The Coolmakee road isn’t really much more than a boreen but it offers some spectacular views overlooking Fermoy. In the afternoon sun, the sound of birdsong fills the air. To the left are the evergreens bordering the woods, to the right is an uneven hedgerow, the whites of blackthorn trees and devil’s porridge dusted with the yellows of furze and buttercups.
Across from the entrance to the Coillte forestry, at a break in the hedge, the view is almost perfect. The blue sky seems huge and the Galtee Mountains tower to the north.
Three miles to the west — across sloping fields and beyond the trees — lies Fermoy, its bright walls, slate roofs, and twin church spires scattered along the Blackwater valley.
Far away to the east, high against the Knockmealdowns, the Ballyduff windmills stand white and tall. The vista is breathtaking.
Sadly, though, the smell is breath-taking too.
While the scenery in the distance is indeed very beautiful, what’s in the immediate foreground is horrible. Someone has dumped perhaps a dozen full black plastic bags of domestic rubbish in the ditch. The bags have broken or been torn open and their contents scattered all over. Food waste, plastic bottles, cans, and more are spread everywhere. Half-sealed synthetic nappies hang from branches of trees.
I recently spent a day travelling the byways and roads between Ballyhooly and Fermoy with a friend who works as a contractor for Coillte, the semi-state company which manages Irish woods and forests. John (surname withheld) patrols a huge area of Munster in his anonymous van. You’d pass him and never know.
His job is to monitor litter blackspots and, where possible, bring the litterers to justice. To this end, he uses a combination of old-fashioned detective work and an up-to-the- minute network of hidden cameras.
John’s beat covers Coillte’s massive Munster South business area, which stretches from Clonakilty, on up past Rockchapel and across to Charleville, taking in the Ballyhouras, Aherlow, and Tipp town, and on then to Clonmel and down to Dungarvan. And from Dungarvan back to Clonakilty. And all points between.
Nationally, Coillte manages over 445,000 hectares of forestry, almost 8% of the land cover of Ireland. Last year, it sold 1.34m cubic metres of logs to sawmill customers in Ireland. Coillte replaces every felled tree, and last year it planted 14m new trees. That works out at about 20,000 trees planted every single hour.
Coillte is big business. Last year it reported a staggering 64% increase in profits, from €29.1m in 2014 to €47.6m in 2015. Coillte last year increased its annual dividend to its shareholders by 25% to €5m.
That might seem remarkable in itself, but the key thing about Coillte is that it only has two shareholders: the finance minister and agriculture. Which means — seeing as Michaels Noonan and Creed work for us — Coillte is owned by you and me.
Coillte manages our forests on behalf of and for the profit of the citizens of Ireland. And, in doing so, Coillte ensures that we — as the owners of our forests — can walk our property, free of charge, pretty much any time we wish.
Over 18m people visit our woods and forests every year. Which is as it should be, but unfortunately Coillte faces a growing problem in that some of those visitors are bringing their rubbish with them and leaving it after them.
This varies from the contents of a car’s ashtray to the remains of a family picnic to wholesale dumping of domestic (and sometimes industrial) waste.
Annually, Coillte spends approximately €450,000 on cleaning up and removing litter from forestry. That’s roughly a euro per hectare. In Cork alone, clean-up and removal of litter costs an average of €40,000 per annum. To tackle this, Coillte is investing in preventative measures. That’s where John and his hidden cameras come in.
You should see the cameras. Although that’s the point: If you’re planning on littering, you won’t see them. They’re tiny. About the size of a twig. John tells me they’re planted in most litter black-spots. “We have some signs up, but we don’t always advertise them. If you litter, there’s an excellent chance you will be caught.”
Driving from Ballyhooly towards Glenville, we wind around corners on narrow, hilly roads, sunlight breaking through the trees. Crossing an old stone bridge, John tells me “We took 1,300kg of rubbish out of that stream last year.”
I ask the obvious question: Are people littering because they can’t afford bin charges? “Ah, look,” says John, “There isn’t sense or meaning to it. We prosecuted someone recently who had travelled from Co Kerry to dump rubbish in Ballyhooly. Why would you do that? How much money would you spend on petrol?
Even Cork City to Ballyhooly is a 40-mile round trip.” On the Glenville road, John points out the earthen mounds blocking the entrances to forestry land. “They’re there to stop vans from reversing in and dumping bags.” An increasing problem, he says, is the commercialisation of dumping.
“Fill up your Skippo bag and pay a man to take it away, no questions asked. There was a woman from Mayfield recently who paid a man to take her rubbish away. It was found in a stream beyond in Castleblagh. She was fined and had to pay the removal costs too. That would have set her back a grand or more.”
Behind one of the mounds, we find the back of a television. John says this is run-of-the-mill stuff. “And things will likely only get worse when — if? — pay-by-weight comes in.” While we’re chatting, a fox cub about the size of an adult cat saunters out of the ditch and looks us up and down.
Clearly unimpressed, he gives us a glance I could only call disdainful, before heading back to the hedges. As we drive away, I spot his face, glaring out at us from the undergrowth.
Back in the Coolmakee Woods, as we finish up for the day, John drives us along a mud-track through what I can’t help but think of as a woodland cathedral. The beech trees seem impossibly tall, the evening sunlight slanting golden between them.
All around, the last of the bluebells carpet the ground. Further along the trail, past the ruins of the old Castlehyde Estate walls, Coillte workers have been harvesting trees planted a lifetime ago, and the sweet smell of sap fills the air.
Each tree cut down will be replaced when the time comes to replant. I think again about that statistic: 20,000 trees planted every hour.
“It’s beyond me how anyone could dump rubbish in a place as beautiful as this,” says John as he turns the van in a clearing and we head for home.
Beside us, the ground dips steeply toward the Knockananig road. Below, away past yellow hayfields and the Blackwater river, is Castlehyde House, gleaming white, thanks to Michael Flatley’s renovations.
Behind it, a patchwork-quilt of fields and hedges, the odd copper beech tree purple-brown in the green. Beyond again, the Nagle, Galtee, and Knockmealdown mountains, blue and grey against the darkening sky.