A History of Ireland’s Trees – Plant a tree of history
While Ireland’s history boasts achievements in stone and bronze, it is the forest and the Irish wood people that facilitated the advancement of humanity.
The Irish language itself is based on eighteen letters pronounced after the tree. While the Romans destroyed most of the ancient forests of Europe, a large percentage of Ireland was under ancient forestry up until the 17th Century. Ireland had clusters of valuable ancient woodlands.
The story of Ireland’s trees, deforestation and tree planting is one topic that is underreported with very little academic or political coverage however a number of important works have been published. Nigel Everett believed that pre-colonial farming is one aspect that possibly led to Ireland’s forest decline. When the Tudors and Stuarts began to survey the land, they found that they were dealing with disappointing levels of Irish woodlands. Eileen McCracken wrote about how Ireland’s forests were only at 12.5 percent by the time the Tudors arrived while Everett suggests this percentage was actually four percent by 1650.
Another cause of the decline in Ireland’s trees is the Elizabethan wars for military purposes and speculators being granted woodlands before Cromwell. One of them being Sir Walter Raleigh who was granted twenty thousand acres of woodland in Cork which was then sold to Richard Boyle. England was also expanding their empire at this time and was keen to use Ireland as a source of food production which contributed to more of this deforestation. The provisions for the colonies in America in the 1600s were also coming from Ireland meaning an industry developed in making casks and barrels for transportation.
While opinions vary, these figures show that much of Ireland’s ecosystem was gone and that much of the forestry of Ireland that was available was cleared as part of a military operation by England to secure the colony. Elizabeth I was known for the destruction of the woodland to deprive the Irish of this shelter. Many species were lost including the wild boar and then wolf in the 18th century. However, small areas of woodland have survived in Ireland.
The descendants of the planters that inherited large estates were the people who took the first steps in planting trees in Ireland and between 1766 and 1803, 25 million trees in an effort to Plant a tree of history. However, without support, tree planting in Ireland declined and Ireland became an agricultural producer. In the 19th century, Ireland struggled with Catholic emancipation, the Great Famine, poverty, and a decline in population due to emigration yet saw the rise of small farmers. With leaders such as Charles Stewart Parnell who devoted interest in the restoration of Irish trees and forests, the Government was also met with the realisation that Ireland was missing this resource. Ireland, like Britain, was dominated by planting conifer in the 19th century to the present day because this was faster growing.
The Irish Forestry was established in 1900 and in 1903 Professor John Nisbet of the West of Scotland Agricultural College, found that one-fifth of Ireland which was thought to be a wasteland, could be planted with forestry. However, it was in 1948 that Ireland finally saw an increase in tree planting led by Sean McBride and Laura Hobson.
Currently, Coillte Nurseries produce 25 million bare-rooted plants every year, most of which are used to renew our own forests. To Plant a Tree, the seed is required every year, but trees don’t always produce a good crop of seeds. In response, Coillte Nurseries manages Ireland’s National Tree Seed centre, collecting in years when the harvest is good.
It’s very common to plant a tree in memory of a loved one or to gift a birth tree in celebration of the birth of a baby. Be a part of this movement. When you gift a memorial tree in Ireland you are also contributing to reforestation and the environment. Plant a tree of history.
Researched and written by Roisin Maguire