A Co Meath group has come up with what it says is an innovative, scalable solution to dealing with one of Ireland's most invasive plants.
The Gaelic Woodland Project, a registered charity which aims to create and restore native woodlands around Ireland, has been clearing cherry laurel from the forest at Killyon Manor to utilise as a biofuel.
Cherry laurel is a dense, thicket-forming evergreen shrub from southwest Asia.
It is a popular choice for Irish garden hedges, but if left unchecked it can grow to the size of trees.
If it is growing in a woodland, it will eventually cast the forest floor into shadow, and stop other plants and trees from growing.
However, project founder Eoghan Connaughton believes this "ecological problem" can be turned into an "energy opportunity".
"We believe the best way to incentivise the removal of cherry laurel is to tell people that this is a resource. It's a potential biofuel that can be harvested by local communities to heat their homes.
"This could be a great alternative to buying firewood, you could become the steward of your local woodland, harvest the cherry laurel, heat your homes, and in the process save your local forest," Mr Connaughton said.
Over three days last year, 30 people removed an "infestation" of cherry laurel from the Co Meath estate, collecting 28 tonne-bags of wood in the process.
Mr Connaughton says new life is already returning to the forest floor.
"There is wild garlic everywhere now. Wild garlic is an ancient indicator species, the seeds don’t travel that far so if they’re here, they’ve been here since the beginning.
"So this is a native woodland that was suffocated by cherry laurel, we have removed the cherry laurel and now the light has come back and the birds are singing," he said.
Invasive alien species are one of the five main causes of biodiversity loss, according to the European Commission.
Ireland has been referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to prevent invasive alien species from damaging nature.
Mr Connaughton wants to see a ban on the sale of invasive species like cherry laurel in garden centres.
He also says that cherry laurel should not be planted with the aim of producing biofuel.
However, he maintains that harvesting what is already there to use as an alternative to fossil fuels is a win-win situation.
The Irish BioEnergy Association agreed that it would be better to use the cherry laurel cuttings as a fuel, rather than letting it go to waste.
"There may be people who see what we’re doing and think 'profits, opportunities’ but we have a strong ethos of getting from it what we can while it’s here but when it’s gone, it’s gone. If you plant it on your land, it will spread," Santiago Rial, director of the Gaelic Woodland Project said.
The group believes that their method of removing cherry laurel by hand and drying the wood to create fuel could be easily replicated in other woodlands around the country.
"I think this methodology, if adopted nationwide, could solve a legacy problem. We could fix it and then move onto other issues. We need to work as a community," Mr Connaughton said.
Mr Connaughton described cherry laurel as "tenacious, a survivor" because "it will come back once its been cut." He said their approach to preventing it from growing back, rather than using traditional herbicides, is a "fungal, nature based solution".
"We found five fungal strains - out of the approximately 200 million types of fungi - that attack this shrub and we’re going to see how using that will impact the regrowth," he said. "We will also make our fungal bioherbicide experiment open-source."
Earlier this month, the most in-depth survey ever of British and Irish flora found that over half of Ireland's native plant species are in decline, while 80% of non-native plants introduced since 1500 have increased.
The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, which conducted the study, said human activity is the cause of the decline and that human activity must be recruited to restore it.
The Gaelic Woodland Project warns that even if cherry laurel is just planted in one area, the seeds can travel far and have a negative impact on areas of conservation like the woodlands at Killyon Manor.
"If people are planting cherry laurel in their gardens, nature doesn’t believe in boundaries so if you plant something in your garden, the seeds from that shrub can be carried kilometres by the wind, birds and other animals. If it lands in a habitat, it can destroy that habitat," Mr Connaughton explained.
Mr Rial added, "For anyone who realises they have cherry laurel on their property, there are so many other indigenous species that may not grow as quick but are more functional and support biodiversity such as hawthorn and willow.
"They will give you privacy but also provide habitats for wildlife, birds, bees, bugs... There is nothing wrong with having planted it, but if you can afford to, it would be great to swap invasive for indigenous."
All over Ireland people are stepping up to tackle climate change and protect the environment. If you have a story to tell, we would love to hear it. Email: email@example.com