The Irish landscape 1000 years ago

Well wooded and marshy’ land, ‘rich in pastures and meadows, honey and milk’ with ‘exuberantly rich’ tillage land’ where ‘woods abound with animals’ with ‘a great number of beautiful lakes, abounding in fish’, ‘sea fishes in considerable abundance on all the coasts’, greater numbers than any other country of ‘hawks, falcons and sparrow-hawks’, ‘eagles as numerous as kites’

Topography of Ireland, Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1220 AD)

In the woods and plains

Imagine that, like today’s rainforests, our woods were once bursting with life from the smallest insects to large charismatic animals. These included herds of red deer and wild boar. They were hunted by lynx, wild cats, brown bears and wolves. In the trees above you the goshawk, red kite, honey buzzard and woodpecker were a common sight.

The woods rang to the song of flycatchers, warblers and woodlark, the churring of nightjar and the bizarre courtship of the giant capercaillie (capall coille ‘horse of the woods’). Falcons, harriers and golden eagle soared above the mountains and open plains which were filled with flocks of waders, wildfowl, booming bitterns and elegant cranes.

Wetlands

In those days, osprey and white-tailed eagle fished our loughs while marsh harrier stalked the swamps and fens. Our rivers flowed through the landscape full of great sturgeon, native pike and trout. Migrating salmon were so plentiful that they pushed the boats back upriver.

Deforestation begins

As humans became more plentiful and organised into larger groups things began to change. Groups started clearing land for fuel and space for agriculture.

Tudor conquest reduced forest cover by 75%

The Tudor Conquest extensively felled the woods as a military tactic against Irish guerilla-style warfare. Irish soldiers were then known as ceithearnaigh choille or “wood-kerne”. By then, the forest cover had fallen from 80% of the landscape to about 20%.

After the defeat at the Battle of Kinsale and the Flight of the Earls in 1607 new English, Welsh and Scottish colonisers arrived. They cleared the land to make new homes and opportunities.

The last wolf standing

Later, the Cromwellian conquest resulted in large-scale clearance for farmland. Hunting of the woodkerne and the wolf continued in earnest. The last wolf was killed on the slopes of Mount Leinster in 1786.

Unfettered exploitation of woodland resources for the shipbuilding, glass and ironworks, timber and tanning industries also took their toll.

By the turn of the century, our forest cover was just over 1%.

What happened to the bogs?

From the 17th century, with the woodlands gone, people turned to bogs and their peat for their fuel – known as turf. Hand-cut sods of turf replaced wood as the fuel of choice. By the time of the Famine, turf was the only source of fuel available for most of the population.

In 1934, the Irish Free State set up the Turf Development Board which bought land under compulsory-purchase for the sole purpose of turf cutting.

After World War II, the Irish government set up Bord na Móna to cut peat by mechanical means. In a relatively short period of time, it was responsible for the development of 80,000ha of both raised and blanket bog.

Bord na Móna are still the dominant peat producers in Ireland harvesting 4 million tonnes per annum. A probable total of 100,00ha of bogs are being utilised for peat harvesting. In addition to peat used in power generation a further 1.2 to 1.5 million tonnes is burned in either sod or briquette form.

Irish woodland today is a shadow of its past

State Forestry efforts began at the turn of the twentieth century. The last few decades have seen significant efforts made to reforest the countryside. Today, our forest cover has reached 11% of our land area. However, only about 10% of this, or a mere 1.2% of our country, is native woodland.

Non-native species, such as the rhododendron and cherry laurel, were introduced. These decorative ‘garden’ plants now invade and shade out the woodland.

Another threat is that today’s wild deer have no wolves or Fianna to hunt them. They graze out the young saplings, undergrowth and any lower branches that they can reach.

The damaged woodland impacts all the animal species that inhabit the area including many unique woodland birds and insects.

Irish peatlands and bogs

It is estimated that Ireland once had nearly 1 million hectares of blanket bog, 308,742 hectares of raised bog and 92,506 hectares of fen which had been sequestering carbon for thousands of years.

Active bog sequesters between 0.5 and 1 tonne of CO2 per hectare every year.

But as a result of burning, drainage, turf-cutting and overgrazing, only 10% of blanket bog and 8% of raised bog are still relatively intact. Less than 1% of it is actively growing and fixing carbon.

Despite this fact, our bogs still hold an estimated 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon. In their current degraded state, instead of being an important carbon sink, they emit an estimated 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year as they dry out.

Damaged bog release between 5 and 35 tonnes of CO2 per hectare every year.

Restoring them is at least as important as planting trees.

Other habitats

Other Irish natural habitats such as fen, moor, marsh and meadow have not fared much better. It is estimated that over 90% of our fens and wildflower meadows have been completely destroyed and lost forever.

The present

13% of our land area is protected under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. Unfortunately, it isn’t making much impact. From the latest data on the state of Irish landscape a mere 9% of protected habitats are in a favourable state.

With such widespread damage to our natural habitats, it is no surprise that only 52% of our protected species are not threatened or endangered. Over a third of Irish bee and (non-marine) mollusc species are in decline.

Of Ireland’s 185 bird species, 37 are on the Red List (in danger of extinction), 90 are on the Amber List. Only 58 are on the Green List.

50% of Ireland’s waterways are now in need of improvement. The proportion of rivers with high water quality (Q5) has declined from 32% in 1990 to 17% today.

Ireland – Back to the Future

We can change this. We have the power to heal and restore our natural landscape for the benefit of our native plants and animals, and our communities.

Through ecological restoration, we can slow the loss of our animal and plant life. We can restore some of what we have lost.

With improved biodiversity, we also benefit from biodiversity services. These include flood control and regulation of waters, provision of pollinators for our crops, aesthetic, cultural and recreational resources for our tourism, and of course tackling climate change.