The Dangers of an Invasive Species (and what are we doing about it)

The objective of the Gaelic Woodland Project is to crowd-fund to purchase fields and convert them into native woodlands; all donations are used to buy land. We call this simple approach “People-Powered Reforestation”. In 2023 we will buy land for our first forest. However, in 2022 our actions evolved into something more akin to “People-Power Against Ecological Invasion”

The vibrant biodiversity of a mature Irish forest is extremely rare and may be impossible to recreate. It’s short-sighted to plant new woodlands without tackling the invasive species decimating the mature woodlands we already have.

In Elizabethian times, Cherry Laurel was introduced to Ireland from Turkey as an ornamental plant for Aristocratic landscape gardening. The laurel branches will grow lazily upwards to ~8 metres in isolation. Planted in rows, they weave an impenetrable barrier of evergreen leaves that make exceptional hedging which is still popular today. 

Cherry Laurel Infestation map: National Biodiversity Data Centre

Yet, this seemingly innocuous plant is the greatest threat to our mature forests. Their seeds love rich woodland soil, and their waxy, evergreen leaves block the light and eradicate the irreplaceable biodiversity beneath them. In its ruthless pulse to survive – even a little branch left on the forest floor can regrow and take on roots.

Currently, Laurel is sold in Garden Shops all around the country without warning. It grows silently in most Irish forests, displacing native species and casting a grim shadow all over its path. Once you see this problem, you can’t un-see it, and you will see it everywhere.

What can be done!?

Most gardeners who plant Cherry Laurel don’t know the damage these seeds inflict on nearby and faraway biomes, so awareness is an excellent place to start!

Direct action is vital, but isolated State-sponsored removal efforts are insufficient due to the pervasiveness of the infestation. The Irish State will sink millions into palliative upkeep ad infinitum unless we become as committed to its removal as she is to her survival.

So we decided to join the fight to save Irish Woodlands whilst we fundraise to create a new forest. Win-Win.

Impenetrable wall of Cherry Laurel in the woods of Killyon Manor, Co. Meath

Burn, baby, burn!

To incentivise removal, Cherry Laurel must become a resource. As it turns out, Laurel burns exceptionally well. Because it is considered a shrub (not a tree), no felling licence is required to cut them down. 

With this instrumental insight, we decided to experiment: Could we develop an efficient, affordable methodology for removing Cherry Laurel that simultaneously provides communities with FREE firewood?

SPOILER: Yes, yes we could.

With the support and help of Killyon Manor and funding from LAWpro, we held a series of meitheals (the Irish word for collaborative community work) in an infested native woodland on the banks of the River Deel.

We purchased task-specific, non-mechanised tools (Samurai Saws & Nordic Chainsaws) to aid with the removal and found that even with a small group of 5 volunteers, a significant amount of Cherry Laurel could be felled down in a matter of hours; the sunlight once again pouring into the forest floor.

And the building of community was only one of the many happy byproducts of this effort!

There was a surge of interest with each meitheal; we closed off the season with 30 legendary people showing up to offer a few hours and energy to this significant work.

Founder Eoghan Connaughton inducting 30 volunteers for our biggest meitheal yet.

We piled the small branches and leaves in big piles to rot for posterior removal and composting. However, we also plan to create habitat for small mammals and birds and to experiment with growing edible mushrooms on the refuse.

The energy crisis is walloping households. This invasive shrub presents a salubrious alternative to firewood imports. The bigger branches and trunks were cut into logs and stored in white-ton bags to be dried over Winter. We have collected 20-tonnes of Laurel Logs by hand and will be donating them next year to raise funds for our new forest.

Six of 28 tonne bags collected from a woodland in Meath.

Laurel stumps require treatment, or they will regrow; herbicide (glyphosate) is currently the best practice. This crude, toxic approach is the finality of all life it touches; it has an undetermined impact on soil health and is lethal if it enters waterways. 

The GWP founder Eoghan Connaughton has obtained permission from Trinity College Dublin to experiment with specific fungal strains as bioherbicides. There are over 200 million fungal strains; we’ve discovered five (and one bacteria) that work symbiotically with laurel (Prunus laurocerasus).

We await permission from the NPWS and the DAFM to determine if fungal treatment can neutralise laurel’s regrowth capacity without using herbicides or toxic substances.

What happens in the long-run?

The results of our removal experiments have been highly satisfying; not only are we finding that the clearing a woodland can be easy enough, but it is also gratifying work and a great place to find community.

Our vision is long-term and communal: Once we’ve learned enough and our methodology is solid, we will prepare guidance material and an awareness campaign for different communities around Ireland (parishes, GAA clubs, nature groups, schools and universities, etc.) to empower themselves by tackling their own Cherry Laurel infestations: knowing what results to expect after using what tools and man-hours.

We will also make our fungal bioherbicide experiment open-source.

The only way to protect Irish forests and guarantee posterity have great Irish Oaks to sit beneath is to come together and innovate for an intelligent, cleaner approach to preserving the precious remnants of our mature woodlands.

After cutting, the leaves and refuse are piled together in different piles to observe rates of decomposition, while the wood is saved for logging, drying and then burning.

If you’d like to join us, subscribe to our newsletter for an early invite or watch our Instagram for future meitheal outings. If you’ve abundance, consider making a small donation and sign our appeal to prohibit the sale of invasive species. Extra points if you share this post to help us reach more people. Thank you for your support <3

Written by Santiago Rial Luis (Séamus) and Eoghan Connaughton

Light returning to the forest floor after 30-years in shadow.

Published by Gaelic Woodland Project

We're a non-profit raising money to expand existing woodlands and create new ones. Our flagship project is a commemorative woodland in the centre of Ireland, dedicated to Eire and the Irish Diaspora. (charity submission no: SR7908)

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