Northern Ireland's ecological disaster: the untold story

26 Jul 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 26 Jul 2017

Prehen Wood on he outskirts of Derry is one of our last ancient woodlands: Picture Simon Brown

Campaigners are setting about tackling Northern Ireland’s least known and most devastating ecological disaster, Scope explores a forgotten tragedy. 

Ever wondered why there are so few trees in Northern Ireland? It is a sad and painful story, but one which needs to be told.

In November of this year a pole will be erected in Belvoir Park Forest to mark the publication of the Charter for Trees, Woods and People – an attempt to revive the spirit of a charter made in 1217 by Henry III which gave access to ordinary people to the Royal Forests.

It is an initiative launched by the Woodland Trust with the backing of 70 other voluntary and community groups. Teams are currently working on the text of the charter which aims to reverse the destruction of woodland and re-assert the value of trees to our economy, our culture, our ecology and our health and well-being.

The biggest task of all will be here, in Northern Ireland. We have just 8% of our landmass covered with trees, even less than the Republic which is around 9%. The European average is 44%. Britain is 13%. Only Iceland which in the 1950s had virtually no trees at all fares worse.

Yet all of Ireland was once a vast forest stretching from coast to coast, east to west and north to south.  There are reminders of this everywhere: of the 62,000 townland names in Ireland, north and south 13,000 have reference to trees whiles 1,600 have a derivation of “dair”, Irish for oak.  

The Brehon Laws laid down specific protection for trees and gave then a hierarchy of importance. It imposed penalties on those who committed offences against “the lords of the wood”, the seven species deemed most important: oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, Scots Pine and wild apples. The ancient Irish people were regulating tree preservation more than 1,000 years before any other society.

The Irish, at root, are a forest people. Today there is no forest.

Much of the change was mirrored across Europe, as populations grew more and more of the forest was grubbed out to grow crops and graze animals and the great forest receded.

Yet there was no Royal Forests in Ireland so after the Norman invasion Ireland’s woods became a resource to supplement England’s growing need for timber. Recent research, for example shows that the oak timbers used on the eastern chapels of Salisbury Cathedral were felled in the Dublin area in 1222.

As industry developed, so too did the need for timber. In the centuries before plastic and concrete it was ubiquitous – for ship building, charcoal, homes, wine casks and other barrels, even pipes and roadways. British warships and Spanish Jerez makers all used Irish wood at one time or another. Iron works needed vast quantities of charcoal, from vast quantities of trees.  And for landowners wanting to make a quick buck on premium oak or yew there was plenty of money to be made by felling their woods.

The devastating wars of the 17th Century led to a partial revival of the woods, as trees crept back onto land uncultivated during the long years of conflict. But peace followed by the population explosion that culminated in the Great Famine of the 1840s led to the virtual elimination of Ireland’s forests – its remnants clinging to areas of poor soil, or inaccessible land. By this stage only around 1% of Ireland was covered in trees. Travellers often commentated on it.

Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1850 described Ireland as ‘one of the barest raggedest countries now
known; far too ragged a country, with patches of beautiful park and fine cultivation like shreds
of bright scarlet on a beggar’s clouted coat’.

Gradually trees returned. Big landowners planted them on their great estates. However they often opted for “exotic” species, rather than native trees as a visit to any of the “Great Houses” today will attest.

There were plantations too, but until very recently these have largely comprised of conifers planted on the German model in ranks and files, and in many cases native ancient woodland was cleared to plant them. So whilst tree numbers started to rise again this was primarily down to the new plantations.

The Woodland Trust carried out a landmark survey of Northern Ireland recently. It found that woods that could be classified with any degree of certainty as ancient were many times scarcer in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK, covering only 0.04 per cent of Northern Ireland's land area.   It also discovered that more than one-eighth of ancient and long-established woodland has been cleared in the last 40 years, and that around a third of ancient woods have been replanted with conifers, or a mixture of conifers and broadleaves.

Why should we care?

Trees are of enormous benefit: they are a valuable commodity in their own right: a source of fuel and of timber if properly managed. For farmers they can also provide shelter from the winds for crops and animals, and shelter in the summer. They absorb pollutants in the atmosphere, and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. They can help limit or prevent flooding. There is plenty of research showing their impact on property prices in urban areas – houses which are set within well planted trees can be worth up to 10% more – tree lined streets and avenues are especially prestigious. The health benefits of giving people access to wooded areas are also well documented.

Government is on the case. There is a plan to achieve 12% of land cover by 2050. Sadly planting has slipped far behind. This despite the fact that there is plenty of unused land in public ownership that could be planted thus saving the expense of maintenance. To date the Woodland Trust reports success with the Ministry of Defence which has given over unused land at Magiligan and Ballykinler for tree planting. Sadly government departments and local authorities have been slow to take up the challenge.

For farmers tree planting is cost-neutral because of grants. The Scottish authorities have done an excellent job in publicising the benefits over there. We need more focus here.

Ironically if we want to learn more about how to do it well and what the benefits are we should go to once treeless Iceland. It has plans to ensure 12% tree coverage by the end of this century – an ambition that has widespread support both amongst politicians and the wider public. The Iceland Forestry Society is now the biggest environmental charity in the country.

More information about the Woodland Trusts Charter for Trees, Woods and People can be found here




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