Dead Landscapes - Ireland’s trees

Here I am returning to a rant theme, dead landscapes, started awhile ago when discussing the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (see Allagash). But a rant can’t really be a rant without picking it up every so often, brushing it off and racing down that rabbit hole once again.

The theme here has been to look at an area we think of as wild, and see if in fact it may be domesticated or touched by Man to such a degree that the term “wild” is a bit misleading. By drawing back the veil of our preconceived notions of wilderness, we might actually better understand what we have traveled so far to see.


Part Two - The Céide Fields - Ireland’s West Coast

My brother, sister and I traveled along Ireland’s west coast a year ago last April, staying in small inns or hostels outside cities. We had a great time and saw amazing sights. The landscapes are breathtaking, almost at every turn.

Ireland is among the most beautiful countries anywhere. Combine that with some of the most welcoming, generous and friendly people I’ve ever met, a lot of reasonably priced hotels, inns and hostels, and you will discover this is a place to visit and return to many times. Landscape after landscape can be enjoyed where vistas go on for miles allowing magnificent views of coasts, cliffs, stone walls, and dramatic hills.

And what makes many of those views possible is a staggering lack of trees. Ireland “enjoys” the distinction of being the least forested country in the Economic Union.

There may even be areas where the lack of trees is so prevalent, when you actually see a few, you get out of the car and take a picture of them.

And in case you think I have simply cropped all the trees out of my images, using a telephoto lens to place them just out of view, let’s look from some distance away, using a wide angle lens, at one of the most beautiful beaches along the northerly western coast, Keem Beach on Achill Island’s far western tip. This photo was taken on our approach from miles away.  

It wasn’t always this way. To understand the story of Ireland’s deforestation, let’s return to an area I talked about before, the Céide Fields along County Mayo’s rugged northern coast. See Megaliths and Potato Chips. This is a good place to look because as Ireland’s largest, at least largest still existing, Neolithic site it might tell us some details about what we’ve been doing as a species over the last 5,000 years.

View from the Céide Fields visitors center looking north, into the North Atlantic

The area along Mayo’s northern coast once was an endless forest, now it is anything but.

Beginning around 5,000 years ago, the Neolithic cattle ranchers here gradually cleared more and more land for pastures. Once cleared, the original forest canopy no longer could protect the soils from rain and wind and sun. Cleared land will try to heal itself, but only if beasts like cattle and sheep don’t prevent new vegetation (other than grasses which evolved to deal with grazing) from taking hold.

Due to the high volume of rain in western and northern Ireland, the soils in the upper pastures leached out their nutrients, sending minerals downslope. As the down slope areas became more acidified and as the leached minerals formed a hard pan layer just below the surface, water became trapped by the barrier and so could not seep further below. The constant acidic water covering the land killed its soils and most things that previously would grow there. Heathers and moss became dominant ground covers. A blanket bog of peat, from centuries of decaying mosses, began to take over.

The process continued over hundreds, even thousands of years until the settlements were overwhelmed by a massive bog coming down, into and ultimately over their now abandoned homes. They had long since left.

This was no longer a place where any diverse forms of agriculture could flourish. Not only was the settlement doomed as a place to continue to raise cattle, it eventually became entombed in the blanket bog they had made for themselves.

And it is worth considering that this happened not just to a few pasturelands, but to the entire area for maybe thousands of square miles. The scale of their efforts turning a forest utopia into a barren dystopian landscape is staggering. As you look at some of these vistas, with bogs extending far as can be seen, up on the mountain tops and down in the valleys as well, that is all the result of humans exploiting every inch of that land.

[If you do some basic math you can see that for a thousand square mile tract of land, an area a little over 30 miles by 30 miles, and given that a rough estimate of trees in a healthy forest is about 50 per acre or about 3,200 per each square mile, these Neolithic guys cut down, killed and then had their cattle prevent regrowth of about 3 million trees over the course of maybe a thousand years. That’s a few thousand trees a year in an area that might be traversed end to end in just a few days. Not bad for people with just stone tools.]

I suspect we tend to give our modern selves a collective pass for the actions of a group of people some 5000 years ago, using just stone and antler tools. We have sufficiently little in common with them and how they lived and did their stuff so long ago that we just don’t think what they managed to do has much relation to our lives today. But that attitude misses the point that the agriculture these people founded is largely continuing today. It has been modified to be more efficient, but the basics were in place then and still are around now. If these people could have such a far reaching impact on their environment with the unamplified practices they used in comparison to ours, just think what we are doing now.

It is a nice irony that recently Céide Fields was awarded the Fondazione Benetton’s Carlo Scarpa Prize for Gardens. See garden prize.  I say irony because, eventually at the hand of these “gardeners” this place went from fertile to what we see today, a barren, boggy, peat covered, windswept, treeless place mainly good just for grass and sheep if anything. To the extent sheep couldn’t be raised profitably, there really would be nothing left. It’s a continuous story of less and less being available from a more and more damaged landscape. Those amazing landscapes we enjoy are the result of an ecological disaster.

Don’t get me wrong, I love these places. Recognizing that these are severely degraded landscapes does not reduce the feelings that their raw beauty invokes for me. In our post Romantics worldview, they are beautiful.


But in terms of life, diversity and ecology, the forest that was here before was many magnitudes more healthy. We should be honest and recognize that we can’t afford to do this to too many places on Earth. 

For around 5,000 years we have worked out, refined and implemented traditional agricultural practices that have rendered whole landscapes barren and suitable for little else than raising a few species of animals that don’t require much.

This isn't just a new “industrial agriculture” issue, created only by back yard - chemically enhanced gardens, modern farms, petrochemicals and corporations. This isn’t about pointing fingers at today’s “bad guys” as if only they have created this problem. For anyone that thinks I let the logging companies off the hook too easily in my post on the Allagash (see Dead landscapes - Allagash) remember that it wasn’t logging companies that removed all these trees from Ireland. This pattern has been going on since the beginning of the Neolithic. If you can point to an area where civilization has left a mark during that entire time, it’s probably not been for the better. As can be seen by the transformation of Ireland from a heavily forested land into one almost devoid of trees in its wet, western reaches, “traditional agriculture” can be very destructive too. 

So all of that sounds pretty bad I guess. Still, I am actually moderately hopeful. If people can get over a preference for doing things a traditional way just because it is traditional, if we can accept that it isn’t just modern industrial agriculture that damages the land, but time-honored and revered gardening and farming practices too (such as tilling soils every year), then we might fix these places or at least not destroy others. But that maybe will be a topic for another post to come.  

Rant over.  



©️ 2019 D Abbott