If national afforestation targets are met, the proportion of area under plantation forest cover in Ireland will almost double by the year 2030 to 17%, and will consist of mostly non-native trees. There is an urgent and vital need to assess and to maximise the biodiversity potential of these forests. This study compares carabid beetle (Coleoptera, Carabidae) composition and assemblage patterns across different stages of the forest cycle, in addition to intensive grassland habitats, the habitat the plantation forest will most likely be replacing. The clearfell habitat had the highest median species richness, while the grassland habitat had the highest species diversity, but lowest species dominance. Ordination analysis revealed that the species assemblages of all stages of the forest cycle could be clearly separated from the grassland habitat, while differences were also observed between forest stages. Canonical correspondence analysis revealed that the most significant factors influencing carabid community composition were percent cover of ground vegetation and mosses, and also percent soil moisture. Differences in species with varying physical traits and microhabitat preferences were also observed between habitats, with larger, brachypterous species positively associated with increasing canopy cover and smaller macropterous species displaying the opposite pattern. The presence and abundance of forest-associated species increased with increasing plantation age, with a corresponding decrease in open habitat-associated and generalist species. The results of this study suggest that at the landscape scale, a variety of different aged forest stands would maximise the biodiversity potential of the planned afforestation. © 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.