Restoring an Irish Atlantic rainforest [Northern Europe]

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By Eoghan Daltun

Eoghan is the author of An Irish Atlantic Rainforest (Hachette Books, 2022). He posts on Twitter as @IrishRainforest.

In May 2009 I sold my small house in Dublin and moved with my family to Beara, one of the peninsulas that extend, finger-like, from southwest Ireland into the Atlantic Ocean. There we bought a 73-acre farm that had been left unused agriculturally for around a century, allowing wild habitats, especially native temperate rainforest, to develop naturally over most of the land.

Unfortunately, however, for the last decade or two that process of spontaneous rewilding had been blocked, and was starting to slide backwards, due to two major factors. Firstly, overgrazing by feral goats and sika deer (both non-native species) was preventing the forest from regenerating, with every native seedling quickly eaten. The extremely rich ground flora associated with native forest in Ireland had also been completely removed, and many of the older trees had been killed through bark-stripping. As if all that weren’t bad enough, the overgrazing was facilitating takeover by Rhododendron ponticum and a host of other non-native plant species. Put simply, the forest was dying. Tragically, the vast majority of Ireland’s tiny remaining patches of native forest—which has been reduced from an estimated 80% of land cover to a mere 1% or so—are also in such a state.

I applied for and received a state grant to fence out the grazing animals, and set to work in my spare time eliminating the rhododendron and other invasive plants. Over the following years, the results were nothing short of spectacular, with seedlings of oak, birch, holly, ash, rowan, willow, hazel and many other wild native species popping up everywhere, and in many places going on to develop into new forest where previously there were only barren grasses. In addition, scores of species of native wildflowers began to carpet the woodland floor from early spring to late summer, bringing with them a huge increase in pollinating insects and birdlife. Subsequently, rare and protected mammals like lesser horseshoe bats, pine martens and otters began to take up residence or pass through, attracted in by the increased biological abundance.

Inside an Irish Atlantic rainforest (photo by the author)

To witness such a transformation over the years has brought me immense joy and hope, a demonstration of how wild nature can come back if we just remove the human-caused impediments preventing it from doing so. Across the globe, biodiversity and ecological health are collapsing at a rapid and accelerating speed. It may surprise many readers to learn that Ireland is one of the very worst-off countries in the world in that regard. In international comparison tables, we consistently rank very close to the bottom, coming, for example, thirteenth from last out of 240 nations in a Biodiversity Intactness Index carried out by the British Natural History Museum. A catastrophic 63% of our remaining bird species are of either high or medium conservation concern, while 90% of protected habitats are in bad—and worsening—condition.

This was brought home to me in the most direct way recently, when I was kindly invited to spend several days looking at rewilding projects in the Scottish Highlands by the charity “Scotland: The Big Picture.” There I was amazed to see landscape-scale ecological restoration happening, in some cases for decades now. The beaver and other extirpated species have been reintroduced, and there is talk that the lynx may soon follow. With a very similar history, culture and ecologies, what I saw in Scotland was a vision of what Ireland might look like if we do things right.

However, an important difference is in land ownership patterns. In Scotland, land is concentrated in the hands of a very small group of rich individuals, some of whom possess hundreds of thousands of acres. Since several of them are now rewilding their land, this means vast areas are coming back to life ecologically. But on the downside, it means that land ownership, and thus rewilding, is largely the preserve of the rich, with most ordinary people feeling excluded, which is clearly far from ideal. In Ireland land holdings are much smaller, and so will require a much more community-based approach; in social terms this is a very good thing, but will also create its own set of challenges in bringing back wild nature.

Location of the Beara Peninsula