It’s unlikely to amaze anyone who happens upon this tiny corner of the Internet that I am a little fond of forests. If there was a story about chasing through cracking, snapping woodland, or dream-fully sleeping in birch bowers under a star swept sky, or crouching in the leaf litter to converse with grouchy badgers, or failing to resist the charms of riverside otters then I was in, with a whole heart, and lost absolutely. I grew up in a housing estate in Dublin but we regularly escaped, en famille, to the Wicklow mountains and to this day I get a tangible sense of relief once foot sinks gratefully into forest floor and I breathe wood inspirited air.
As a child I heard the usual stories that Ireland was covered in trees from coast to coast up to just a couple of hundred years ago. I had very romantic idea of just what that would be like, in part because my experience of forests was of youth, light and green. Not for me the deep dark twisted forests gnarled with thorn bushes encased towers spiked on a landscape so hostile not even someone with a sword could clear it, instead uselessly risking having their eyes torn from them. Ireland’s forests in my youth were not plentiful. To me there were three kinds: The first were were random squares of dark, densely packed conifers, planted in stripes so closely together as to be impenetrable, weirdly silent, all noise deadened by the thick shroud of shed pine needles. Attempts to travel amoung those trees were quickly thwarted by the stabbing, scratching lower branches and I came not to think of them as forests as much as parcels of commodity, softwood for delivery to some factory. The second were young hardwood forests, or maybe some ancient trees dotted along rivers and subsequently wreathed in clusters of nubile and enthusiastic young things, young oaks and beeches for example, enthusiastically shedding dapple over a landscape of mossy rock and thin, entwining ivy strands, rich with the promise of primroses and violets. The third were the breath catchingly old forests, still green and comforting to me, but ancient. Touching the trunks of those felt like talking to a distant past gnarled in ancient stones in vast root complexes and considered carefully by much older skies.
The idea that the whole of Ireland was once covered in those old oak forests absolutely sang to me. For years I had a misplaced outrage, filled with the stories that it had all been chopped down to be shipped to Britain over just a couple of hundred years. Certainly a lot of felling took place during the 800 years of occupation of Ireland, for a wide variety of economic, military and political reasons – as with all stories there is usually some fact at the core – but the history of Ireland’s deforestation is a lot older and results from a much longer history of man’s exploitation and changes in climate.
According to a really fascinating paper, The history of Irish forests since the Ice Age by Valerie Hall in the Irish Forestry Journal Vol. 54 No.1 (1997)
“Throughout the later Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, the overall trend was a reduction of land under forest. Forested land survived in many places throughout the thousands of years spanned by prehistory and the early historical period, primarily where the terrain was rough or soils were too difficult to cultivate. In other places, land was cleared for agriculture and worked until it was exhausted. It was then abandoned and in many places the trees came back, but not always. In some areas, nutrient depletion and major soil changes favoured the growth of blanket peat over the regeneration of woodland. Extensive pollen studies in the uplands have shown that huge areas of Connemara, the Mournes and the Antrim Plateau were once forested. Today, they are covered by blanket peats without a
tree to be seen for miles. In spite of these details and extensive investigations, the link between tree-felling in prehistory and the development of blanket peat is still not fully understood. Nevertheless, we now know that people partly caused deforestation and the subsequent development of the blanket peats which are such a feature of today’s Irish uplands.”
According to Teagasc, Ireland experienced a near-total destruction of its forests from an initial forest cover of around 80% to less than 1%. To this day Ireland’s forestry rate lags badly behind all of Europe. After Ireland’s Independence, most tree-planting was carried out by governments to replace imported timber. Most of these state forests were established on mountain land and consisted mainly of fast-growing conifers, a trend which resulted in those thick patches of impenetrable dark I remember as a kid in Wicklow and in Sligo.
Modern Ireland’s attitude to trees is weird. I will be discussing some very different medieval attitudes to trees in another post, but for now it suffices to say that historical generations thought far more highly of trees than we (as a general sense of the Irish public) seem to do now. I am *grossly* generalising here, but sometimes it feels like the Irish psyche is a very strange thing. We have collectively shunned so much trying to at once run away from – while at the same time embracing and sometimes glorifying – a horrible history of misfortune, famine and wide scale cruel oversight. Is it because of our discomfort with the famine that we cannot be seen to be foragers? Is the idea of managing forests somehow tied into managing estates, and parklands and demesnes, is our subconscious chiding us for “notions”? In attempting to distance ourselves from our past we seem to have lost so much. Of course there are many people, groups and charities to prove me wrong, but they’re not immediately in my line of sight, and I am absolutely a lover of trees, I forage, I can identify trees and plants and wild animals on sight, so why are they not a bit more visible to me in this age where Facebook and the like can practically sense what I want and advertise it at me 6 months in advance of me needing a thing?
Maybe I’m being too bleak. I know there have been all manner of initiatives taken on by heritage officers around the country, by Coillte, the Tree Council of Ireland, and many others – for example there was the very lovely Millenium Forests Project , and many places encourage people to plant trees to commemorate lost loved ones. There have been art and sculpture projects like Sculpture in Woodland at the Devil’s Glen. In my youth Dan Conroy was much loved by kids my age, and he certainly championed all things wild and woodland. We have Éanna Ní Lamhna who is wonderfully enthusiastic but apparently lives in my parent’s radio and nowhere else, though maybe I’m just not seeing the places where she is.
Definitely in my teens and early adulthood forestry was about commodity, it was about cash crops and fast turnarounds and packing it all into scrubby mountainous land that wasn’t going to be up to much else. In 1991, however a change started. Most tree planting from this point has been carried out by private individuals, usually farmers, with the assistance of grant aid, so that now nearly half of all forests are now in private ownership. There has been a very noticeable shift to deciduous forests, and to increasing land use on the flat and in valleys instead of on mountains. About half of all these forests are less than 25 years old. Websites about Irish forestry are excellent resources for truly fascinating research into how forests grow and develop, how to manage and tend them instead of just mowing them all down and sending the timber to whoever paid most.
I remember visiting Scotland years ago and being astonished at the sophistication of visitor facilities and marketing of forest areas as amenities, as places to bring your family for holidays. There was *some* of that in Ireland – I do remember the picnic benches – but here anything was catering to a tiny audience and, unfortunately, often vandals who just wanted to tear stuff down. I do get the sense that things are changing and improving; education initiatives through planned forest routes, widely distributed maps and plans of mountainous areas come complete with guides and spotters. There are often more people walking the forest trials I travel, and in recent years there have definitely been other people feasting on my froachan patches. I’ve been on decently attended walks led by people teaching the group how to identify wild flowers or walks to find bats on echo locators. I think I might need to spend some time looking for more groups, it wouldn’t be the first time something I was looking for was hidden in plain sight.
(National Tree Week this year will run from 3rd – 10th March 2019)