Solitary demise of an historic forest

I WAS UP at the Coronation Plantation in Co Wicklow recently. For anyone who doesn’t know the area, it’s in the valley of the upper Liffey to the west of the Sally Gap and it doesn’t look in the least bit like a plantation.

What you see from the road is a brown hillside of bracken and heather dotted with irregular groves of Scots pine. It’s a very attractive sight.

It was a forestry plantation once, one of the earliest in Ireland — the coronation it commemorates is that of William IV of England in 1831. But it never flourished and it was never finished.

In those pre-famine times our population was much larger than it is today and much of this population lived as tenants on huge estates. At one time a dozen men owned nearly a quarter of the land area of the whole island. Many of these landlords embarked on ambitious schemes to improve their estates to better the lot of the tenants and, of course, to increase their own incomes. The Coronation Plantation was one of those schemes.

There is commemorative stone obelisk on the flank of the hill across the river. These days the lettering is too worn to read properly and the inscription, like the plantation, was never finished. But there is a record of what it used to proclaim: ‘Coronation Plantation, Lordship of Blessington, County of Wicklow. This plantation in the Brocky Mountains of 500 Irish (acres) laid out by the Most Honourable the Marquis of Downshire.’

The fencing commenced in August 1831. It was called the Coronation Plantation in honour of His Most Gracious Majesty King William IV, The Most Noble the Marquis of Anglesey being Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and for the future supply of useful timber for the Estate and improvement of the County and the benefit of the Labouring Classes. This planting finished on the (blank) day of (blank) 18 (blank).

In the 1830s American conifer species like Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and Lodge-pole pine were not yet available for forestry plantation in Ireland.

But Scots pine (commonly called Scots fir in those days) grew wild, as it still does, in the Highlands of Scotland. The foresters of the time probably saw some similarities between the landscape of Wicklow and the Highlands and thought Scots pine would do well. Unfortunately they were wrong.

Scots pine produces fine timber, normally called ‘red deal’, but in the wild it grows in open groves, sparsely scattered across the moorland, with an under-storey of heather and blueberry. It’s an unsociable tree that exploits niches unsuitable for other species and dislikes the crowding involved in a commercial plantation.

And the Coronation Plantation is almost certainly doomed. There is no natural regeneration of young trees. This is partly because any seedlings are browsed down by sheep, deer and hares. But it’s also because natural regeneration in the Caledonian Pine Forest of the Highlands of Scotland is aided by cones being blown across hard-packed snow and ice in winter storms. Scottish pine groves always spread down wind. The milder climate and lower altitude in Wicklow seldom produce these conditions.

Historically there has been some felling in the Coronation Plantation, particularly in WWI and WWII, and there is loss from natural causes such as wind-blow, lightning strikes and heath fires.

The maximum life-span of a Scots pine is up to 350 years, so the trees planted in the 1830s are only middleaged, but nobody has planted any more and the numbers are slowly but steadily dwindling.

And probably nobody will plant any more because of the prohibitive cost of fencing out the large numbers of deer in the area. So future generations won’t be able to enjoy this amazing vista in the Liffey valley.

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