The threat that lies ahead

The term ‘Irish woodland’ could be seen as an oxymoron. Let’s face it, there is so little of it! Ireland’s surface is covered by approximately 1% native woodland, yes, that is right, only 1%! Ireland is not the Sahara, Death Valley Nevada or the Arctic. We know that few trees grow in those locations because the climate is not suited to woodland. Ireland does not have these climatic limitations against growing woodland. The truth is, Ireland should be one of the best regions of the world for growing trees!  So why does it have so few? The answer is simple - deforestation!

If we turn the clock back 4000 years, most of Ireland, except for a few coastal regions and, perhaps, the very top of our mountains, were covered in a cloak of dense, lush temperate rainforests. It was at this stage that the early farmers of the New Stone Age started clearing parts of the forest to grow crops and raise grazing animals. Bit by bit the woodland retreated.

By AD 500 the native Gaelic society of Ireland, perhaps realising that their great wealth of trees was in decline, began, as part of a legal system known as ‘The Brehon Laws’, to protect its woodlands. There is little doubt that these laws were central in protecting the huge tracts of woodland in a sustainable manner.

By the early 1600’s the advent of English laws and customs were about to have dramatic impacts the Irish landscape. The authorities moved quickly to secure the forests, which were systematically removed in what could only be described as an orgy of profiteering. This culminated in the eventual demise of the last great woodland tracts in Ireland. The comparison of what happened in Ireland runs in direct parallel to what is happening in the developing nations of the tropics today. Some 400 hundred years ago Ireland also suffered mass unsustainable deforestation, with little thought of its long term implications. Mass local extinctions followed as did soil loss and an increasingly impoverished countryside.  

Today, much of what is considered to be part of the traditional Irish landscape is actually born out of deforestation. The white washed stone cottages, so often seen in the near past, are a response to a landscape denuded of trees. Prior to the deforestation people lived mainly in timber homes built from the resource that grew all around them. Abundant woodland was renewable and easily crafted into comfortable homes.  Another aspect of Ireland is the tradition of burning of peat or turf. For many centuries turf has been the ubiquitous fuel for much of rural Ireland, but even this is likely to have been a response to the loss of the once more easily accessible, sustainable and warmer burning timber.  

The very ‘traditional’ character of the Irish landscape, especially its uplands, which are famous for their rugged windswept appearance, were once cloaked in a green cover of native forest, echoing in bird song. Today, these same, now largely empty hills, are dominated by poor acidic soils which have been impoverished over centuries. Without woodlands to enrich the soils, these hills have been unable to replenish their fertility.

Today many of Europe’s uplands are tree covered and full of life, here in Ireland the upland areas have been characterized by poverty, both within the diversity of life and in the communities that live with in them.  

The woodland crisis may be about to get much worse

These past years have seen a reversal in woodland cover, Ireland has increased her percentage of woodland from almost nothing to 10%, but, most of this new timber has been created by planting non-native coniferous plantations. These plantations produce much needed timber, but have largely been planted on one of Ireland's other unique habitats, Blanket Bogland. These plantations have a 40-year cycle from planting to harvest, often increasing damaging acidity and actually degrading the carbon storing peat that they are planted upon. Also, plantations of single non-native species, limit the woodlands value to native wildlife and leave the trees themselves susceptible to disease. 

In reality, productive, renewable, carbon storing woodland is still a very rare thing in Ireland, so little native woodland remains! Ireland has one woody habitat that still is valuable - hedgerows.  These field boundaries have acted as a refuge for some woodland species especially the majestic native Ash Tree. 

Ash is the most common tree in the Irish landscape with an estimated 65% of native trees comprising this species.  Sadly Ash is in trouble!  Chalara or Ash Dieback, a disease that was imported to Ireland, now threatens to devastate the island's last great tree population. The disease has destroyed much of mainland Europe’s Ash and is predicted to kill more than 90% of all these trees. However, when one considers that Ash comprises the vast majority Ireland’s native trees, the loss of this species in Ireland will be especially devastating resulting in the loss of the majority of all individual trees in our landscape! Indeed, this would be the greatest deforestation event since the massive industrial deforestation over 400 years ago and will reduce our native tree cover to almost nothing!   

It is for this reason that NuaTree wish to act now!

NuaTree; Bringing Ireland Back to Leaf

NuaTree are committed to diverse woodland dominated by native species.  We want to see rich resilient woodland landscapes that will create healthy soils and micro climates, store carbon, create diverse habitats for wildlife, provide sustainable carbon neutral fuels, sustainable building materials and resilient communities. We want trees, for people and for wildlife, so that the Irish landscape can be renewed. We believe that the wisdom of our ancestors is still relevant today. Old knowledge in a modern society can renew our landscape and communities. Our mission is to bring Ireland back to leaf!