Donal Hickey: Recovery in native trees

There are some signs that we may be moving away from a saturation of conifers towards more broadleaf and native trees. It is to be hoped that a new scheme by EU farm commissioner Phil Hogan to encourage farmers plant four acres each will favour copses of native species.

People who live in areas such as the highland territory bordering counties Kerry, Cork, and Limerick, with conifers all around, would be forgiven for thinking we’re completely over-forested. However, we’re away behind other EU countries. Only 10.5% of our land area is under trees compared to 38% elsewhere. The Government has been missing its tree-planting target in recent years.

Anyone visiting our national parks, especially in May, will be enchanted by the magnificent oaks, yews, and other species. And can there be any better place to see trees, outside these arboreal sanctuaries, than the Munster Blackwater valley?

Though conifers dominate in the area where the great river springs to life, a short distance above Ballydesmond, Co Cork, the situation improves as you move downstream, especially from Mallow onwards until it arrives at the broad estuary in Youghal.

Beside Mallow Castle is an attractive, new amenity— 25 acres of woodland, a project to regenerate a broadleaf area, mainly with oaks. It gets better as you move towards Fermoy and notable wooded landmarks such as Castle Hyde and Careysville.

In his 2015 book, Walking The Munster Blackwater, Jim O’Malley delves into the history and folklore surrounding some of the trees he encountered during his odyssey tracing the full length of the river.

In the Ballyhooly area, for example, he came upon a sessile oak linked to the 16th century estate owner and poet Edmund Spenser, composer of ‘The Faerie Queene’. It seems Spenser went there for a bit of peace and to enjoy the river.

O'Malley writes:

The local story is that Spenser used sit on a favourite branch with the muse of poetry feeding him elevated thoughts, images and language for a higher mental state…legend or fact? We will never know

Nearing his native Youghal, the author describes how mature oaks overarch the road, at Ballynatray Estate, and he delights in the wood with its under-storey of holly bushes. Sunlight comes dancing through the leafy canopy, throwing beams of light on the woodland floor.

Meanwhile, the Irish Wildlife Trust, called on the Government to declare an emergency in the wake of the latest UN report on global mass extinction, cites conifer plantations among the reasons for the disappearance of nature. The trust also called for an end to plantation forestry.

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