Wood you like to know where the trees went?

Despite being the most deforested EU country, tree cover in Ireland is now at its highest level in 350 years

Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle, yet despite an abundance of green spaces, there is a shortage of forests and woodlands. This lack of forestry has had a huge impact on the biological diversity of the country, and consequently the variety of its fauna, which has suffered due to a lack of suitable biospheres to set up home in. Ireland actually has the lowest forest cover of any EU country. Just 9% of Ireland’s surface is dotted with woodland, in comparison to the European average of 40%.

“Within a period of roughly 200 years covering the mid 17th century into the 19th century, the Irish treeline received a severe buzzcut.”

There is plenty of evidence that demonstrates the fact that ancient Ireland, particularly the midlands, once hosted bounding lush forests which supported both Irish people and Irish wildlife. Caesar Litton Falkiner, a prominent 19th century Irish Unionist, carried out research into Ireland’s geological past. In his opinion, this research provided undeniable evidence of a country once rich in woodlands, saying “that the climate and soil of Ireland are naturally suited to the growth of timber of nearly every useful kind indigenous to Europe, and that the island was anciently stored with woods and forests of vast extent”. Their existence is well documented but apart from historical accounts and art, very little evidence remains of the forests today. The state of Ireland’s environmental composition changed quite dramatically over a short amount of time. Within a period of roughly 200 years covering the mid 17th century into the 19th century, the Irish treeline received a severe buzzcut.

The Irish language itself actually reveals the centrality of extinct forests to the ancient Irish. This is apparent in the large reservoir of Irish synonyms for both “woods” and “forest”. This evidence is also found in the number of adjectives for these words that exist in the language. Their prevalence reveals more than their ancient importance, but also the locations around the country where these woodlands were once a dominant feature of the landscape. Consider the prefix “kil”, which features in multiple Irish place names; Killarney, Kilmore, Kilkenny. It is an anglicisation of the Irish word “coill” by the colonial English who struggled to learn and spell these foreign words, so they hastily renamed all of Ireland’s towns as required. Coill, the Irish for wood, insinuates that wherever this prefix is found, the nearby town or village is likely to have been established at a time when its lands were covered by lush towering forests. The livelihood of the townspeople would likely have been supported by these habitats.

Upon close examination, one begins to realise these words describe an Ireland radically different from our modern nation of patchwork fields, stone walls, and hedgerows. Similarly, “ros” has been used to describe a woodland, insinuating that places such as Roscommon, Roscrea, and Rossmore at some point had vast forests, leaving some questioning as to where they all went? The Irish word for an oakwood is “daire”. With this knowledge one wonders why Derry is not famed for its beautiful bounding oakwoods and why Fáilte Ireland adverts are not milking this aesthetic for all it’s worth?

Following the thaw of the last Ice Age 14,000 years ago, new tree species reached Ireland through wind dispersal methods and via land bridges that once existed between Ireland and Britain. The trees were culled by human activity over many centuries, including such groups as the native Irish, the Normans, and the Celts, for farming and craft purposes. These actions had only a small impact on forest cover, and until the mid-sixteenth century, the country was still choked with impassable forests. This was a problem for the ruling British who saw the woodlands as a considerable obstacle to their military pursuits on the island. In a reverse of the age old lesson of remembering to “never wage war in Russia during winter”, the British army could only travel through forests, tracking Irish rebels from town to town, in winter when the leaves fell from the broadleaves. In fact, there was a popular English proverb used throughout the 17th century that claimed “the Irish will never be tamed while there are leaves on the trees”.

From the British point of view, if they were to ever enact total control over the island, the forests of Ireland had to go. An additional motivator for Irish deforestation were the economic benefits that forestry clearings offered. The bounty of Irish woodlands proved extremely lucrative to the British, and a regrettable “two birds with the one stone” system prevailed. This Irish wood, taken without public consent, was used to furnish the budding of the British Royal Navy who required ships to defend the empire against the Spanish Armada. Buying estates in Ireland became extremely profitable as the price of land could be reimbursed simply through selling the trees which grew on it, while the harsh Penal Laws meant Irish Catholics could not take advantage of Ireland’s natural wealth.

“By the end of the eighteenth century, the landscape of the country essentially looked as it does today.”

The British preferement of the use of Irish wood stretched long into the following two hundred years. Hardwoods harvested from oaks, ash, and elms are of a high quality and perfect for manufacturing or fuel uses. Interestingly, the fine quality of the wood harvested lead to considerable romanticisation of the timber by some of the ruling elite. On some occasions, it was regarded as possessing almost mystical properties. In the seventeenth century, the roof of Westminster Hall was constructed of wood from trees felled in now extinct forests, which once grew near the Phoenix Park. It was remarked that “no English spider webbeth or breedeth to this day”. Ultimately, the trees were felled with relish, but not replanted with the same fervour. By the end of the eighteenth century, the landscape of the country essentially looked as it does today, largely devoid of the forestry that once earned the name of Emerald Isle.

So what’s the scéal with the trees today? The tree-starved condition of the countryside is not ideal from an ecological and economic standpoint. To counteract this problem, the government has been working to reverse paltry treelines with afforestation and reforestation schemes since the 1900s. However, the growing process takes time.

While the percentage of tree cover in Ireland is actually at its highest in 350 years, debate exists regarding the effectiveness of government schemes that deal with environmental improvement from a standpoint of geological richness. One of these schemes involves offering tax breaks to those who decide to commit to afforestation schemes. This incentive has encouraged almost 21,994 individuals to buy land intended for forest use since 1980. The land bought remains under the control of private individuals and not public government bodies such as Coillte. This decision has led to ecological complications on two main issues. The first set of problems that raises concerns are the type of trees that are being planted, while the second issue is the unfavorable style in which many of these trees have been settled.

Only one quarter of current tree populations are made up of broad-leaved, hard woods such as oak, ash, and elm. Despite their relative scarcity, these trees are still favoured today for fuel use in homes across the country. Their high calorific value means that they have become an in-demand product. Native trees are more beneficial as they better support  native wildlife. Their shortage across the country is a massive hindrance to Irish fauna. It is also relevant that inexperienced individuals can plant in tightly packed rows. This prevents sunlight reaching the new forest floor. In actuality a forest never truly forms because the ecosystem that develops lacks any diversity of plant life that would naturally benefit from the falling leaf litter. The result is that the area fails to support any broad plant life. In the public domain, the government body Coillte has been engaging in afforestation and reforestation schemes. These seem to have been only partially successful. Broadleaf planting has not been prioritised as strongly as many experts deem necessary, and the government body has missed annual planting goals several times.

The period of exploitation by the British resulted in mass flora and consequently fauna loss that the country has since failed to recover from. There are species of animals that once traversed through the trees across Ireland whose indigenous existence would only seem ridiculous to us today.

Gráinne Quigley

Gráinne Quigley is a Deputy Societies Editor for Trinity News.