20,000 Years of Trees in Ireland
Let’s take a journey back 20,000 years to the time when Ireland was almost entirely covered by glaciers during the last ice age. The massive ice sheets across Northern Europe caused the sea levels to be much lower than they are today, connecting Ireland and Britain to continental Europe.
Around 12,000 years ago, the temperatures began to rise, and the ice cap started to retreat. As the ice and glaciers withdrew, and the climate began to warm up, the current landscape of Ireland was formed. A low-lying central plain was surrounded by a rim of mountains.
However, it took several years for conditions suitable for plant growth to develop. The first trees to arrive in Ireland were the hardy pioneer species such as juniper, willow, birch, and hazel.
As the climate gradually improved, elm, hazel, and ash woodlands dominated in the eastern lowlands, while oak and hazel were much more common in the west on higher, more exposed areas. In the west, Scots pine and birch forests can be found, while hazel, alder, and birch are typical for poorer soils, changing to alder and willow in marshy areas.
At that time, it was said that a squirrel could travel from one end of Ireland to the other without ever touching the ground because more than 80 percent of the land was covered by forests.
However, some open lakes and reed swamps gradually developed into peat as the ice cap continued to shrink. This type of bog is called a raised bog and can be found mainly in the low-lying central plain. The other much more common type of bog is blanket bog.
Around 9,000 years ago, Ireland’s first settlers arrived by sea, or maybe even earlier than that and what they found was a huge forest land – trees from coast to coast, Ireland’s amazon.
Just like the indigenous tribes of the Amazon today, these Mesolithic people had a very strong relationship with the forest. The forests provided practically all their needs, from building materials for their homes, weapons for hunting, firewood to keep warm, boats for travel, medicines, and even clothing.
They hunted and fished for food, and their presence had very little effect on Ireland’s natural vegetation.
However, 3,000 years later, the Neolithic farmers arrived in Ireland, and they would have a significant impact on Ireland’s forests as they began to clear land for agriculture.
This happened at a time when the climate became much wetter.
Trees didn’t get a chance to grow, as they were eaten by livestock, and as the trees didn’t protect the soil anymore, the increased rainfall leeched nutrients and clay particles from the soil.
This resulted in a gradual buildup of dead vegetation over many years, growing into thick peaty layers and forming extensive blanket bog areas across Ireland.
Because people wanted to create space for farming, and wood was essential to people’s everyday lives, so much of the forest cover was removed over the next 3,500 years.
By the end of the Bronze Age, the poorly wooded appearance of Ireland became clear, especially in the upland areas. Blanket bog had by now replaced woodland.
During the early Christian period, population growth and expansion of farming led to a dramatically altered landscape. By 1600, less than 20 percent of Ireland was covered by forests.
The decline of the few remaining Irish forests continued over the following 300 years. With a rapidly expanding population, forests were no longer seen as an integral part of the rural landscape but more as an engine to drive agricultural growth.
Once cleared and drained, they provided valuable fertile grazing land for commercial cattle, sheep, and dairy enterprises.
This process was accelerated by the plantations of Ireland, where recently arrived settlers cleared large tracts of land for farming.
With a rapidly expanding population, forests were no longer viewed as an essential part of the rural landscape but rather as a means to drive agricultural growth.
The process of clearing and draining forests provided valuable grazing land for commercial cattle, sheep, and dairy enterprises. This was further accelerated by the plantation of Ireland, where settlers cleared large tracts of land for farming.
The population growth caused towns and villages across Ireland to expand rapidly, leading to a high demand for timber.
For example, large amounts of oak were exported to rebuild London after the Great Fire in 1666. The trade in cattle hides was also essential, and tannins extracted from oak bark were used to tan leather.
As a result, many oak trees were killed by stripping them of their bark to tan hides.
The Irish coopering industry manufactured vast amounts of barrels for exporting Irish produce such as meat, butter, fish, and tallow. Huge numbers of barrel staves were also exported to France and Spain for their wine and spirit trade.
Rivers played a critical role in transporting the timber down to the ports, and shipbuilding, as well as the production of charcoal to fuel ironwork enterprises, required a lot of wood.
In the late 19th century, many mobile sawmills traveled around Ireland, cutting down the last few remaining forests.
As a result, by the end of the 19th century, Ireland’s forest cover had been reduced from 80% 6000 years ago to about 1%.
This trend was reversed in the early 20th century when the newly independent Irish state encouraged tree planting with the main aim of increasing timber self-sufficiency and providing rural employment opportunities.
This prompted the Irish government to implement a reforestation program in the early 20th century. The program focused on planting commercial forests of fast-growing species such as Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, and Japanese larch.
These forests were intended to provide a sustainable source of timber for industry and economic development.
Over the years, the reforestation program has expanded, and Ireland’s forest cover has increased to about 11% of the land area.
The forests now provide not only timber but also a range of other ecological and economic benefits, such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, recreational opportunities, and tourism.
The forests are home to many native species, including red squirrels, pine martens, and various birds and insects.
They also contribute to the scenic beauty of the landscape and offer opportunities for hiking, cycling, and other outdoor activities.
Ireland’s history of trees spans over 20,000 years, from the time of the last ice age to the present day.
The country’s natural vegetation has gone through many changes, influenced by climate, human activities, and other factors. Today, Ireland’s forests are a valuable resource and an important part of the country’s cultural and natural heritage. It is important to continue to manage and protect and invest in them for the benefit of present and future generations so that someday when an article is written about our time they write – and in the 2020’s – They Planted Trees – A lot of Trees, even businesses planted Trees!