Ecology and Biodiversity

Previously, we discussed what made a high quality carbon credit - how it needs to be an additional contribution from our society to the environment, how it needs to not cause harm to people or the environment, and how its effects on emissions needs to be considered in the knock-on effects it can cause.

The Atogail forests ethos

when it comes to the ethics of offsetting carbon; social harm/benefits must be taken into consideration. Recently there has been a lot of talk about carbon colonialism. This is where large industry buy up areas of private land for the purpose of creating carbon offset. This takes land away from the local community. Atogail forests works with landowners to create something beneficial for the area and the people who live there.
Atogail forests works under a strict ethos regarding biodiversity, ecosystem restoration, transparency and ethical social practices. Unlike many carbon offset projects which sacrifice the ecological health of the environment they take place in for the purpose of sequestering carbon. We believe this is the wrong approach when trying to heal the planet, like trying to heal a person the initial consideration should be; first do no harm. Atogail forests not only adheres to this principle but makes great effort to improve the ecological health of the environment ensuring; increased biodiversity, restoration of ecosystems and preservation of native species.
Continue reading to find out more about these aspects of Atogail forests

The Argument for Ecosystem Restoration

The Atogail Forests policy as a company is to create carbon credits by reforesting areas with native trees, planting exclusively indigenous plants, and analyzing the ecosystems we work in. The process of native reforestation will improve natural regeneration and ecosystem regeneration - and we believe that it’s the best way to not only credit emissions, but restore the earth’s ability to sustain itself and the strain we place on it.

Ecosystem regeneration

Regeneration, in a vacuum from human intervention, is the ability of an ecosystem to recover from damage or disturbance. These factors can take many forms - forest fires, storm damage, and pest outbreaks among them - and can even be part of the regenerative process - such as wildfire regeneration in Australia.
The spread and germination of new seedlings, reassembly of the community of fauna, and the stabilization of soil conditions, and the availability of nutrients will subsequently assist in regrowing and reforming the conditions under which the ecosystem is optimal. If not, a process of natural succession will occur - where new species settle or spread into the area, will more often occur, and the ecosystem will evolve itself accordingly.
Artificial disturbance, however, is not compensated for by this. Human interference greatly disrupts the natural regenerative processes - which can cause deforestation, soil degradation, and ecosystem destruction. The consequences of this can extend to species extinction, soil erosion and water acidification.

Rebuilding forests naturally

In this case, a more active restoration must take place - as the ecosystem itself has lost its ability to do so. This is an involved process which can involve soil restoration, replanting of indigenous seedlings and persistence in these actions.
Natural regeneration is a process defined as: ”the renewal of a tree crop by self-sown seed or by vegetative means”. Seed is the natural process of regeneration - in which trees & plants spread themselves, and the job of the regenerator is to ensure that the soil conditions are appropriate for the regrowth of these seedlings.
When working with seeding - numerous factors of growth and germination come into play. While the factors related to the seeds themselves and their growth are largely fixed by their growth, the viability of the soil is a factor which can be influenced by effective management, as can the availability of water, and monitoring of the forest to avoid infection, fire risk or malnourishment.

Native afforestation and its effect on natural regeneration

The quality of natural regeneration is directly linked to the amount of forestry hedgerow, tree line, scrub and flora available in the area. Species will dictate whether the existing vegetation is of benefit or detriment to the regeneration process.
In Ireland afforestation through natural regeneration is not recommended due to sitka spruce being the dominant tree species in the country. While natural regeneration may be viable in some parts of the country this tends to be only in localized areas and will almost always result in at least some undesirable species taking hold.
The only solution to the problems with natural regeneration in a country like Ireland is to change the dynamic of forestry in the country toward native species. This will allow the right seed to find its place on land that is not being used for other purposes.
Atogail Forests intends to help solve the issues surrounding natural regeneration in Ireland by planting highly specified native forestry tailored to the area being planted. Using our method of pioneer/seed bank forestry we can encourage natural regeneration in the most effective way possible. Planting native pioneer species as the majority of our forestry provides availability of the right kind of seeds needed to improve land may not be suitable for most native species. Birch and alder are the relevant species to Ireland. Birch is able to grow quickly and produce large amounts of seed that are able to travel a great distance. Birch will grow in almost any p.h. soil and the resulting leaf litter will help rectify p.h. and nutrient imbalances. Alder are able to grow quickly on very wet ground and will also grow in soil with low nutrient content. Alder improves the soil for other species to move in through a process called n-fixing. This is where nutrients are provided to the tree and soil through associated mycorrhizal fungi and n-fixing bacteria. The seed bank areas of the planted forest are where the genetic material for the second stage of the regeneration process is provided.
After the pioneer species have done their job the trees and lower level flora planted in the seed bank areas will provide the right kind of seeds to restore the relevant woodland type to the regenerating forest. The more of this kind of afforestation that takes place the more the quality of natural regeneration in the surrounding area is improved. The hope is to tip the balance of species available to an area in favor of the correct native species

Why is natural regeneration important?

Indigenous planting

By restoring these sections naturally, we can maintain the trees, bushes and plants that are indigenous to the areas in which we work. This means that fewer invasive species occur - which could cause further soil damage and deforestation - and we preserve and expand the habitats within these existing plant systems.
Ability to expand on existing forests With public dissatisfaction towards stripping large pieces of land of trees, natural regeneration becomes a more viable way to replant harvested units which have maintained tree cover, naturally germinated seeds will be able to appropriately compete for nutrients and maintain steady growth.
Cost
Naturally regenerating a forest tends to be functionally cheaper than the fostering and transplanting of similar species in nursery conditions, due to the labour involved, cost of running the business and purchase costs. Instead, this supply chain gets trimmed down, and the focus tends solely towards the forest. Projects of similar funding scales can thus achieve considerably more through the use of natural regeneration in properly managed conditions. Atogail Forests prides itself on its approach to maintaining ecosystems and naturally occurring flora through our approach to natural regeneration and ecosystem maintenance in constructing our carbon credits. We believe that in following this path, we simultaneously give our world its strongest chance at rebuilding and crediting carbon emissions, and maintaining natural life - habitats, soil quality, water quality and biodiversity all included in this consideration.

Natural regeneration in continuous cover forestry

Continuous cover forestry is a method of forestry where the canopy is maintained at all times. Unlike the normal practice of planting, cutting down and planting again continuous cover allows for the forest to always be there. In this environment natural regeneration can take the place of replanting, reducing cost and environmental impact.

Importance of biodiversity and the failing's of monoculture forestry

Previously. We discussed natural regeneration - why Atogail Forests takes the approach to carbon offsets it does, what the advantages and methodologies of this system are, and how it preserves and creates ecosystems. The climate crisis has caused a great deal of public outcry - chief among those being a vehement displeasure with deforestation and as a consequence loss of biodiversity. While this has led to a knee-jerk response of creating plantations of trees to offset carbon emissions and restore forest cover, in many cases this has been done in an uncritical and problematic way.
The leading issue is the unsustainability of monoculture plantations - so much so, in fact, that environmental and social organizations have declared September 21st an International Day against Monoculture Tree Plantations.
"Tree plantations are not forests. A plantation is a highly uniform agricultural system that replaces natural ecosystems and their rich biodiversity,” Sandy Gauntlett of the Pacific Indigenous Peoples Environment Coalition said to Mongabay. “The trees planted are geared to the production of a single raw material, whether it is timber, pulp, rubber, palm oil or others.
” This same article talks about studies which have shown that monoculture tree plantations have two devastating impacts - loss of biodiversity and a net increase in carbon emissions, due to their degradation of ecosystems, and effect on soil.
While these primarily refer to industrial plantations - pulp, rubber, and palm oil, among others - the same can be said for monoculture carbon offsets. In naturally occurring forests, the mix of plants and animal life creates an ecological cycle, whereby the byproducts of one feed the processes of the other, creating an equilibrium of nutrients for all parts of the process.
In monoculture plantations, whether it be agricultural, industrial or conservational in nature, large amounts of artificial fertilizers are required to establish viability for growth. Furthermore, indigenous plants in these plantations are considered as weeds - as they will utilize the nutrients that a cultivator will intend for the monoculture plantation. Thus, the natural ecosystem is disrupted further.
As an additional issue, monoculture plantations are particularly susceptible to disease - which spreads quickly and devastatingly across monoculture plantations.

Micro-climates and micro-environmental variability

To understand the benefits of a diverse native woodland we need to look at the systems contained within the forest. Micro climates in the forest allow for many different species to thrive in a woodland as different species will be better suited to particular climatic conditions. A variation of tree species allows for a much wider range of climatic conditions within the forest. This combined with differing soil and light conditions allows for different species of plant, fungi and insects to find their ideal place in the forest which in turn allows for many different species of bird and mammal.
When compared to monoculture plantations we see a very different dynamic of life within the forest. A sort of scale invariance can be seen; monoculture forest in particular conifer plantations don’t produce a wide range of micro-climatic conditions. The effect of this is that you end up with just a few species dominating the entire forest. This is not only bad for species diversity but can lead to some very serious problems with disease. This also affects the forest ability to regenerate as if a species does not do well in a particular spot in the forest there is nothing to replace it.
The benefits of planting a mixed native forest are obvious in this regard. A diverse forest is a robust and ecologically beneficial forest less prone to disease and better equipped to regenerate.

Disease and invasive species

Certain practices can bring in foreign species spreading diseases that local flora are extremely vulnerable to. An example of this is Ash dieback. It is thought that this disease was brought over on Ash seedlings from Holland. The imported trees spread hymenoscyphus fraxineus fungus previously known as Chalara Fraxinea causing Ash dieback disease, which results in leaf loss, and crown dieback in ash trees - and can cause death in affected trees.
This disease was first discovered in Ireland in 2012, and has now spread across the entire country devastating the local tree population. The problem is so severe that ash is no longer considered a viable species for planting.
This is not the first time imported goods have been responsible for spreading disease. Dutch elm disease was brought over on logs from Canada in the 1960’s starting the second more deadly epidemic that wiped out nearly all the native elm trees in the U.K.
We can help prevent these issues by using saplings grown within the country when planting, not planting monoculture forest where disease can proliferate and spread, growing and using local timber products rather than importing them.

The Invasive Species problem

Another issue in low quality carbon offsets, and in monoculture plantations is the issue of invasive non-indigenous plants. Monoculture plantations can become so prolific in an environment that they affect the natural regeneration of native species. In regards to plants - invasive species are traditionally species that threaten local ecosystems in any of a number of ways:

Resource-intensive species

In certain climates, some species will struggle to grow due to mismatched climates, unavailability of particular nutrients and incompatible soil types. In these situations, either secondary external nutrients need to be introduced - which can cause issues for local plant and wildlife populations - or these plants will be extremely resource heavy in growing: over-using available water and nutrient resources.

Fast-spreading plants

In certain situations, plants can thrive in new climates and ecosystems, and create issues through overabundance. A good example of these are Rhododendron and Gunnera in Ireland; these plants spread from people’s gardens and invaded the countryside. They are of particular detriment to forestry as they create dense cover at shrub level blocking light and nutrients to regenerating trees and other forest flora.

Preserving Biodiversity

The key to high quality plantations for carbon offsets and strong environmental focus then would seem to be mixed plantations primarily formed from native trees and non-invasive native plants - primarily in cases where they already co-exist in native habitats productively. While indigenous plants are generally preferred, in certain cases they cannot be exclusively relied on. Ireland is a prime example of this: Ireland has one of the lowest levels of forest coverage in Europe, and a reliance of non-native Sitka spruce trees to support commercial timber production due to their speed of growth. However, mixed plantations are recommended by experts. Mixed plantations in general outperform monoculture plantations in biomass production - and thus returning nutrients to the soil - by 17-18%. A mixture of key species of shrubbery, field layer flora can increase stand growth too by contributing to increased constructive nutrients in the soil, and maximising the growth of trees. Ultimately, utilising natural species is key to this - preserving natural wildlife and plant life is key to functional, biodiverse ecosystems, and at Atogail Forests, ecosystem preservation and biodiversity is one of our key concerns. As we’ve stated previously: our concern is not just offsetting carbon emissions - we’re making a healthier world through restoration of natural ecosystems and protecting, encouraging biodiversity.