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Trees and Agroecology

Updated: Apr 28

There is now huge support for restoration of nature in Ireland and a good way to do it is by increasing tree cover in a sustainable, wildlife-friendly way. This includes sustainable management of existing trees and woodlands, improved management of commercial forestry and planting of trees around all parts of the landscape. By planting the right trees in the right places, we can help nature - especially when we connect existing habitats and ecosystems, allowing movement and spread of wildlife.

Agroecology is defined as the application of ecological concepts and principals in farming. A key component of this is agroforestry which is the integration of trees into the farmed landscape in ways which benefit agriculture, biodiversity and people who use the land.

Some key benefits from trees include :

  • Shelter / shade. Trees create a micro-climate which allows a longer season of growth for grass or crops. Animals can be kept outdoors for up to 3 months longer. Also there is reduced drying of the ground in times of drought.

  • Nutrition. Trees bring important nutrients from sub-soil to surface via leaf-litter which then feeds the soil organisms and subsequently benefits plants, animals and humans. Small leafy branches can also be a valuable source of fodder. Different trees provide different combinations of nutrients, so diversity is an important factor.

  • Soil improvement. Some trees, such as Alder, fix nitrogen in the soil, reducing fertiliser requirements. Others, such as Birch, have slightly alkaline leaves which reduce soil acidity - Birch is one of the first natural colonisers of bog-land, creating better soil for other trees to become established.

  • Water management. Tree roots break through the hard ‘iron pan’ creating channels. Trees also take up water, absorbing run-off and reducing ground water level which reduces water-logging of crops and grassland and allows animals to be on the land for longer periods.

  • Native Broadleaves can be coppiced or pollarded. This is an ancient system whereby stems are cut back and create vigorous new growth (thanks to existing root system) which can then be cut again at regular intervals (every few years, depending on species and timber requirements). This does not work for conifers. The small diameter timber poles or rods are valuable for craft work, furniture making, tool handles and recreational uses as well as firewood and dead-hedging. Coppiced management of large areas is usually done as a ‘regime’ system whereby different areas are cut in different years, providing an on-going timber supply and a woodland of diverse structure which is really good for biodiversity.

  • Wildlife habitat. Trees provide homes for many creatures, including both predatory and pollinating insects which naturally help crops and reduce need for insecticides. Trees, dead branches and leaf-litter also host a wide range of fungi which, through the fine threads of the mycelium layer, connect all plants and which exchange nutrients with plants and soil organisms, helping develop a rich and flourishing ecosystem.

  • Carbon sequestration. Trees and their extensive roots take in carbon from the atmosphere, an essential service for mitigation of climate change.

  • Health and Well-being. Trees emit oxygen to enhance the air that we breathe along with beneficial phytochemicals or phytoncides (good for human and animal immune systems) and they absorb harmful pollutants. Tree aerosols have anti-cancer properties, improve circulation and decrease high blood pressure. They also have antibiotic, antifungal and anti-rheumatic effects. Trees hold the key to our survival, both globally for the health of the planet and on an individual level through the direct health benefits they provide (OneTreePlanted). by :Bob Wilson

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