• Fiona Smith

Forests for Water... use of woodland creation for protection of our water bodies

DECLAN LITTLE, Project Manager for Woodlands of Ireland, writes about the recent Payments for Ecosystem Services - Forests for Water meeting in Killarney, Co Kerry, and explains how COST Actions are using woodland creation to protect European bodies of water.

IN recent years, Europe has witnessed a growing interest in the use of native woodland to protect and enhance water quality. The Payments for Ecosystems Services - Forests for Water (PESFOR-W) meeting, which took place in Killarney, Co Kerry, on June 4-6, 2019, is one of numerous meetings being held throughout the EU over a four-year period, involving delegates from 31 European countries. 

The focus is the delivery of practical woodland measures to protect water quality and their implementation via ecosystem service payments. There are four working groups with clearly defined objectives and final reports and outcomes will be published next year. PESFOR-W is one of many 'actions' funded under COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology), a funding organisation for research and innovation networks. These are designed to connect research initiatives across Europe and beyond and enable researchers and innovators to grow their ideas in numerous science and technology fields by sharing them with their peers.

Woodlands which have been established and managed to protect and enhance water quality are strategically located in a sensitive manner with minimal inputs. The ecosystem services are clear - for example, the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) Woodland for Water document (2018) sets out a model involving new native woodland planted under the Native Woodland Establishment Scheme, delivering:reduction in sediment mobilisation and runoff into watercoursesinterception of nutrient runoff into watercoursesbank stabilisationfood input into the aquatic ecosystemshading / coolingregulation of floodwaterriparian restoration

In Ireland, grant aid for afforestation is available under the Forestry Programme 2014-2020 to encourage and enable farmers and landowners to opt for the Native Woodland Scheme to deliver these water-related benefits. Premium payments to landowners may be topped up from the Woodland Environmental Fund (WEF), as corporates and other business interests contribute to meet Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) objectives. But are there other ways to formulate more nuanced payments, based on the specific water-related benefits delivered?


Delegates at the KerryLIFE Slievaduff Forest demonstration site in the Blackwater catchment which is undergoing conversion from monoculture conifer status to native woodland to protect and enhance water quality. Pic courtesy of Declan Little

This is exactly what Cost Action is investigating, exploring how tree planting and woodland creation can be used as part of wider land-use strategies, to tackle diffuse pollution from agriculture, in order to help water bodies, primarily to achieve their targets under the Water Framework Directive.

This form of integrated catchment management creates multiple benefits to society. However, it is a significant cost to landowners in the absence of a return from wood production immediately adjacent to watercourses. It is seeking to bridge this gap, by combining new economic instruments with spatial targeting, to realise the most cost-effective way to 'deploy' tree planting and woodland creation to maximise water-related benefits.

The new economic instruments emerging focus on flexible, incentive-based Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), whereby predicted benefits are quantified and their value monetarised at site level, which forms the basis for subsequent payments to the landowner to achieve water-based targets. 

In Killarney, delegates heard a number of keynote addresses including one on ‘Applying the Natural Capital Approach in Ireland’ by Hannah Hamilton, Executive Coordinator at the Irish Forum on Natural Capital. Delegates also visited the KerryLIFE project in the Blackwater catchment to see first-hand woodland mitigation measures at forest and farm level to protect water quality for the benefit of the critically endangered freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margartifera). 

The Irish meeting concluded that it is very important to differentiate between the objectives of forests and woodlands to avoid confusion as sometimes forests can have negative impacts on water quality, especially where mitigation measures are not applied. 

​PESFOR-W includes foresters, economists, agronomists, policymakers, engineers, computer modellers, academic researchers and ecologists, all working together. The Action will consolidate experiences from existing woodlands for water PES schemes in Europe and help standardise approaches to evaluating the environmental effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of woodland measures. It will also create a European network through which PES schemes can be facilitated, extended and improved, for example by incorporating other ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration.  

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