A new cross-border community forest for Derry and Donegal

The COP26 Conference has seen nations make a variety of pledges to tackle climate change, with one such agreement being to end deforestation and start reversing it by 2030, writes STEVE BRADLEY.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 5th November 2021, 12:38 pm
Ness Wood on the outskirts of Derry. Photo: Discover Northern Ireland.
Ness Wood on the outskirts of Derry. Photo: Discover Northern Ireland.

It’s a pledge that presents a challenge for Ireland which currently has the lowest level of woodland coverage in Europe. Only 9% of the Republic’s landmass is forested and only 1% is covered by native broadleaf forest. Northern Ireland fares even worse when it comes to tree coverage - with only 8% of its

land forested.

Locally - whilst isolated pockets of ancient forestry remain in places like Ness and Prehen - Killeter Forest is the only significant area of woodland in the Derry-Strabane council area. This is not just regrettable from a climate change, biodiversity and recreational perspective, but also in relation to our heritage. Derry’s name is derived from the Irish for ‘oak grove’ and its patron saint and founding father – St Colmcille – is associated with woodlands.

Sign up to our daily Derry Journal Today newsletter

When he first arrived there, he saved its oak forest from fire and, then, chose it as the location for his first monastery. This led to the site being renamed ‘Doire Colm Cille’ (The Oakgrove of Colmcille) in his honour in 546AD, from which this city and county derive their name.

2021 marks the 1,500th anniversary of Colmcille’s birth, with a programme of commemorative events running in Derry, Donegal and Iona. In truth, however, few of these will leave a significant or lasting legacy – particularly so in the city with which he is most closely associated. So this is where the local and island-wide lack of woodland could be combined with Colmcille’s anniversary and his oakgrove legacy to create a significant, enduring and community-focused initiative. One which would provide a permanent reminder of his connection to Derry and Donegal ; a local contribution towards reducing carbon and promoting biodiversity ; and a new nature-based amenity for our area. All of which could be achieved by the creation of a new ‘Colmcille Community Forest’ on the border between Derry and Donegal.

A newly created ‘Columcille Community Forest’ would ideally straddle the border between Derry city and Donegal, and start with an initial site of approx. 50 acres (30,000 trees). The proposal would be to plant it with a mixture of native broad-leafed Irish tree species (e.g. Ash, Hazel, Birch, Hawthorn and Holly) in a range of maturities and as befitting the particular soil conditions (‘the right tree in the right place’). A grove of oak trees would sit at the centre of the new facility as a nod to Colmcille (oak is also ecologically significant as it supports a multitude of other species), with a walking and sculpture trail incorporated within the overall layout of the forest to encourage visitors to fully explore the site.

The new woodland would also ideally be created alongside or close to already existing clusters of trees/forest, and seek to expand continuously over time through the purchase, donation or inheritance of neighbouring land. A further design aspect of the community forest would be to connect it to other tree clusters, parks, and neighbourhoods via the creation of wooded ‘ecological corridors’ stretching out from the facility alongside roads, new housing schemes etc. These continuous ribbons of trees would enable wildlife to safely migrate in and out of the Community Forest, thereby extending its biodiversity, footprint and benefits across as wide an area as possible. Finally, the facility could also be used as host sites for endangered native species like red squirrels and pine martens.

The obvious question is how would such a facility be paid for, and there are a number of options for this.

Last year, Stormont’s Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs launched its ‘Forests for our Future’ scheme, which seeks to encourage the planting of 18 million trees and over 9,000 hectares of new woodland by 2030.

The Republic, likewise, plans to plant 440 million trees by 2040, of which 30% will be broad-leaved species (the rest being farmed conifers). There are, therefore, government grants available on both sides of the border for tree planting.

In addition, there is also a range of charitable and non-governmental bodies involved in tree planting – such as ‘EasyTreesie’ (aiming to plant 1m trees by 2023), the Native Woodland Trust and the Tree Council of Ireland in the Republic, and the Woodland Trust in NI. With funding for new trees therefore not a barrier, the main financial hurdle would be the acquisition of land. And this is where bodies like the Republic’s ‘Shared Island Fund’ and the International Fund for Ireland could play a key role in getting this new cross-border community asset off the ground.

The Woodland Trust has also recently purchased 250 acres of land on the edge of Belfast to create a new native woodland there, and should be pressured to do likewise for NI’s second city.

In addition, fundraising initiatives, donations and the sale of community shares would also be fruitful avenues through which to generate seed funding to acquire the land needed to get the ball rolling on this project.

An ancient proverb asserts that the true meaning of life is to plant trees under who’s shade you do not expect to sit. Those alive today have the chance to reverse the wholesale deforestation of this corner of the island and help tackle climate change, all whilst leaving an enduring legacy to the man who first established our city at an oakgrove.

The year 2046 will be the 1,500th anniversary of that auspicious event. And there can surely be no better way to mark it than to use the time between then and now to create a new Derry- Donegal Community Forest named in Colmcille’s honour - with a symbolic oakgrove placed at its very heart.

Because mighty oaks can, indeed, be developed from tiny acorns.

○ Steve Bradley is a regeneration consultant from Derry and can be followed on Twitter : @Bradley_Steve