There’s a growing appreciation of our forestry, but despite some views that parts of the country are being taken over by trees, we’re still well behind our EU counterparts in that regard.
Ireland has the lowest forest cover of all European countries, according to Teagasc. Land cover here is 11% while over 40% of all land in the 33 member states is wooded. Co Wicklow has the highest forest cover and Co Meath the lowest. These forests are mostly man-made. Government policy is to bring the national forest cover to 17%. Counties Cork and Kerry have a high proportion of forestry and, importantly, great walks.
Over the centuries, Ireland experienced a near-total destruction of its forests, mainly because of human activity and climate change; from an initial forest cover of around 80% to less than 1%. We are the only country in Europe where such complete destruction took place. Segments of our ancient woods remain, like the hazel woods of the Burren, yew woods in Co Galway and oak woods in Killarney National Park. Such woods are always worth a visit as they offer us a glimpse of what their predecessors were like. However, they need to be managed, in some way, to ensure conservation. In Killarney, for instance, deer fencing has been erected around some of the oak woods to allow the oaks regenerate.
Amenity woods such as Avondale, the home of Irish forestry, in Co Wicklow; Gougane Barra, West Cork, Lough Key, Co Roscommon, and Killykeen, Co Cavan, are all delightful places and visitor-magnets. Coillte continues to promote trails and forest paths.
In the years after independence, most tree-planting was carried out by governments to stop Ireland’s deforestation and to replace imported timber. Most of these state forests were established on mountain land and consisted mainly of fast-growing conifers.
Since 1991, most tree planting is carried out by private individuals, usually farmers, with the assistance of grant aid. Nearly half of all forests are now in private ownership. More demanding tree species, including broadleaves, are increasingly being planted as tree planting moves from the mountains to the valleys. About half of all these forests are less than 25 years old.
A European Environment Agency report identifies habitat loss, invasive alien species, pollution and climate change as the top four challenges facing forests. Such threats, combined with economic activities such as logging, urban sprawl, or the increasing use of forests by humans for leisure, make forests more vulnerable, the report warns.