Plantation once again

Posted By: February 13, 2016

John Manley.Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, February 13, 2016.
There’s nothing new in trying to redress Ireland’s aversion to trees but

Ireland was once covered in forest but now trees cover little over one per cent of the land
John Manley believes there’s still some way to go…

AS somebody who could loosely be described as a ‘treehugger’, the idea of not liking trees is anathema to me. I’ll forgive those who suffer from the psychological disorder(s) variously known as hylophobia,

dendrophobia, xylophobia and ylophobia – which the internet tells me are an irrational fear of wood, forest or trees. I am, however, much less sympathetic to what I believe is something close to a general aversion to trees across Ireland.

Before the letters of protest to the editor flood in, I’ll point out that this isn’t entirely universal. There are many people across the island who value trees and recognise the role they play in the country’s natural heritage, as well as their contribution to centuries of culture and folklore.

I regard myself as one. Yet the fact that the Ireland has the fewest forests and woodlands in Europe reflects something less than a national love affair.

As one academic study funded by the Republic’s Council for Forest Research and Development notes: “Each period of historical transition (in Ireland) seems to have been accompanied by a new round of deforestation.”

Warfare, land reform, and what the same study describes as a “land hunger” on the part of many rural Irish, accompanied by a “lingering mistrust of outside organisations”, has not helped the trees’ cause.

Add to this the fact that the tradition of tree planting in Ireland has long been associated with the landed gentry and you begin to understand why the landscape is so bare.

Some have made efforts to redress the historical dearth of trees and woodlands.

An article penned some years ago by Kildare man John Joe Costin in the Journal of the Irish Garden Plant Society, highlights how almost a century ago nationalism and the ideas of Gaelic revivalism chimed with the goal of returning the Irish countryside to its ancient state, with a native forest stretching from Mizen to Malin.

This was how things had been in Ireland since the end of the last ice age up until around 1,000 years ago.

As Ireland warmed around 12,000 years ago and the ice retreated, trees began to grow – including hazel and oak, whose seeds were transported here by birds and animals, across the landbridges from Britain and mainland Europe. Lighter seeds, such as those of willow and birch, are thought to have been blown here by the wind.

Those trees that were established by the time the seas rose and created the island of Ireland – ash, Scots pine, rowan also among them – are what are classified ‘native trees’.

Others introduced by humans have since become naturalised. These include beech, sycamore, horse chestnut, spruce, larch and fir.

The early 20th century movement that sought to afforest Ireland nominated November 29 1919 as the inaugural Irish Arbor Day.

They also created an anthem, sung to the tune of Thomas Osborne Davis’s A Nation Once Again, the chorus replaced with Plantation Once Again.

“…but scarce a tree today I see,

The stumps are all remain,

And that is why we ought to try

Plantation once again.”

A bit like its political counterpart, what the afforestation movement achieved was far from a complete success.

A United Ireland has yet to be realised and the national antipathy to trees has yet to be overcome.

While we probably have more native woodlands than 30 years ago, there’s still some catching up to do.

But we gardeners can still help the cause by creating small native woodlands where we have the space.

Cheap and easily maintained, even a handful of native trees will provide a great habitat for wildlife.

You’ve got six weeks or so to plant bareroot trees and one day you can tell your grandchildren how you once helped the cause.