Remainder of Ireland’s native forests being ‘ecologically trashed’, nature campaigner says

Minister for Environment Eamon Ryan calls for consensus approach in addressing changes to Irish land use

Ireland is among the most nature-poor places on Earth with less than 1.5 per cent of its land area in the form of natural forest, and most of that is being “ecologically thrashed”, according to rewilding campaigner Eoghan Daltun.

“To my mind, it’s hard to think of anything in this time in which we find ourselves that’s more important than rewilding,” Daltun told the annual conference of DCU’s Centre for Climate and Society, which focused on Ireland’s dual challenges of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.

“It’s the solution to so many problems, in terms of the state of our home planet, but also to so many things that ail us ourselves as people.”

He said problems in Killarney National Park had been called out for 50 years and it was “inexcusable” that nothing has been done to prevent its descent into overgrazed land, overrun by invasive species in the form of rhododendron, bracken and deer.


Daltun, a rewilder, farmer, and author of An Irish Atlantic Rainforest: A Personal Journey into the Magic of Rewilding, said he encountered the same circumstances when he acquired land in 2009. The land – once a temperate rainforest on the Beara peninsula – had been severely overgrazed by livestock with artificially high numbers of wild herbivores, notably deer and goats. This meant trees could not be regenerated as the place was “in ecological meltdown”.

While Ireland’s biodiversity was suffering, there was some hope in the solutions provided by rewilding, he said. “All the data shows that Ireland is among the very bottom few most nature-poor places on Earth,” he explained.

“The so-called ‘Emerald Isle’ is, in reality, ecologically trashed. But we have the antidote: it’s called rewilding, and the case for allowing it to happen here on a huge scale could not be more clear. For nature, for the climate, for ourselves.”

Rewilding was not about going back in time, because ecosystems were constantly changing and evolving, Daltun underlined, but it could facilitate “an incredible renaissance of wildlife”, besides being the best way to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. In his case, it not only resulted in an eruption of plant life but also of insects and pollinators, birdlife and rare mammals.

Likewise, it was not about demanding that farmers rewild their land, he said, though the action of ending overgrazing “enabled nature to do the rest”.

Following a land use review indicating “what is happening on our island ecologically”, Minister for Environment Eamon Ryan said applying nature-based solutions was of the utmost importance under the Programme for Government. The next critical phase was agreeing a land use plan, which would not be telling farmers what to do, he said.

This process would not work, however, if “it’s a politics of division”; of rural versus urban, right versus left, young versus old, or rural independents versus the greens, Mr Ryan said. “To make this leap to restore nature and to stop runaway climate change, every place matters,” the Green Party leader said.

“Every person matters and the scale of change we need means it won’t work if any section of society is left behind.”

This required “seeking agreement on what we agree on” and setting out key principles on what all political parties and independents agree on in advance, in the context of 80 per cent of the public favouring accelerated climate action.

Mr Ryan said the principles within the land use review should be based on science; optimising rural development and family farms; reducing carbon emissions; stopping destruction of nature; halting biodiversity loss; and addressing water and air pollution.

Mr Ryan highlighted the importance of having conversations about climate change in the right way: “We have to get the framing of this right. How we discuss it, how we present it... How we tell the story, how we listen to each other and share perspectives. How we need to be willing to admit mistakes, and go back and accelerate in the direction we need to go.”

Stop Climate Chaos coalition coordinator Sadhbh O’Neill said there was growing evidence of the need for congestion charging in Ireland. While politicians clearly were reluctant to pursue this course, Ms O’Neill asked “who should lead that conversation?”.

Dr Aoife O’Grady of the Department of Transport said that as it was the right thing to do, “everybody should lead the conversation”. Congestion charging was never going to get acceptance in advance, Dr O’Grady added, but 60 per cent of the public were against it before it was introduced in London, while 60 per cent favour it now.

Mr Ryan said the reallocation of road space in cities was the more effective action in the first instance as it would enable quick delivery of active benefits at low cost. This was the course being pursued in Dublin, with a pathfinder project due to be unveiled in June.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times