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History of Forestry in Ireland


This is the story of forests in Ireland. Let’s go back 20,000 years, when most of Ireland was covered by glaciers during our last Ice Age. These huge ice sheets across northern Europe resulted in much lower sea levels than we have now, connecting Ireland and Britain to continental Europe.

12,000 years ago, temperatures were rising and the ice cap retreated. As the ice and glaciers retreated and the climate warmed up, today’s landscape was formed: a low-lying central plain surrounded by a rim of mountains.

It took many, many years for conditions suitable for plant growth to develop. The first trees to arrive here were hardy pioneer species such as juniper and willow; as well as birch and hazel.

As the climate gradually improved, elm, hazel and ash woods dominated in the eastern lowlands while oak and hazel woodlands were much more common in the west. On higher, more exposed areas in the west, Scots pine and birch forests can be found. Hazel, alder and birch are typical for poorer soils changing to alder and willow in marshy areas.

It was said that a squirrel could travel from one end of Ireland to the other without ever touching the ground as more than 80% of the land was covered by forests.

At that time, some open lakes and reed swamps gradually developed into peat. This type of bog is called raised bog and can be found mainly in the low-lying central plain. The other, much more common type of bog is blanket bog. But more about blanket bog later.

As the ice cap continued to shrink, sea levels are rising between Ireland, Great Britain and continental Europe.

Ireland’s first settlers arrived by sea around 9,000 years ago. And just like the indigenous tribes of the Amazon today, these Mesolithic people had a very strong relationship with the forest. Forests provided for practically all their needs: building material for their houses, weapons for hunting, firewood to keep warm, boats for travel, medicines and even clothing. They hunted and fished for food.

Their presence had very little effect on Ireland’s natural vegetation.

That was to change 3,000 years later when Neolithic farmers arrived in Ireland. They would have a huge impact on Ireland’s forests as they began to clear land for agriculture. This happened at a time when the climate became much wetter.

Where trees were burned or cut down to make way for fields or rough grazing, tree seedlings didn’t get a chance to grow as they were eaten by livestock. As the trees didn’t protect the soil anymore, the increased rainfall leached nutrients and clay particles from the soil.

This resulted in a gradual build-up of dead vegetation over many, many years growing into thick peaty layers and formed extensive blanket bog areas across Ireland.

That’s why we now regularly find dead tree stumps in bog.

Over the next 3,500 years, so much of the forest cover was removed that by the end of the Bronze Age, the poorly wooded appearance of Ireland became clear. Especially in the upland areas, blanket bog has by now replaced woodland.

Just as is happening right now in the Amazon, why did we clear so much forest? Because people wanted to create space for farming and because wood was essential to people’s everyday lives. Wood was used for fuel, in the making of tools, for constructing houses and roads.

Over the next 2,000 years or so, and especially during the Early Christian Period, population growth and expansion of farming led to a dramatically altered landscape. By 1600, less than 20% of Ireland was covered by forests.

The decline of the few remaining Irish forests continued over the following 300 years. With a rapidly expanding population, forests were no longer seen as an integral part of the rural landscape but more as an engine to drive agricultural growth.

Once cleared and drained, they provided valuable, fertile grazing land for commercial cattle, sheep and dairy enterprises. This process was accelerated by the 17th century Plantations of Ireland where recently arrived settlers cleared large tracts of land for farming.

This fast growth in the population caused towns and villages across Ireland to grow very fast. That required a lot of timber. For instance, large amounts of oak were exported to rebuild London following the Great Fire in 1666.

Because of the large number of cattle in Ireland, the trade in cattle hides was also very important. Tannins can be extracted from oak bark to tan leather. As a result, many oak trees were killed by stripping them of their bark to tan hides.

The Irish coopering industry manufactured vast amount of barrels to export Irish produce such as meat, butter, fish and tallow and exported huge numbers of barrels to France and Spain for their wine and spirit trade. Rivers were critical in transporting the timber down to the ports.

Ship building as well as the production of charcoal to fuel ironwork enterprises required a lot of wood.

The late 19th century saw many mobile sawmills travelling around Ireland cutting down the last few remaining forests. This meant that by the end of the 19th century, Ireland’s forest cover had been reduced from 80% 6,000 years ago to about 1%.

This downward spiral was reversed in the early 20th century when the newly independent Irish State encouraged tree planting. The main aim was to increase our timber self-sufficiency and to provide rural employment opportunities.

As agricultural land wasn’t being made available, most of these state forests were established on marginal soils and therefore consisted mainly of exposure-tolerant, fast-growing conifers.

Since the early nineties, nearly all tree planting is carried out by private individuals because of attractive forestry grants. Most of them are farmers. More demanding tree species including broadleaves are increasingly being planted as tree planting moves from the mountains and returns to the valleys.

This has brought Ireland’s forest cover back up from 1% to 11%. Ireland is hoping to increase this to 18% in a few decades’ time.

We need many different types of trees and forests for many different purposes: from renewable construction materials, carbon-neutral fuel or forests where we can find peace and tranquillity to increasing our native woodland resource.

What a forest journey Ireland is on…