Once upon a time, Ireland was mostly forest. In prehistoric and early historic times, trees covered an estimated 90-95 percent of the landscape. But English invasions, rebellions, and industrial demands moved the landscape toward its modern austere treelessness.
A hundred years ago, barely 1 percent of Ireland was forested. Now forest has reclaimed 10 percent of the landscape, and the Irish government would like to raise that coverage to 17 percent. Toward that goal, it has mounted a reforestation campaign, backed by a program of grants to landowners to plant trees. Trouble is, the Irish haven’t been used to seeing forest as part of their landscape for centuries. Particularly jarring is that the new forest is predominantly a monoculture of non-native Sitka spruce.
Matt Carroll, a community and natural resource sociologist in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, became intrigued by the situation after meeting Aine Ni Dhubahain, a forester at University College Dublin, who had an ongoing project examining the social and economic impacts of forest planting over the last 20 years. Her expertise lay primarily with the economic implications, so Carroll decided to look more closely at the social side.
Backed by a Fulbright, Carroll focused on two study areas in County Kerry in southwestern Ireland. The first, around Causeway, is agriculturally productive and prosperous. Forest planting there is relatively scarce. The other area, around Brosna, is not as productive and, says Carroll, has a longer history of people realizing they need something other than farming to make a living. Far more of that area has been planted to forest.
Native forests in Ireland were primarily hardwood. However, hardwoods generally prefer better soils, which are largely considered reserved for food production. At some point, it was discovered that Sitka spruce does very well in Ireland, tolerating the country’s poorer land. Government reforestation now emphasizes the planting of Sitka spruce in intensive, largely monoculture tracts, on a 20-25 year rotation.
Carroll interviewed residents regarding the new forests and found their attitudes mixed. “Culturally speaking, planting is acceptable only on bad ‘rushy’ land, cut-over bogs,” says Carroll. No one wants to use good agricultural land for forest.
Other reasons residents gave for not liking the new forests were that they are isolating. People were used to seeing their neighbor’s lights across the treeless landscape. Neither do they like the visual monotony of spruce forest.
Also, the new forests have created a curious twist on the spotted owl controversy here, which Carroll explored in his dissertation. Some worry that the increasing forest threatens the hen harrier-an endangered bird of prey-which requires open landscape as habitat.
“Where there is unhappiness with forestry, I think it’s linked to broader trends,” says Carroll. Ireland’s current robust economy, the “Celtic tiger,” is accompanying broad social changes, particularly in rural areas. Farming is moving to more of an industrial model, which results in consolidations and increasing reliance by smaller farmers on supplemental incomes.
“Until fairly recently, people were supporting families on 20 cows,” says Carroll. That is no longer possible.
“So there’s this huge economic expansion going on,” he says. “At the same time, you have agriculture going through wrenching changes. And there’s the sense of many people their culture is being lost, oral traditions, genealogies, poems. People are worried about losing all that in the context of changes in farmland.”