Catchment News

Ireland’s woodlands and forests: a renewed focus under the second cycle of the River Basin Management Plan

Kevin Collins and Ken Bucke, Forestry Inspectors with the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine, provide us with an overview of the range of initiatives now in place under the 2nd cycle of the Water Framework Directive, to minimise any negative impacts arising from forestry, and to realise the ecosystem services woodlands and forests can deliver to protect and enhance our waters.

Forests and water: some international perspectives

According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), approximately 75% of the world’s accessible freshwater for agricultural, domestic, urban, industrial and environmental uses comes from forests.

The US Forest Service says that, in the face of challenges created by rapid and compounded climatic and socio-economic changes, forests from rural to urban landscapes will be increasingly relied upon to provide clean, reliable water supplies for human uses, as well as for aquatic ecosystems, due to their ability to moderate hydrologic extremes and improve water quality by filtering nutrients and sediment.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) states that an increase in the scarcity of water has led to a focus in Europe on providing clean drinking water from forests. Forests serve to replenish and provide clean drinking water, and it is estimated that forests provide more than 4 km3 of water annually to European citizens. The EEA also highlights the large potential forests have in water retention. In water basins where the forest cover is 30%, water retention is 25% higher than in basins where the forest cover is only 10%.

Water quality decline in Ireland

The second cycle of Ireland’s River Basin Management Plan (RBMP) 2018-2021 is strongly focused on identifying and implementing the solutions to problems within those water bodies At Risk of not meeting their Water Framework Directive (WFD) objectives. Forestry as a land use can be a cause of water quality decline, as poorly sited, designed and managed forests can result in sediment and nutrient release, and impact on hydromorphology. This is reflected in forestry being the fourth most significant pressure on

high status objective waters deemed to be At Risk, perhaps reflecting previous State planting in upland areas and headwaters.

The response of the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine (DAFM) and the wider forestry sector to the second WFD cycle is 3-fold:

  • to safeguard water during all forestry operations;
  • to restructure existing forests to reflect water sensitivities, where required; and
  • to situate and design new woodlands and forests in a way that protects water quality, by delivering water-related ecosystem services.

Regarding the first two objectives above, many wetland habitats and water-sensitive landscapes are no longer eligible for afforestation due to rules introduced in March 2016 regarding minimum timber productivity potential. Afforestation proposals which meet this bar must then undergo a rigorous evaluation process incorporating site inspections by DAFM Forestry inspectors, the application of Appropriate Assessment and EIA screening, referrals to statutory referral bodies, and public consultation.

Water setback

If subsequently licensed, all afforestation must adhere to environmental requirements that include (in relation to water) mandatory water setbacks and other protective measures regarding cultivation, fertiliser application, and herbicide use.

Forest restructuring is also crucial to reshape the existing forest estate to take account of water and other environmental sensitivities. This is being undertaken primarily at reforestation post-clearfell, when the replanting of the site can incorporate water setbacks, native woodland zones and hydrological restoration. This ensures that the new rotation of the forest has a far more sensitive ‘footprint’ regarding water. The DAFM publication, Felling & Reforestation Policy, sets out in greater detail the options now available regarding reforestation.

These measures focus on eliminating negative impacts. But what of the positive role woodlands and forests can play in relation to water? There is a growing realisation that forestry in Ireland has a significant contribution to make in this regard. At a general level, forests only require fertiliser and herbicide application within the first 2-3 years of growth, and such inputs are added only as required. After that, the forest rotation is characterised by long periods where no activities or inputs take place. When water setbacks and the water-focused use of the mandatory 15% broadleaf component within each plantation are both factored in, forests can be regarded as being far more benign regarding water quality compared to other land uses.

Creating native woodlands for water

Furthermore, financial supports available from DAFM can be used strategically to protect and enhance water quality. Foremost among these is the Native Woodland Scheme, developed with Woodlands of Ireland and other stakeholders, to fund the creation of new native woodland and the restoration of existing native woodland (including the conversion of conifer stands to native woodland). Creating permanent native woodlands along watercourses, to be managed under ‘continuous cover forestry’, is a highly significant and far-reaching measure to improve water quality, so much so that this approach forms a key component of the KerryLIFE Project in the Caragh and Kerry Blackwater catchments, which is exploring and demonstrating sustainable agriculture and forestry practices compatible with the highly endangered Freshwater Pearl Mussel.

Native woodlands have been shown to buffer watercourses against overland sediment and nutrient flow, stabilise river banks, restore riparian zones, provide food, shading and cooling for fish and aquatic life, and help to reduce flood risk. This is in addition to other co-benefits regarding biodiversity, landscape, carbon capture, woodland and non-wood production, outdoor recreation and environmental learning, etc. The DAFM document Woodland for Water (2018), developed with input from Woodlands of Ireland, explores this use of native woodland in greater detail.

In September 2018, Minister Andrew Doyle TD, Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, announced the setting up of a new Woodland Environmental fund (WEF) to further boost the creation of new native woodlands in Ireland. This new initiative provides an opportunity for businesses, public agencies and other bodies to work in partnership with landowners and the Government as part of the national effort to plant an additional 3 million native trees between now and 2020. The WEF is an initiative of the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine under the national Forestry Programme 2014–2020. Although in its infancy, the Woodland Environmental Fund could be used to realise the Woodland for Water model at key locations within sensitive water catchments, to target water-related ecosystem services where most needed.

There are other DAFM measures, existing or soon to be available, that have a strong application regarding water. These include the Agroforestry Scheme, the Continuous Cover Forestry Scheme (launched by Minister Doyle in January 2019), and the forthcoming Forest Environmental Enhancement Scheme. The DAFM is also committed to continuing research in the area forests and water, and is involved with a number of projects driving innovation in catchment management

A new role for Ireland’s woodlands and forests

The DAFM and the wider forestry sector are dedicated to eliminating negative impacts on water arising from forests and forestry operations. These are real but manageable, through the careful siting, design and management of our forests. Irish forestry is also offering a range of innovative measures focused on protecting water against all pressures, not just forestry-related. The DAFM is working closely with other bodies involved in implementing the RBMP and with landowners and other partners to continue to roll-out real initiatives on-the-ground. Forestry can often be seen as a negative player regarding water quality, but sometimes solutions appear in what’s perceived to be a problem. Throughout the world, forests are recognised as underpinning clean water supply and aquatic ecosystems. Hopefully, through the targeted measures under the RBMP 2018-2021, we can establish a similar role for Ireland’s woodlands and forests.

Ken Bucke and Kevin Collins, Forestry Inspectors, Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine

Learn more:

Details of the Woodland Environmental Fund, and the publications Forests & Water: Achieving Objectives under Ireland’s River Basin Management Plan 2018-2021 and Woodland for Water: Creating new native woodlands to protect and enhance Ireland’s waters are available at


Who is involved?

Quite simply, everyone in Ireland has a role to play. This can be from something as simple as making sure you don’t pollute your local stream, or a local community working together to establish a Rivers Trust to enhance the rivers and lakes in their area, to a Government Department or Agency helping a Minister implement a new policy to help protect and enhance all our water bodies.

This website has been developed and is maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency, and is a collaboration between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Local Authority Waters Programme.


Local Authority Waters Programme

The Local Authority Waters Programme coordinates the efforts of local authorities and other public bodies in the implementation of the River Basin Management Plan, and supports local community and stakeholder involvement in managing our natural waters, for everyone’s benefit.


Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA is responsible for coordinating the monitoring, assessment and reporting on the status of our 4,829 water bodies, looking at trends and changes, determining which waterbodies are at risk and what could be causing this, and drafting environmental objectives and measures for each.


Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage

The Department is responsible for making sure that the right policies, regulations and resources are in place to implement the Water Framework Directive, and developing a River Basin Management Plan and Programme of Measures that will be implemented after public consultation and sign off by the Minister.