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  • FOR-ES TEAM

There Used to Be a Forest There: A Very Short Introduction to the History of Forests in Ireland

Updated: Jan 18

Kathleen Conroy, our ForES PhD at Trinity College Dublin, writes a potted history of Irish forests, when and why deforestation on a major scale began - & when the comeback started...


It can be hard to imagine that counties Meath, Louth and Limerick were covered in

forests at one time. In fact, most of Ireland was forested about 9,000 years ago. Looking at

pollen records, plants became established in Ireland approximately 13,000 years ago with

trees arriving 9,600 years ago (Mitchell et al. 2006).


Because Ireland is a small island nation, it did not experience as great a plant diversity as seen in larger countries. However, being in an ideal climatic region, Ireland was able to support a number of different tree species. As Ireland became more settled and with the arrival of farming, deforestation began 5,500 years ago (Smith, 1974).


Even with an ideal temperate oceanic climate, characterised by milder temperatures with plentiful rainfall, Ireland has one of the smallest forest areas in the European Union. At present, Ireland is estimated to be 11% forested, which is significantly less than the average forest cover in the EU (~30%). Although low, this is the largest forest cover Ireland has seen in centuries (Figure 1). This was fuelled by government action and public interest in the 20th century.


Graph showing forest cover in Ireland from 1675-2025 with a steep upward red line from 1925
Fig 1: Twenties turning point - graph showing forest cover in Ireland from 1675-present (DAFM, 2020)

Ireland maintained a low forest area for many reasons, some natural (for example lands transitioning to peatlands which cannot support forest ecosystems) and some anthropogenic (for example burning down forests). One major cause for the extensive deforestation was clearing the land for agriculture (i.e., crops and livestock). Forests were seen as wasted land; an unfortunate view still held by some today. Some landowners will plant trees only on land that is too poor to do anything else, such as land that is not suitable for livestock grazing.


With education, outreach and a number of incentives, forestry is becoming much more important and appealing to landowners and the public. This change in understanding forestry is essential, so that Ireland will grow to a 17% forested country by 2030 as set by the Irish Government. Our ForES project aims to play a key part in developing innovative forestry tools to enhance the sustainability and diversity of these new and existing forests.


Citations:

Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. 2020. Forest Statistics Ireland 2020.

DAFM, Johnstown Castle Estate, Co. Wexford.

Mitchell, F. J. G. 2006. Where Did Irish Trees Come From? Biology and Environment:

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 106B.

Smith, I. F. 1974. The Neolithic. In British Prehistory: a new outline (ed. C. Renfrew).

Duckworth, London, 100-1 36.

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