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Ireland: reforesting the Emerald Isle: a charity’s efforts to reintroduce woodlands

Between 2015 and 2020, the deforestation rate worldwide has been ten million hectares per year. In Ireland, Hometree charity has partnered with L’Occitane Foundation to build back what went lost

Forests help biodiversity

According to the FAO (Food and Ambiance Organization of the United Nations), in 2020 forests covered thirty-one percent of the global land area, for a total area of about four billion hectares worldwide. Half of these hectares are concentrated in five countries (Russia, Brazil, USA, Canada, and China), and sixty-six percent cover ten countries. 182 million hectares cover the European soil, where the majority of woodland is concentrated in the Scandinavian peninsula.

Below the European media, stays Ireland, a country renowned for its green landscapes, where still forests cover eleven percent of the island. Since 1990, forest areas have decreased by eighty million hectares worldwide, with a deforestation rate of ten million hectares per year between 2015 and 2020, down from sixteen million hectares in 1990.

Forests matter for biodiversity and for their help in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Where there are trees, different species of plants, animals, and fungi will come together, forming ecosystems where each part sustains the other. Animals support the distribution of plant seeds, and in return plants provide nourishment to them. Furthermore, forests’ biodiversity is key for carbon sequestration and providing products and resources to humans for food, shelter, energy, and medicine.

Reforestation in Ireland

The European average of forests per country is thirty-three and a half percent. In 1928 Ireland was at the bottom of the list of the less forested European countries, with one percent of woodland. It took ninety years to add ten percent. Around ten thousand years B.C., when humans first settled in Ireland, the island was covered by woodlands of oak and pine forests. Centuries of deforestation kept changing the landscape until the government started its reforestation program in the Eighties.

«A good example that we can follow is the reforestation of Scotland» affirms Matt Smith, co-founder of Hometree. «There, NGOs for reforestation own three percent of the land, more than in other parts of Europe». In the Fifties, Scotland was one percent covered by woodland, and in the Sixties reforestation efforts began, reaching a total of eighteen and a half percent of woodland in 2019.

«We must consider that reforestation will never be a threat to agriculture economies. Maybe, we can start to talk about this when half of the land will be covered by trees» adds Smith. In 2019, the Irish government announced a plan to plant 440 million trees by 2040, or an equivalent of eight thousand hectares per year.

Hometree – promoting land reforestation

However, reforestation per se is not a guarantee of biodiversity implementation. What makes a difference, is the planting of native species, and in Ireland, the majority of plantings happen to be of non-native trees. Hometree is an Irish charity that promotes land reforestation, paying attention to some key native species, «like the Burren pine» explains Smith.

«It is a conifer tree that scientists used to call Scots pine. A thousand and a half years ago this tree had disappeared from Ireland, and the kind of pine trees that came after were imported from Scotland in the Eighteenth Century». Then, in 2016, a group of researchers from Trinity College found some seeds and pollen in Rockforest, a location in Co. Clare, western Ireland, «revealing a small cluster of pine trees whose seeds didn’t arrive there through the wind or the birds from Scotland, but were native to that spot». Hometree has collected some seeds of the Burren pine to grow them out in their seeds nursery before planting, and with the help of funds provided by L’Occitane Foundation, they managed to build a classroom.

Hometree charity

Born in 2015, Hometree began in the community garden of a group of vegetable growers. «I was one of them» says Smith, «and we saw that when we asked people to come to our farm and help us plant trees, there was a large uptake and they would say that it had been a most nourishing day out, mostly because planting trees is very easy once you’ve got the hang of it. Somebody can learn to do it in five minutes, but whether they’re very good at it or not is a different thing. An expert tree planter might plant two thousand trees on their own in one day, while a beginner might plant fifty. But, apart from the number, at the end of the day everyone will be able to do that successfully».

Before Hometree, Smith was an athlete, writing for some surf magazines that ended up supporting the project. «The surf industry got behind us. It went quickly into the local community, and different hotels were paying for different trees to be planted». Through partnerships, Hometree gets the funds to continue its activities, which are distributed between education programs, afforestation, and conservation projects.

L’Occitane Foundation in partnership with Hometree 

Since 2020, one of the partners is L’Occitane Foundation, which has allocated a fund of ten thousand euros per year twice. «Businesses that care for the environment need to promote their involvement. This prevents us from investing in marketing and allows us to devolve all the funds to the activities» affirms Smith. With the budget from L’Occitane Ireland and L’Occitane Foundation, Hometree managed to plant a thousand and two hundred trees of three different native species in the first year, with the ultimate goal of planting eighteen varieties within the end of their collaboration.

The selection of native species is meant to regenerate the country’s biodiversity, restoring its wild habitat and thus attracting insects and wildlife. A specialty of Hometree is to install seed nurseries in tunnels, a practice that allowed the production of a thousand and three hundred trees in the second year of collaboration with L’Occitane Foundation.

«The Foundation was supportive, and with them, we wanted to create areas of woodlands that had particularly interesting genes – not just specific species but ones with a specific provenance. We collected seeds from old mother trees within our province, and we planted them in an area that would resemble a fruit orchard. However, instead of collecting the fruits, we collect seeds that are genetically important for the area, and we call these ‘seed stands’. They’re tree orchards, but we’re getting seeds instead of fruits».

L’Occitane Foundation biodiversity program

The L’Occitane Foundation was created in 2006 by the L’Occitane en Provence group and has focused on nature and traditions since its creation in 1976. Since 2018, the Foundation has defined six areas of interest, each one with a specific goal, including Empowering Women, Caring for Sight, and Respecting Biodiversity. They synthesize the commitment to protect nature and the people involved in its caring that L’Occitane’s founder Olivier Baussan had in mind when he founded the group.

The Respecting Biodiversity program, in particular, was born to preserve the Mediterranean heritage of the Provence area in southern France, including the local know-how and the local threatened varieties and ecosystems. In 2019 the project opened to other European countries, broadening its support through the co-financing of subsidiaries’ local projects.

The purposes of L’occitane

One of the purposes of the Foundation is to inform policymakers, environmental stakeholders, and the general public. «In projects similar to Hometree, there are four kinds of actors – the land workers, the corporations, the media, and the public» says Smith. «Together, they are the key pillars of the environmental movement. It happens that in certain projects one of these pillars is excluded, instead, we wanted, and had the opportunity, to have these four stakeholders collaborating». In the case of the collaboration with L’Occitane, Hometree was the trait-d-union putting in contact with its land workers and the Department of Agriculture of the Irish Government with the media and public brought in by the French group.

The Hometree team

«Hometree is a charity. We’re here to serve the public, and we do that through planting, educating, and protecting ecologically important sites, through purchasing them and expanding the fences, planting trees and letting people engage in that». The Instagram page was established in 2020. «We were quite off the grid until then, because our main focus was growing vegetables».

Thanks to the funds from partnerships along the lines of the one with L’Occitane Foundation, a five-member team was created, allowing Smith and its collaborators to dedicate full time to the reforestation project, keeping collaborations with external experts. «I’m the general manager, and I have a background in environmental science and agriculture. Then there is an ecologist, an engagement officer who keeps contact with land owners and makes sure the community feels supported, and one person that looks after the seeds nursery»

The reforestation process

After the planting, seeds stay in the nursery for three years, or until they reach three feet, or one meter, height. Saplings are then planted on the land. «We check on them a year later, making sure the grass is flattened. The trees look after themselves quite well. After another three years, we’ll go and have a look. If some didn’t succeed, we will plant them again. Eighty to ninety percent of them succeed» explains Smith. Trees are planted to grow one to two meters apart.

Once they have grown up and their branches have caused the canopy, they would close the light from the grass beneath them. In time, grass will be suppressed and it will remain a kind of soil, «called a woodland ecosystem. In that woodland ecosystem, all of the right bugs, birds, bees, and animals can live there. What we’re trying to create as fast as possible is a closed canopy, where then other trees can propagate their seeds. The trees that we’ve planted will start producing their seeds after five or six years, and it’s at that point that it becomes a woodland ecosystem».

Hometree lets animals and other life forms come and inhabit the forest by themselves, «the only thing that we try to do, if we have the money, is bring deadwood, where all the insects live. For the moment, we have never experienced plants’ illnesses. We must consider that we choose spacious areas to plant our trees, areas where there’s always a lot of air moving, and in those conditions it’s hard to get disease. Afterall, nature does provide for itself».

Buying land to implement reforestation

Another way to invest the funds received from partnerships is to buy plots of land to reforest. «One of the biggest legal problems that we are facing during our growth is that there are very few big land parcels in Ireland that we can buy. The most amount of land you can buy online in Ireland through estate agents is forty hectares, while in Britain and France with a credit card you can buy up to ten thousand hectares».

A problem is that when buying each site, i.e. a maximum of forty hectares each time, there are legal fees for each one of them, even when they are bordering. «We have to do a different ecology report for each spot, because they have different numbers for their land parcel, so that would be quite a big legal one. It’s hard to put a value on the environment, and because of that we don’t have much money on our own, and we rely on fundings».

Hometree’s further ecological choices

The Irish government outlines the spots that can be turned into woodland, and it indicates the kind of trees that can be planted there. Then it’s up to Hometree to make further ecological choices, basing their decisions on the seeds’ origins or whether the area is culturally or socially sensitive.

 «One of the reasons why we’re having degraded ecosystems is because the law has defended growth at all costs and the degradation of the environment» concludes Smith. «If you zoom out a little bit, our main challenge is that we’re working in a system that’s stacked against us, while if you leave meadows and grass alone, they would turn into woodland eventually, without any intervention».

Hometree

An Irish charity that since 2015 promotes and actuates reforestation projects in Ireland.

L’Occitane Foundation

A philanthropic group acting since the 1980s to promote nature’s and people’s wellbeing, mainly supporting external charities to reach their goals.

Sofia Busignani

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
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Hemp production in Italy
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natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
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