactly does it mean to rewild something? Is it the case of planting a few trees and letting them look after themselves? Fencing off an area, never to let humans interact with its existence again? Or is it necessary for humans to interact with these ecosystems in order to let them truly be wild again? As the saying goes, nature knows best, but maybe humans can provide a helping hand to enhance the conditions necessary for nature to truly flourish.

Rewilding Europe defines rewilding as “a progressive approach to conservation. It’s about letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems, and restore degraded landscapes. Through rewilding, wildlife’s natural rhythms create wilder, more biodiverse habitats”. Rewilding projects are particularly successful when implemented in ecosystems in which the original keystone species are absent. This is based on the notion of ecological trophic cascades, a powerful process of interactions where the actions of predator species have impacts on the entire ecosystem. The reintroduction of a keystone species into an ecosystem has the potential to provide a range of benefits to the habitat networks in the wider landscape. The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park is probably the most famous example of how rewilding projects can positively impact an entire ecosystem.

Wolves were notably absent from Yellowstone National Park for many years because of hunting. Due to their absence, deer began to overgraze large sections of the ecosystem, destroying much of the vegetation. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced as a measure to help control the number of deer in the park. Their reintroduction changed the behaviour of the deer, with many avoiding the valleys and gorges, which were now free to naturally regenerate the vegetation. This created novel habitats for species such as beavers to increase in population. The return of these species had knock-on effects creating additional habitats and niches for a huge range of species within the national park, including rabbits, hawks, weasels, bald eagles, badgers, and bears. This series of processes also changed the physical geography of the ecosystem, impacting the shape and flow of the rivers and reducing soil erosion. It’s a remarkable set of events and the perfect example of the importance of keystone species and rewilding projects.

That’s all well and good in a vast area such as Yellowstone National Park, but when it comes to our towns and cities, is there much room for rewilding? Or is it even possible, given that humans may be considered the keystone species of the urban environment? Well, keystone species don’t always take the form of large carnivorous mammals sometimes, the species which impact an entire ecosystem most may be as tiny as a bat or a bee, and sometimes they may even take the form of living structures such as a large park tree. Although humans have created the urban environment entirely for us, nature has persisted in its efforts to be part of the ecosystem. So maybe it’s time to give nature a seat at the urban table. After all, research is consistently showing the importance of interactions with nature for the human species.

That is where the NovelEco project comes into play, a five-year European Research Council (ERC) funded research project led by Prof. Marcus Collier of Trinity College Dublin. NovelEco will engage with citizen scientists to examine novel urban ecosystems, exploring wild spaces of all shapes and sizes within our cities. The aim of the project is to examine the novel ecosystem theory as a connecting concept and potential conduit to not only rewild our cities but also rewild ourselves. The project will research societal attitudes towards the urban wilderness, engage with local citizens to co-create an online instrument to enable ecological data collection, and explore whether this engagement impacted their environmental values and behaviour. The project has significant potential to refine and redefine the concepts of novel ecosystems and urban rewilding while also generating consciousness about the transformative potential of urban wilderness.

But, what are these values? This is what NovelEco is looking to find, and it is why we need citizens. The most remarkable aspect of this new project is the potential for all those tiny, seemingly insignificant, knock-on effects usually associated with rewilding projects. It is the unexpected result of letting nature back in. Whether that is positive or negative, we won’t know until we try, just like the wolves in Yellowstone. What we do know is that currently, 55% of the world’s population lives in cities with that figure expected to nearly double in size by 2050. We also face two of the largest crises in the history of humanity, the climate and biodiversity crises. These crises are deeply intertwined and require to be tackled together. Our attitude up until this point has been to dominate nature with impunity but unfortunately, that is now backfiring at an unprecedented rate. So why not let nature back in? Why not rewild ourselves and our cities? The results may surprise us in ways we could have never imagined.

About the author:

Mairéad O’Donnell is a PhD student with the ERC funded NovelEco project in the School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin (TCD). Mairéad previously completed a MSc. in Development Practice in TCD and currently works part-time as a Research Assistant with Prof. Jane Stout. Mairéad’s PhD project will focus on the social-ecological systems of urban wilderness and is being supervised by Dr. Marcus Collier.

Previously published by NovelEco.

Nature+ Energy

In this blog, Research Assistant, Emma King, introduces this exciting new project focusing on biodiversity on wind farms in Ireland.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are joint emergencies, jeopardising the future of the planet’s ecosystems. Ireland has set out targets to mitigate climate change in a new Climate Action Plan, aiming to increase our reliance on renewable energies to 80% by 2030. While green renewable energies can be part of the solution to tackle the climate crisis, they can potentially cause negative impacts on the surrounding biodiversity (e.g. Dai et al. (2015), Thacker et al. (2018)). If planned, managed, and mitigated against correctly, however, the land surrounding renewable infrastructure poses a potential opportunity for biodiversity restoration and protection (Gorman et al. 2021). There are currently 300 operational onshore wind farms in the Republic of Ireland, sited on a range of habitat types, including forest, bog, and agricultural settings. Thus, wind farms are sited on a lot of natural capital that provides ecosystem services, which, until now, has not been quantified. In a new report from SEAI, Renewable energy accounted for just over 40% of electricity generated in Ireland during 2020, with the wind sector making up 86% of the renewable energy produced (SEAI, 2021). The growth of the Irish wind industry presents a new opportunity to develop methods and measures to maximise the biodiversity that surrounds these sites, in turn protecting the ecosystem services this natural capital provides for us.

Nature+ Energy is a collaborative approach to providing these solutions. A joint venture between research (SFI/MaREI, Trinity College Dublin, & Maynooth University) and industry (Wind Energy Ireland and eight industry partners), this project aims to add significant value to green renewable energy by maximising the positive impacts of wind farms on biodiversity and ecosystem service provision, while mitigating the negative effects. The collaborative nature of this project provides an opportunity to showcase how research and industry can work together to develop innovative solutions for the environment, economy, and society. Using a Natural Capital Accounting approach, we will be able to quantify the stocks of natural capital within and surrounding Irish wind farms in standardised way. This will enable biodiversity to be brought to the table and accounted for in business decisions. Using the data we gather for our natural capital accounts, we will develop a decision-support tool for land-use planning and natural capital enhancement, and a natural capital asset and risk register which will enable land managers of wind farms to make more informed decisions about how they manage biodiversity in the areas surrounding the turbines. Furthermore, companies are increasingly incorporating biodiversity into their business strategies, but can often lack site-specific knowledge to best achieve this. The data that we will collect during the project will be used to develop an evidence-based biodiversity action plan for the onshore wind sector in Ireland, as well as individual plans for the representative wind farm sites we will study. Environmental monitoring is often a critical component of both pre-construction and post-construction planning requirements for wind farms, which can be a large investment of both time and money for operating companies. Part of this project aims to develop a new environmental monitoring system for wind farms, which will enhance data resolution, while reducing running costs. At the moment, we are prioritising acoustic monitoring of birds and bats but we are broadening the sensor arrays in the system to enable much more efficient monitoring of wildlife in the vicinity of wind farms and potentially the development of improved mitigation measures.

Figure 1. Types of habitats wind farms can be sited upon, including plantation forestry (left and top right), including a settlement pond fenced in the top right photo; and a wind turbine on a bog (bottom right).


We have selected several representative wind farm sites across the country, in collaboration with our industry partners, for which we will develop Natural Capital Accounts and biodiversity action plans. Currently, we are collating data for each of these sites from environmental impact assessments, environmental monitoring reports, GIS datasets etc. We have also conducted a preliminary site visit to most of our sites, which has given us a better idea of what is there that we can study in greater detail, what type of landscapes we are looking at and we get to see, of course, the wind farm infrastructure itself. We were also able to put out an acoustic recorder at one of our sites to collect sample data on bat and bird calls which will be used to help inform a model of the environmental monitoring system. Talking to site managers and site ecologists during our visits gave us a better understanding of the extent of the biodiversity which can exist within the wind farm surroundings. In addition, we were able to identify many areas within each of our survey sites which could potentially be interesting features to study. Settlement ponds, for example, are a novel feature at some of the sites we visited which are formed when gravel is removed to create the turbine hardstand and then infills naturally with water, so it will be important to assess biodiversity within those. The site visits also made us realise the scale of these sites, they can cover a large area and have a mosaic of habitat types within them, which can pose a challenge for fieldwork logistics but also make them quite exciting to study! The next steps for the project are to start organising fieldwork for the upcoming season and to put out more bird and bat acoustic recorders to help build the environmental monitoring system.

About the author:

Emma King has an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation from Trinity College Dublin and a BSc in Zoology from National University of Ireland, Galway. Emma is working with Trinity Nature+ Energy PIs Ian Donohue, Yvonne Buckley and Jane Stout.

References

Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications (2021). Climate Action Plan 2021. Dublin, Ireland: Government of Ireland.

Gorman, C.E., Torsney, A., Gaughran, A., McKeon, C., White, C., Donohue, I., Stout, J., and Buckley, Y.M. (2021) Small scale study of the impacts of climate change mitigation measures on biodiversity. Dublin, IrelandL Nature+, Trinity Centre for Biodiversity and Sustainable Nature-base Solutions.

Natural Capital Ireland (2021) Natural Capital FAQs. Available at: https://www.naturalcapitalireland.com/resources [Accessed: 28th January 2022].

Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (2021) Energy in Ireland: 2021 Report. Dublin, Ireland: Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.

Wind Energy Ireland (2022) Facts and Stats. Available at:  https://windenergyireland.com/about-wind/facts-stats [Accessed: 28th January 2022].