What happened to the Irish forests?

14 Nov

When the first Humans arrived in Ireland around 9,000 years ago the island was almost completely covered by forest. At this time the island was covered predominantly with oak and elm woodland. These initial hunter gatherers had a very minimal impact on the landscape.  The forests first started to decline because of the growth of bogland and the introduction of agriculture by early Neolithic farmers. Elm trees were wiped out by the 7th century A.D due to a disease that only affected them.  By this time the forests were limited to marginal land and upland areas. The demand for timber increased and the exploitation intensified under the Anglo-Normans and, later, successive English monarchs.  However there was still extensive forest in Ireland right up until the 17th century. Many factors lead to the practical disappearance of the Irish forests from the 17th century onwards.  The invention of the blast furnace in the mid-16th century lead to a revolution in the production of iron and glass, which could now be produced on an industrial scale. Major portions of the Irish forests were cut down to accommodate this production. Shipbuilding also contributed to the decline. It is known that timber for ships was exported to England in the early 17th century and the East India Company established a shipyard at Dundaniel in Cork some time before 1613. The 16th century also saw the beginnings of the Plantations of Ireland, whereby the English monarchy parceled out large areas of land to English settlers. These settlers cleared vast areas of forest for livestock and crops. Promptly after the plantations the population in Ireland grew almost exponentially. With this increase in population came the need for increased agriculture and so even more forests were cut down. The vast areas of forest present in the 1600’s were largely gone by the 19th century. This lead to the extinction of the wild boar, the wolf and the red squirrel in Ireland (the red squirrel was later re-introduced from Britain). The passing of the Land Act in 1881 diminished what little there was left of the Irish forest. The land act allowed the secure rent of land from landlords to tenants, who paid for the land by clearing more forests and increasing output. The First World War also placed significant strain on the Irish forest as there was high demand for timber and fuel. At this period forested land accounted for only 1.5 % of the total land in Ireland. After the establishment of the Irish Free State, the new government began to take an active role in forestry. This trend persisted throughout the rest of the 20th century and currently 10 % of Irish land is forested. Despite this increase , Ireland is still the second lowest country in Europe in terms of percentage of area forested.Hopefully the Irish forests can return to their former glory. – Saeed Faghihi

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