Restoring Ireland's forests, one tree at a time

31 Jan 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 31 Jan 2020

Planting trees at Sacred Heart Grammar. Pic: Restorify

County Down man James McConville is an architect based in Sweden. He saw the rise of Greta Thunberg first hand and was inspired to make a difference himself back home.

One of the most effective ways to combat climate change is to plant more trees, millions of them and James wanted to get involved. Thunberg had shown him how ordinary citizens can make a real difference, and, after all, what could be more simple than planting trees?

And if he could find a way of getting more people to get out there and plant some that would be a very real contribution.

Yet once he looked into this more deeply he realised that it was all a little more complex than it seemed. What if you only have a small garden, or no garden at all, or you are renting? And what kind of trees should you plant, where should they go, and what time of year is best to put them in the ground.

And that’s how the ground-breaking Restorify project was born.

James got together with software developer Jonny McCullagh, and environmentalist Nikita Coulter to create a web platform which connects land owners to tree donors to create new woods and forests.

Initial trials of the scheme in South Down have proved a success and Restorify is now ready to launch as a social enterprise.

James said: “Many organisations and individuals have spare patches of land which they don’t use or need and what we are able to do is to connect them up with people who want to plant trees. Effectively what we are doing is crowd-funding forests.”

Restorify then ensures that the right trees are planted in the right place with the right management to ensure that they thrive.

Once land has been located a tree planting “mission” is created whereby people can buy trees and plant them themselves.

What makes this special is a geo-mapping facility on the website that allows people to name their trees, to photograph them over the years and to tell their own stories about them. It will also estimate the amount of carbon each captures.  

The first missions which comprised the pilot scheme were six schools in Newry and Down: St Louis Grammar, Newry High School, St Joseph’s Convent Primary School, St Paul’s High School, Our Lady’s Grammar School and Sacred Heart Grammar School.

The musician and environmentalist Colum Sands is the first private donor. He’s allowing 25 trees to be planted on part of his land. Planting will take place later this year and there is still time for people to get involved in his mission.

All told 750 native trees – donated by Live Here Love Here and the Woodland Trust were planted at the six schools with Sacred Heart and St Louis taking 300 saplings each.

School pupils planted and named their own trees, they will maintain them and will be able to come back and visit them long after both they the trees have grown up. They’ve also been able to tell their own tree stories – posting selfies, dedications and measurements for each tree.

 

Feedback from both pupils and staff has been over-whelming, it’s not just been a rewarding experience but the resulting wooded areas will also provide learning materials for classrooms for years to come.

Newry High’s science teacher and eco-club coordinator Elise Bulow said, “Restorify made tree planting very accessible for pupils. They really felt like they made a difference and the digital tree mapping meant their memories will stay with them for a lifetime.”

James believes that there is enormous scope for expansion. Many other schools also have portions of land that could be planted. There are many thousands of acres of publicly-owned land which is not being used; hospital grounds, housing estates and the like. And that’s before you consider the farming community and private landowners.

Restorify also offers opportunities for local businesses wanting to both offset their carbon foot print and put something meaningful and visible back into their communities by providing funds for local woods and forests.

It is not as if there is no need for this.

Ireland used to be a giant forest, stretching from north to south and east to west. 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.

 Today the Irish are a forest people with no forest. Northern Ireland now has just 8% of its landmass covered with trees. The European average is 44%, Britain is 13%. Ours is the second most deforested part of Europe (after Iceland, which until a few decades ago had lost nearly all its trees).  

Our ancestors loved their forest land. They protected “the lords of the wood”, the seven species deemed most important: oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, Scots Pine and wild apples.

Now after centuries of destruction for timber, and clearances for towns and cities and pasture we have precious little left – and  precious little time either if we are to start to reduce climate change and restore the natural beauty of the land.

Reforestation cannot be left to government alone, it is a collective challenge. Restorify will help make a difference – it will not just help us to put trees back into our communities, it will help us to make personal connections with them, to nurture them and make them into a precious commodity of our memories long after we, ourselves have passed.

Further information is available via the Restorify website.

 

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