It’s relatively well known that before the arrival of humans, aproximately 9000 years ago Ireland was covered in mixed, broadleaf woodland. A huge amount of deforestation happened in the first few millennium as the human population became settled and these first Irish are often both credited and blamed for how the Irish landscape looks today, crediting areas of karst and blanket bog as well as denuded hills.
However, there were still significant mixed woodlands covering Ireland if you compare this map of Irish forest cover circa 1600 (McCracken 1971) to the UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) map from 2003.
Those of you comfortable with your Irish geography will notice lots of 1600s woodlands are following river valleys or corridors.
A significant porportion of the deforestation that happened post-1600 happened in just a 200 year period for a number of complex reasons. The population was increasing, over 8 million by 1800 higher than the Irish population today, the Plantations lead to the clearing of land, and timber for shipbuilding, such as the East India Company shipyard in Cork (c1613). Disappearing forest meant extinction of wild boar, wolf and red squirrel (which was reintroduced from Britain in the late 19th century).
But neither is it so simple as to blame deforestation on British colonialism or rising population as the dramatic drop in population in the second half to the of the 1800s following the Great Famine did not see a significant growth in forest cover and neither did Irish independence in the last 100 years.
Even that 2003 FAO map does not do justice to the decimation as it includes monoculture spruce plantations which have had widely negative environmental impacts and are controversial among rural communities.
So while Irish “forest cover” might be 11% only 11% of that is mixed woodland. Meaning that only 1% of Irish land is given over to broadleaf native forest.
1% of Ireland is ecologically meaningful woodland. This is the context to the outrage at Waterways Ireland hacking and slashing along the Barrow River towpath or the clearing of trees from around the Connemara national park.
1%. With so little every inch is precious. Any decision to remove trees for safety reasons needs to considered and only be implemented with plans for replanting.
Nationally plans for woodland restoration have been unambitious to date, not even returning us to a 1600s state. Planning for riparian and corridor based planting on a large scale could:
1) Provide less fragmented habitat for wildlife
2) Reduce flooding
3) Create carbon sinks
But there has been little funding and less political will put behind such initiatives.
A crazy thought experiment : Ireland must reduce 1 million tonnes of carbon annually emissions for international commitments and avoid huge fines. 150m trees (aprox 100,000 hectares) capture 82k tonnes carbon/annum
1 million tonnes = 1m hectares = 12% of Irish land given over to broadleaf woodland
Except that 12% isn’t crazy at all – it’s still well below the European average for national forest cover.
There are community groups and NGOs working to increase native woodland in Ireland.
The Native Woodland Trust work to identify and protect old native forests, as well as using them as a seed source for woodland restoration. Over the last number of years, the NWT has donated over 100,000 trees to schools and community groups throughout Ireland, as well as providing advice and assistance in the creation of new hedgerows and woods by those groups.
There’s also Easy Treesie which seeks to plant one million trees in Ireland by 2023 – one for every Irish school child.
Now the solution to all of Ireland’s environmental woes is not to simple cover everything in trees. There are important habitats, are karst limestone pavements, blanket bogs, etc. which require human intervention or grazing to mention and are also very valuable to wildlife and plant species. But 12% of national land cover could be easily achieved by replacing conifer plantations with mixed woodland and restoring some of the river (riparian) woodland corridors.
Sometimes big ideas are actually very simple but require political will to see them through to reality.
Unfortunately Irish political leadership doesn’t really extend to long-term thinking. I’m not sure how to change that beyond voting in a new cohort not already shaped by “this is the way we do things.”