FORESTRY bosses have said they are "aware of alleged illegal activity" that took place at one of their plantations. 

A group of climate activists – including some Straw Boys in traditional costumes – uprooted hundreds of Sitka spruce saplings at a Coillte site in County Leitrim, Ireland. The action, said to be a call for 'trees for climate, not profit', saw the trees used to block drains at the publicly-owned woodland near Manorhamilton. 

Protesters are understood to have included members of Save Leitrim, while local media has reported farmers were also involved in the stunt. Leitrim is the most heavily forested county in Ireland, according to the latest Forestry Statistics Ireland report, which was released this week.

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Addressing the action for the first time, a Coillte spokesperson said: "Coillte is aware of alleged illegal activity that took place at one of its forests in Co. Leitrim and the matter is currently under investigation." 

Tensions around Sitka are nothing new, but in recent times the British forestry industry has struck a more unforgiving tone in the wake of mainstream criticism. Last year, Richard Stanford, the chief executive of the Forestry Commission, called for an end to the "stigma around conifers", saying: “We must end the dogma of native broadleaf good, conifer bad. 

"Well-managed conifer forests with plenty of light and structure can support a wide range of wildlife, including woodland birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, plants and fungi.

"Mature conifers provide roosting holes for bats, nest sites for kites, goshawk and pine martens and seeds for red squirrels, siskins and crossbills." 

A recent statement from Social, Economic, Environmental Forestry Association (SEEFA), which represents the Irish forestry industry, mirrored this, reading: "A single acre of Sitka spruce, the most widely-planted tree species in Ireland's forestry sector, is capable of sequestering as much as five tones of carbon per year! 

"With every minute we delay, we fall further behind in the fight for the climate." 

The action took place on the final day of the Climate Camp, a five-day “festival of resistance”, at which hundreds of people gathered earlier this month to “learn from each other’s struggles and to demand climate solutions that prioritise communities, not shareholders”.

Brian Smyth of Save Leitrim, one of the groups that helped Slí Eile organise Climate Camp, said: "The bog from which people pulled up the Sitka saplings today would sequester and store more carbon than those Sitka spruce trees ever would.

"We want climate action, we want tree-planting, but we urgently need a shift away from the focus on timber production towards native natural woodlands of broadleaf trees.

"We've been campaigning for years but the government hasn't listened."

He added: "Planting Sitka spruce on peat is not really a climate action because it's a net emitter of greenhouse gases."

Forestry Journal: Activists uprooted hundreds of Sitka spruce saplings Activists uprooted hundreds of Sitka spruce saplings (Image: Social media)

The protests come amid Coillte's plan to create 100,000 hectares of new forests by 2050, half of which will be native woodlands, supporting the delivery of the national afforestation target; and will create a carbon sink of 18 million tonnes of CO2 by 2050.