National Tree Week to fix imblalance

DESPITE advances in the past 100 years, Ireland remains one of the least wooded countries in Europe with only 10% of our land planted with trees compared to the European average of 40%.

However, National Tree Week, which started yesterday runs until Saturday, is aimed at correcting the imbalance, while at the same time providing new jobs, boosting our forestry industry and helping improve our environment.

The theme of the initiative is, Twenty Ten – Plant Again, and people are being asked to make a renewed effort to plant trees during the week. More than 300 events are taking place, including forest walks, tree planting ceremonies, workshops, talks, competitions and even tree plantathons.

Also, 15,000 trees, sponsored by Coillte, will be distributed to community groups by local authorities all over the country and people should contact their local council for a supply of trees.

The forest industry is worth €1.65 billion annually, employing over 10,000 people mainly in rural Ireland. More than 17,000 farmers own and manage farm woodlands. More than 20m visits are made annually to Irish forests and, each year, at least 200,000 use forest trails for exercise. Trekking through forests is an important aspect of “’walking tourism” which attracts 500,000 visitors.

Separately, the results of a national survey of our heritage trees, due to be announced at a seminar in the Botanic Gardens, on April 21, are eagerly awaited. For much of last year, Kate Crane and Aubrey Fennell trudged the country in search of such trees.

The aim of the project is to produce a database, to locate and record information on these unique trees. No less than 742 were recorded and the completed database has instructions, photographs and maps that enable the user to find/view all of the trees.

Each tree is remarkable and some of the stories associated with them are fascinating. One well-known example is the Hungry Tree at King’s Inns, Dublin, which is a London plane that appears to be consuming a bench.

Another is Lady Gregory’s Autograph Tree at Coole Park, South Galway, a copper beech which has been signed by WB Yeats, his brother, Jack, George Bernard Shaw, John Masefield, Sean O’Casey and other luminaries.

But, not all heritage trees are so dramatic. For example, a lone hawthorn tree has been included in the survey as it marks the summit of Freestone Hill, Co Kilkenny, and folklore prevents its removal.

There are plenty of interesting trees with stories which have been recorded as part of the survey. One such is the centuries-old yew tree standing in the centre of the cloisters of the ruined Muckross Abbey, in Killarney National Park.

The ruins of the Franciscan abbey are well preserved and the tree is, perhaps, the most striking natural feature of the site. There are many historic references to the tree, with the Dublin Penny Journal (1833) reporting that “’many persons shrink back with terror on entering within its precincts, and few can remain long without feeling an impatient desire to escape from its oppressive influence.” No, it’s not that intimidating at all.

Also recorded in the survey is a horse chestnut tree in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan – a long-established landmark tree and a meeting place for the young and old of the town. It was also a place where the cattle dealers from near and far would rendezvous to discuss prices.

The tree was saved from destruction one day in the spring of 1968 after a local man, Michael Birdy, was shocked to see county council workers trying to push the tree away with a digger.

He managed to stop the workmen and the machine and rang the county manager, who instructed the workmen to push the tree back upright.

For several nights following this incident, the local young men surreptitiously shovelled the clay back over the roots to try and save their tree.

Mr Birdy jokingly refers to those Green heroes as the “original eco-warriors”. He confessed that protecting the tree was something they all felt had to be done. Unsurprisingly, it became known as the Birdy Tree.

What an uplifting story of a community that loved a tree so much that they saved it from certain death, with the help of their campaigning local newspaper, the Northern Standard. The tree is alive and well and loved to this day.

Also thriving are the Adam and Eve Trees, two ancient chestnuts planted side by side near Tinahely, Co Wicklow. Believed to be 300 to 400 years old, they were apparently ‘hanging’ trees used to hang sheep rustlers in the 18th century.

The above are examples for the many stories and folklore surrounding heritage trees, greatly cherished by people all over the country.

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