For most of us, rainforest conjures up images of the impenetrable jungles of the tropics with snakes, mosquitoes and stifling humidity. Less well known is temperate rainforest, which once dominated the western seaboard of Ireland and which now only exists as isolated fragments.
It is one of these woodland fragments, hidden away on the Beara peninsula, that amateur ecologist Eoghan Daltun is developing as a visitor attraction.
Within the 32 wooded acres of the Beara rainforest project, there are more than a dozen trees species including oak, birch and willow, which in turn provide refuge for a range of fauna including sparrowhawk, lesser horseshoe bat and jays. On occasions, the magnificent white tailed sea eagle can be seen soaring overhead.
High humidity is one of the defining characteristics of rainforest and certainly Beara — with its hyper-oceanic climate and proximity to the Gulf Stream — has more than its fair share of mist and rain and little frost.
In native woodland, these moist, mild conditions allow a range of mosses, liverworts and ferns to thrive. As with tropical rainforest, many of these grow epiphytically on the trees themselves, allowing them greater access to light and creating a more diverse ecosystem in the process.
The overall effect is of a rich woodland, suffused with green and penetrated by shafts of sunlight.
“This land is of little value for farming with dense woodland, steep escarpments, stream gorges and exposed rock,” Daltun notes.
“From a biodiversity viewpoint, it is fantastic. Native trees support much greater numbers of insects and this provides food for a range of birds and small mammals. In turn these provide food for larger predators. Everything is interconnected to form a complex, multi-layered living system.”
Daltun also brings an artist’s sensibility to the project, as he previously trained as a sculptor. Nowadays, he restores sculptures throughout Ireland and is currently working on Canova figures in the Crawford Art Gallery.
“I trained in Carrara in Italy which is famous for its white marble and for great artists such as Michelangelo and Canova,” he says.
“In the seven years I spent in Italy I learned so much. Firstly the technical skills necessary to carve a shape out of rock, but also how to combine that with an artistic instinct. All over Europe art schools are encouraging students to come up with great ideas for art but are neglecting the core skills. In Italy, they have been carving stone in the same way for generations.”
Having returned to Dublin, and wanting to relocate to the country with his family, Beara was attractive for many reasons. “There is so much exposed rock in Beara and that type of sculptural landscape appeals to me for obvious reasons,” he says.
“I also love the sense of community you get here.” Having purchased, Daltun spent months travelling in Africa looking at temperate forest and subtropical forest to gain a greater understanding of his own woodland.
High levels of grazing by feral goats and sika deer needed to be addressed by fencing and invasive species needed to be eradicated in an effort to restore a more balanced woodland.
“One of the big problems for the few remaining areas of native oak woodlands is rhododendron,” Daltun says.
“It shades out native flora and it is very difficult to control. Goats and deer were preventing new tree seedlings from becoming established. It is noticeable that holly in particular is starting to recover now that grazing has been controlled.”
This project comes at a time when the ongoing loss of forest across the globe is of major concern both from a loss of biodiversity and global warming viewpoint. It also comes at a time when new research is discovering that woodlands are more complex entities than we once thought.
The eminent ecologist James Lovelock used a family holiday home in Adrigole, on the other side of the Beara peninsula, in the 1970s. His elegant Gaia hypothesis, nearly 20 years later, imagined planet earth as a self-regulating living organism which maintains the conditions necessary for life. Now modern forest researchers are using similar language to describe forest ecology.
German forest ranger and author Peter Wohlleben argues that contemporary societies’ view of trees as individuals, as organic robots designed to produce oxygen and wood and store carbon, is too limited.
Ecologist Suzanne Simard, whose TED talk has over two million views, discovered that trees co-operate and communicate and that in many remarkable ways a forest behaves like a single organism. It is now recognised that the trees within a woodland are connected by an elaborate network of mycorrhizal fungi.
In this mutually beneficial relationship the fungi receive carbon from the trees and in return the fungi provide soil nutrients and connect trees together in a complex social network.
Simard reports that mature trees may recognise and feed their own offspring and also provide nutrients to other trees, even trees of a different species. If under attack by insects, trees can give off electrical and chemical signals that warn other trees, giving them time to start their chemical defence systems.
In simple terms, Simard’s research indicates that trees talk to each other through a complex wood wide web which is some ways mirrors human societies. Trees may compete but it is also in their best interests to maintain a woodland structure which provides the conditions they all need to thrive. Of course, we also now know that trees impact on the climate and water cycles which sustain human life.
Daltun can appreciate his own woodland and manage it without needing to understand every last detail. Perhaps in some ways, woodland management requires the same combination of technical knowledge and intuition as sculpture. It also requires the discipline to know when to interfere and when to let nature chart its own course.
“In spring the wood is carpeted in colour from bluebell, wood sorrel, dog violet and wood anemones,” he says.
“I do get great pleasure from walking in the woods but I don’t need to know to know every fine detail. You can dip into a woodland at many different levels. If I see an insect I can’t identify I am fine with that. To me this is a living ecosystem and that is where its value comes from. My role is to help that system maintain itself. We can’t keep planting Sitka spruce and expect it to function in the same way.”
Increasingly distracted by the digital age we live in, the value of projects such as this, which provide an immersive experience in the natural world, are likely to become more popular — providing a peaceful respite from the incessant demands of the modern world. Whilst Daltun is obviously passionate about his subject, he is also realistic.
“I hope that visitors get the same pleasure from this wood that I have,” he says. “But I am also part of a local community. I want to set up a business that is sustainable and brings money into the local economy. Hopefully the project will show that preserving the natural environment and making a living are not incompatible and that the natural world still has so much to offer to all of us.”