Re-wilding the wilderness

SERIOUS flooding in recent times is prompting people to look at new ways of resolving, long-term, a problem that’s likely to remain with us, given climate change and all that implies.

Re-wilding the wilderness

In England, which seems to have been even harder hit than Ireland, there are calls to turn swathes of upland pastures into woodland. The idea of “re-wilding” the uplands — returning habitats to a natural state — is catching on throughout Europe and is also being mooted, for instance, for the Comeragh and Knockmealdown Mountains, in Co Waterford.

Overgrazing of the uplands is also being blamed for flooding. Too many sheep compact the soil which prevents soakage and speeds water run-off. The thinking now is that such areas should be allowed return to the wild so that water can be trapped by trees and natural vegetation.

Green journalist George Monbiot has set people thinking by writing as follows: “Instead of a steady flow sustained around the year by trees in the hills, by sensitive farming methods, by rivers which are allowed to find their own course and their own level, to filter and hold back their waters through bends and braiding and obstructions, we get a cycle of flood and drought. We get filthy water and empty aquifers and huge insurance premiums and ruined carpets. And all of it at public expense.”

And, of course, we’re now also paying for construction that has been allowed on flood plains. Ireland’s biggest “re-wilding’’ project, meanwhile, is underway in the Nephin Beg mountain range in the thinly-populated north-west of Co Mayo. This is a landscape of boglands and heath-covered mountains, battered by Atlantic winds and rain. The only forests here are stands of Lodgepole pine and Sitka spruce.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service and Coillte have designated 27,000 acres of bog, mountain, and forest here as Ireland’s first wilderness area, Wild Nephin. The aims are three-fold — to protect a large, wild landscape; “re-wild’’ the forest, and provide a primitive wilderness experience for visitors.

Over the next 15 years, the project will thin the forest cover to let more light in, create more clearings, restore areas of bogland, and plant some native species. Trees will be felled but left in place to mimic natural catastrophes and encourage regeneration. Forest roads will be converted to trails.

Wild Nephin is part of a growing movement to create wilderness areas across Europe, and to re-wild damaged landscapes, especially in Germany.

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