As It Happens

'We're losing our identity': Why this small Irish county is fighting Sitka spruce trees

In northwestern Ireland, the small county of Leitrim says it is overrun with Sitka spruce trees, planted as part of a government initiative to fight climate change. County Coun. Justin Warnock says the trees are destroying his community.

Leitrim councillor Justin Warnock says Sitkas aren't the way to fight climate change

Save Leitrim protesters outside the Irish parliament in Dublin on January 30. (Save Leitrim/Facebook)
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Transcript

In northwestern Ireland, the small county of Leitrim says it is overrun with Sitka spruce trees.

The trees, which aren't native to Ireland, are part of a government initiative to fight climate change. Sitkas are fast-growing evergreen trees which absorb carbon — something Ireland must do if it plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Ireland offers financial incentives in the form of grants and tax-free premiums to landowners and investors to plant these trees. The country has gone from having just one per cent forest cover in 1900, to 11 per cent in 2019, reports the Guardian newspaper.

But members of the community — including the protest group Save Leitrim — say the trees are choking out light, wildlife and their way of life. They say that if trees are to be planted all over their county, they should be native species — the vast majority of which are broadleaf rather than conifer.

County councillor Justin Warnock, who is also a farmer and one of the leaders of Save Leitrim, spoke with As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan about why he is against the trees. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

Here in Canada, we have parks celebrating centuries-old Sitka spruce trees. How come you don't want them in Leitrim? 

To have Sitka spruce trees in Leitrim, it's at the expense of the people that are living here. 

We have almost 20 per cent of our county under Sitka spruce. So we have lost 20 per cent of the farmland and it is having a detrimental impact on our rural communities.

A sign from the group Save Leitrim, in a bog where Sitka spruce trees will be planted. The group says it is a protected area and should not be used for foresting. (Save Leitrim/Facebook )

Is the problem then that it is taking up farmland? 

In most countries in the world and in Europe and northern Europe and your own country … you would have had large forest regions. But this is a new phenomenon. This has been enforced on us. 

They've been brought in, they're planted and it's no longer the farmer or the people of the country that's getting any benefit from it. 

We have Canadian pension funds, we have funds from all over Europe coming in, buying tracts of land, planting and drawing Irish taxpayers' money in the form of a subsidy.

It would be far better if we were planting broadleaves — natural, native woodlands, rather than the Sitka spruce.

It's a cash crop. It's a crop that is going to [have a] lifespan of 30 to 40 years and it's cut down and it's harvested and then it's replanted again. 

When you call it a cash crop, that sounds quite negative. But I suppose the Irish government would come back and say, "Well this is for the greater good. This is to fight climate change." 

We all do our bit for climate change and we have no problem doing it. 

But ...everything has been destroyed. They are green dead zones. You walk into one of those plantations ... the deafening sound is actually frightening. There's nothing live in it. 

So let's plant the broadleaves, but let's have a geographical spread of it. 

But at the same time that these companies are coming in from abroad, planting in Ireland, they're deforesting in South America, the Amazon. 

The farmers of Ireland will do their bit for climate change … but for God's sake don't be putting one section of a population off their land to benefit climate change, and you're destroying another part of the world by cutting down trees. 

You talked about the farmland that it is destroying and that's personal to you because you're also a farmer. But what else do you mean when you say it's destroying communities? 

The Sitka spruce is alien to us. When it's planted … it grows 60 feet high. So then you're overshadowed, you're losing your light. You're losing your connectivity with your neighbour. You're living in isolation.

That should not be the case and there is little or no regard when companies come in from abroad. 

UBC researcher Vince Hanlon is seen amongst Sitka spruce trees, averaging 80 metres tall and ranging in age from 220 years to 500 years old, in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. (University of British Columbia, T.J. Watt/The Canadian Press)

You mentioned that it would be more palatable to you if they were broadleaf trees. But what about if it was the exact same number of trees? Is it more about the species, the number, or could you just clarify that for us?  

Well as I said here our county has got to a stage [where] it can't take no more trees nearly of any description. 

We have no problem … that they replant them with broadleaves. We have no problem whatsoever with that. It's just that we are trying to save … the remainder of the land.

Like I said to you, 20 per cent of our county is [covered with] trees. That's 20 per cent of the agricultural land. We don't plant the mountains and when you take the low rivers and the lakes out of it, we're talking about 40-45 per cent of the land of Leitrim is planted. 

So we're going to have nothing left for future generations if we allow this to continue.

You said you worry for future generations. Do you have kids?  

Yes, I have a daughter and two sons.

What is your worry for your kids then? 

The social fabric of our county has been destroyed because our small schools are closing. 

It's everything that we stand for in a rural area. The small schools, the shops, the pubs … the football teams. We're losing our identity. 

Children that are reared in the country or reared in rural Ireland, it's a great upbringing for them and they want to stay here. 

What we have to stop is what's going on.

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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