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There are many arguments about which type of tree is 'better' but both broadleaves and conifers fulfil different roles within forest ecosystems. In this blog post, PhD candidate Kathleen Conroy, Trinity College Dublin walks us through the general characteristics of conifers and broadleaves.

Aerial view of wooded area with green trees and water body
Wood for the trees ... Aerial image of woodlands in Co Wicklow by Maxi Giminez via Unsplash


A member of the angiosperm family, broadleaf trees originated in the Permian period over 275 million years ago. All flowering plants are classified as angiosperms, and broadleaf trees flower and produce fruit. A majority of broadleaf tree species are deciduous, meaning seasonally they will lose their leaves (usually in autumn). By losing their leaves before winter, deciduous plants are conserving water, retaining energy and reducing the risk of winter storm damage.

The exact number of broadleaf species is unknown, but there are estimates of 50,000 species, with about 80% of these trees in tropical zones. This comes with the production of more dense wood which is the result of xylem vessels and growth processes. Broadleaf trees transport water and nutrients using these vessels. Because of the presence of xylem, broadleaves are classified as hardwoods, in terms of timber.

Broadleaf species often grow much more slowly when compared to conifers. This slow seasonal growth causes the density of the timber produced to increase. There are exceptions, but in general, timber produced from broadleaf species will have higher density than conifer timber. For example, hardwood is often used in flooring and boat construction, because of its maximum durability and strength. Ireland has many native broadleaf tree species including oak, ash and hazel. Beech, sycamore and horse chestnut are some of the non-native broadleaf tree species planted in Ireland.


A member of the gymnosperms family, conifers originated in the Carboniferous period over 300 million years ago. Conifer is a Latin term meaning “cone-bearing”, a distinguishing feature as unlike other plants, conifers do not produce flowers and seeds, instead, reproduce via cones. Another noticeable feature of conifers is that a vast majority of them are evergreens. This means they will not lose their leaves in the autumn/winter. True conifer species will have needles as their leaves. The placement, shape, colour and size of needles can be used to identify species.

With over 600 species, conifers are divided into eight main families with the largest being Pinaceae (231 species), Podocarpaceae (174 species) and Cupressaceae (135 species). It is estimated that approximately 34% of conifer species are threatened with extinction and this number will continue to grow in coming years as the effects of climate change become more pronounced.

Conifer species are generally categorised as softwood species. The reason for this classification is due to the fact that conifers lack xylem vessels and instead use cells called tracheids for water and nutrient transport. This makes the timber they produce less dense and therefore “soft”. Another reason they are softwood is because they grow much faster than hardwood species. By growing more quickly, they are less dense. However, being soft gives it the ability to create versatile and valuable products. It can serve a number of purposes in the construction industry and other manufacturing purposes (e.g., furniture).

Ireland’s native conifers are yew, juniper and Scot’s pine. There are many examples of non native conifers in Ireland including Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine and Douglas fir. Most of the non-native trees have been introduced and planted into the Irish landscape to help meet the growing demand for timber.

Ecosystem Services

Broadleaves and conifers both provide a range of ecosystem services. They can provide some of the same ecosystem services, for example, both broadleaves and conifers sequester carbon. However, they can provide these ecosystem services to different extents. Fast growing conifers will sequester a lot of carbon when they are younger. Broadleaves, being slower growing, will continue to sequester carbon over a longer period of time (and often store carbon for a longer period of time as well).

Broadleaves and conifers also provide habitat for other species. Broadleaf forests are a well suited habitat for the protected red squirrel, while the protected hen harrier will nest in young conifer plantations.

Another important ecosystem service is the ability of forests to protect communities from flooding. Conifer forests can retain up to 10% more water than broadleaf forests (EEA 2020). These are just a few examples from the extensive list of ecosystem services that are provided by woodlands - and our sustainable forestry tool will help predict likely outcomes for ecosystem services using different forest management scenarios.

Broadleaves or conifers?

To date, Irish forests are approximately 61% coniferous and 27% broadleaf (DAFM 2022). Broadleaf afforestation is increasing but the majority of afforestation is of conifers. Broadleaves and conifers each hold essential roles in their ecosystems. It depends on the land manager and the ecosystem services that the land is required to produce. Both trees are needed to different extents to provide a suite of ecosystem services required by surrounding communities.


DAFM, Johnstown Castle Estate, Co. Wexford. Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. 2022. Forest Statistics Ireland 2022.

Forests can help prevent floods and droughts (2020) European Environment Agency.

0from%20flooding. (Accessed: 21 March 2024).

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In advance of the holiday festivities, ForES Project PhD candidate Kathleen Conroy of Trinity College Dublin came up with this cute robot character Dot the Botany Bot to walk us through an animated explanation of how accounting for ecosystem services works in a forestry context... as Dot searches for the forest of her dreams. Does it exist? Click below to watch...

What are ecosystem services? Ecosystem services are anything that the natural world provides that brings about a benefit to people. In forests, these can include timber, food and medicinal products, water mitigation, air quality, carbon sequestration, biodiversity such as pollinating insects and recreation.

Ecosystem accounting uses a framework to track and understand how these ecosystem services are changing over time, as the video explains - and you can find out more about the UN-standard method used, the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting - Ecosystem Accounting or SEEA EA HERE.

ForES is a collaboration between Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and Coillte. Funded by DAFM, our multi-disciplinary project aims to create a decision-support tool to enable management of the Coillte estate as well as privately owned forests, for balanced delivery of multiple ecosystem services using a Natural Capital Accounting (NCA) framework. Sign up for updates HERE.

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This summer ForES PhD student Kathleen Conroy and Postdoc Francesco Martini of Trinity College Dublin represented our project at a number of conferences and summer schools. Here's an update on what they have been working on and what's to come...

5 smiling people standing outdoors in front of trees and buildings
Francesco and his ecology colleagues at the Botanical Society of America, Botany 2023 event in Idaho, USA

June 2023

Kathleen Conroy attended the British Ecological Society Trees for Climate Change, Biodiversity and People symposium. She presented a poster entitled “Creating Ecosystem Extent Accounts to Understand Land Use Change in Irish Forests” on June 28, speaking about the ForES project and the extent accounts the team have been creating for Irish Coillte estates. Several fellow speakers discussed the importance of monitoring and preserving forestry ecosystem services. They also raised the challenges they faced doing projects similar to ForES, such as understanding stakeholders’ targets, finding ways to increase biodiversity and adjusting species selection based on climate change projections.

July 2023

Kathleen attended a Summer School organised by three COST Action projects: 3DForEco Tech (focusing on using technology to monitor forest ecosystems), Bottoms-Up (focusing on gathering multi-taxon biodiversity data to inform forest management) and PROCLIAS (focusing on modelling climate change) in Slovenia from July 10-14. Presenting the same poster, she spoke more on the ForES project goals and research questions. At the summer school, she learned about Lidar and mapping forests with terrestrial laser scanners and how this data can be used to assess the structure of a forest or a single tree.

She also learned about measuring biodiversity with an emphasis on β diversity which examines two sites' compositional dissimilarities. Finally, she was taught about empirical (statistics based), and process-based (mathematics-based) models and how they can be used to understand climate change effects on forests.

Francesco Martini took part in the Botany Conference in Boise, Idaho, USA, from July 22-26, where he presented his talk titled 'Creating ecosystem extent accounts to understand land use change in Irish forests', introducing the ForES project and the results of the extent accounts. He provided details on one site in particular, Glendine, and a general overview of the land cover changes that occurred in the 25 sites used for the project between 2000 and 2018. Being a mostly American audience, with different experiences of forests and forestry compared to Ireland, most questions were on the general history and status of the Irish forests as well as the challenges that are being faced going into the future.

Francesco also judged posters and oral presentations by graduate and undergraduate students eligible for the best presentations conference awards and was elected Vice-Chair of the Ecology Section of the Botanical Society of America. Overall, it was a great opportunity to interact with a broad range of botanists working on a variety of research areas, to listen to diverse talks from ecosystems spanning from tropical forests to deserts to tundra, and to present the unique context of Irish forests to the conference attendees. A common message that connected many talks and posters was the interconnection and interdependency between all parts of the biosphere, including plants, animals, and humans.

Man speaks at event lectern in front of screen
Francesco in action presenting on creating forest ecosystem extent accounts at Irish forest sites at Botany 2023

August 2023

Kathleen participated in the summer school Promowood: The Future of Wood which was organised by the ETH-Domain initiatives MainWood & SCENE, the SwissForestLab and the NFZ.forestnet from August 19-26. Kathleen presented ForES project there as a poster and graphical abstract. Kathleen, picture below out on excursion and mid-presentation, learned about lifecycle assessment of wood products and cascading use, meaning that wood will be used for several different things in its lifetime (e.g., veneer to plywood to chip wood to fibre products then finally to chips for burning).

Other presentations included research into the strength of wood and its future use in construction, disseminating information to diverse audiences through different mediums and affectively engaging with stakeholders. The participants went on excursions to see the effects of avalanches on forests and how forests provide protection to communities from such disasters. Another excursion was to a sawmill where students saw how wood was processed and selected for musical instruments.

Keep an eye out for the For-ES team this Autumn. They will be presenting at the International Agroforestry Conference (16/11-17/11) in Cork and the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting (12/12-15/12) in Belfast.

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