Rainforest rewilding - the Beara example

Michael Viney: Passionate about native trees, Eoghan Daltun bought 37-acres in west Cork that’s now ‘simply exploding with biodiversity’

On the northern side of the Beara Peninsula, at the west end of Co Cork, the hillside tilts down to the sea in a leap of rocky outcrops and streams. Its little farms have been emptying out under the wind, their owners off to the United States.

In 2009, one of the farms in the townland of Bofickil was hidden under a tangle of native trees: storm-twisted sessile oaks, holly, rowan and hazel. They bore the browse-line carved by dozens of wandering, feral goats and their trunks were scarred by bark-stripping deer. Beneath them the hillside was bare of regenerating seedlings or choked by invading rhododendron.

To the raw new owner of the 37-acre farm, its woods offered “an ecological and aesthetic wonderland of simply aching beauty and diversity”. Enchanted by the richness of branch-borne, rain-fed ferns and mosses, Eoghan Daltun couldn’t wait to give the land back to the trees.

He was no novice to transformation. His new book, An Irish Atlantic Rainforest (Hatchette, €18), starts with his youthful adventure restoring an old stone cottage on a waste patch of ground in Dublin’s Kilmainham; then years of Italian apprenticeship in sculpture conservation, a skill now in demand for Irish heritage.

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Another big change was arrival of ivy and honeysuckle, looping in ropes from the boughs

In Daltun’s rewilding of Bofickil, the woodland would be left to its own devices once the alien goats and deer were removed. This meant building deer fences around 21 acres of land, costing nearly €37,000 in State grants. He lives in a new house at the farm with two young sons, their dog Charlie and five Dexter cows.

Calling on historical research, he asserts that much of the early and severe deforestation of Ireland was due to grazing by domestic animals. The pastoral farming and primacy of cattle in Gaelic and pre-Gaelic society, with wide use of woodland, grazed away the forests’ future by preventing the regeneration of trees. The later extinction of wolves allowed sheep into the woods to do an even more thorough job.

The gradual retreat of the forests in pre-1600 Ireland, going right back to Neolithic times, was likely, says Daltun, to have gone unremarked upon by people living at the time; this despite the reverence for trees expressed in the Brehon Laws and early mythology. Even today, each generation takes a new, ecologically poorer baseline against which to compare the damage they might note in their own lifetime.

Daltun is caustic, for example, about what he calls the “wrecked condition” of the nearby Killarney National Park, its long history of collapsing outer fences letting in sheep from neighbouring farms along with high numbers of Sika deer. Wildfires spreading from adjoining commonages cause even greater damage to the park and its wildlife since, says Daltun, “native Irish forest in a healthy state doesn’t actually burn”.

What has his rewilding at Bofickil achieved? Regeneration of trees and plants has come at a strikingly wide range of speeds. In some areas a scatter of seedlings took years to appear. “In others,” he describes, “a rapid and radical transformation started immediately grazing ceased. In these, where previously there had been only grass, they were soon thronged with numerous mushrooming trees and within only six or seven years the canopy was closing in overhead, at a height of perhaps 4-5m.”

In wetter areas, predictably, the sally was the main pioneer, the willows’ older limbs rich with burgeoning mosses and polypody ferns. “Anything but a weed,” writes Daltun, “sally is an ecological gold mine, a central pillar of woodland diversity”.

Existing, mature trees have gone on growing and spreading, and quickly sent out abundant new stems near the ground from trunks once shorn by deer. Hollies that bark-stripping goats seemed to have killed soon put up fresh shoots from around the dead trunks. Another big change was arrival of ivy and honeysuckle, looping in ropes from the boughs.

There have been times when the woodland has offered a mass of multilayered growth, sometimes impenetrable, later becoming walkable again as light levels changed. The older forest has grown a long-lost carpet of wildflowers and sends out new plants to colonise the pioneer woodland.

Daltun has counted more than 100 species of wildflowers and 50 kinds of birds. A walk in his wood is blessed with the thrum of flying insects, and on a single flowering umbel of wild angelica he counted 30 different kinds. A colony of lesser horseshoe bats has settled in a shed, sustained by the myriads of rewilded midges.

His land, indeed, is “now simply exploding with biodiversity” none of it greatly surprising in such a mild and humid habitat. It’s great that someone made it happen and we should find a lot more room for it, not least on the many other hillsides abandoned in retreat from unprofitable sheep.