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A Strong Case for Rewilding- in Conversation with Andrew St Ledger

I met Andrew St. Ledger at the CELT (Centre for Environmental Living & Training) Woodland Promotion Day for National Biodiversity Week in May. He gave a group of us the most fascinating walk-and-talk tour of the woodland at Slieve Aughty, and I was captivated by his stories, knowledge and love of trees. He then kindly agreed to speak to me for this article.

Our conversation was long and interesting, so we decided to print it in two parts. Part 1 will focus on what happened to Ireland’s once abundant primeval native forests throughout history and the effects of modern forestry, and in Part 2 we delve into the ancient mythology and folklore of our trees.

Andrew also brings forth a strong case for rewilding- allowing native hedgerows and woodlands to grow, expand and flourish naturally. He also explains why planting trees is not always successful, and why planting should be more targeted.

Andrew works tirelessly for The Woodland League- a “not-for-profit, independent, community-based, non-denominational and non-political organisation”. Their aim is to “restore the relationship between people and their native woodlands”.

Your journey with trees started in woodwork and sculpting. How did that lead to your interest in woodland preservation?

Yes, my background is in furniture and cabinet making, wood carving and sculpting. When I left school there was a big recession, there was no work and my contemporaries were all leaving. This was in the late 1980s. I started a training course with FÁS (called AnCO at the time), and as part of that course there was a facility to encourage people to start their own businesses. I proposed that a friend of mine who had been let go from a furniture making factory come in.  He was making coffee tables at home, and doing some carving on them- a sort of replica Chippendale style. I was interested in learning about what he was doing, and I took a shine to the wood carving. So AnCO interviewed him, and decided to set the two of us in an incubator unit to start a small business making occasional tables, which led to us setting up our own workshop. From there I started working on my own making one-off bespoke furniture pieces, doing wood carving and sculpting, and also in restoration of antiques. I learned a lot of techniques from restoring antiques made by master craftsmen. It also introduced me to the amazing timbers of the world such as walnut, mahogany, rosewood, ebony, boxwood, and satinwood. These are exotic timbers that had been taken, in the 1800s, from tropical rainforests that are now long gone. So I was connecting with the raw material in that way, and as I developed the business I started trying to find home-grown timber of a quality that was good enough for high-end bespoke furniture making, but I had real problems. I started realising that we don’t have the forests, that our forests of hard woods are gone. So just like the tropical rainforests where the antique woods that I had worked with came from, Ireland had also lost its rainforest, and its rainforest timbers.

I managed to source some wood from Wicklow and made a group of furniture prototypes using native hardwoods, with the idea of promoting the restoration of our forests and to encourage the use of our own native timbers. At the time there was also increased awareness of the damage being done to tropical rainforests by removing timbers for European joineries and furniture makers, including myself. The timber I was buying was mostly imported, and I was becoming more aware of the damaging effects of this. For instance over 90% of hardwoods used in Ireland today are imported. We’ve completely lost contact and connection with our own woods. The thing is, Ireland is uniquely placed in that our climate is ideal for the growing of hardwoods. One of the first names of Ireland is Inis na Bhfiodhbhadh (Island of the Sacred Trees). Ireland was known to the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians for its vast primeval forests. One of the reasons the Romans never invaded was that they feared the deep dense forests here. So the more I started to look into what happened to our forests, the more I wanted to do something about it.

So what actually happened to our forests. Where did they go?

The first of the felling happened with the Normans in the 11th and 12th Centuries, especially along the east coast where the land was best. They started clearing land for profit, and to develop farmland. Then over the next few centuries more and more was cleared, as a new political system was encroaching onto the old Gaelic Order. As the Gaelic Order collapsed, this new system of private property, Capitalism basically, and a feudal system, took over. It was about cashing in on assets, and trees were viewed as assets. The Gaelic Order had laws to protect the trees. Of course trees had economic value, but the forests had uses beyond basic economics. With bees for instance, there would not have been managed hives. When we had our great forests, there was a diversity of ages and species of trees within those forests. There would have been hollowed out old trees and that’s where the bees would naturally live, and that’s where the honey came from. There were Brehon laws detailing the trespass of bees within the forest, and how the honey was to be divided fairly between the people. They weren’t so much landowners as caretakers of the forest. It was a completely different legal system. Private property and titles were not handed down from father to son. Division of land was based on merit – what you would do with that land, or how good of a leader you were, having been noticed by the elders when you were young, and then proposed and elected as a leader. So it was a clash of two completely different civilisations, which was followed then by the Elizabethan conquests. By the 1500s the original invasion was seen as a failure, because many of the Normans had adopted the Gaelic ways and married into Gaelic families.

The re-invasion of Ireland was done by Queen Elizabeth 1st, and that was the next big assault on the forests. Elizabeth wanted to build a navy, and towns and cities which were at the time all timber-based.

Then the third great incursion into the forests was the industrial revolution, and the beginning of iron-making. There was a demand for charcoal, for making iron for war, industry and capitalism. That really was the major wipe-out of the remains of the forests in Ireland. So by the late 1800s we had less than 1% tree cover on the whole island- quite a shocking statistic. That’s devastation. That’s a first world country experiencing third world type rape and pillage of its natural resources. The Europeans had lost a lot of their forests to the Romans, and became settled feudal societies. They still retained woodland but it was mostly within managed agro-pastoral systems. So they had already lost their primeval forests, whereas Ireland had uniquely retained its primeval forest until the 1600s. But as I say the final devastation was the iron. Charcoal was the energy needed for making iron, It was the oil of the day- you had charcoal barons, people controlling the price and supply of charcoal. Because Ireland was in that transition period of final conquest, Ireland was a frontier, like the wild west, where Brehon and British law were operating side-by-side, and one was dominating the other. That meant opportunities for speculators and cowboys, who came in and exploited the forest resource, and were encouraged to do so from a political military perspective. So that finished off our forests. Also charcoal was much cheaper in Ireland because of this turmoil, so iron was brought here from England for processing. The iron industry lasted for about 100 years here until there was no wood left. They exhausted the resources. In England they had introduced laws on using coppicing systems to ensure that they would still have reserves of forests in the future. Even having done that they still destroyed a lot of their own forests. This period coincides with a major collapse of biodiversity on this island. It wasn’t even recorded properly because it was a period of extreme turmoil, and biodiversity and ecology were not really on the menu. But we lost the eagle, the wolf, and many keystone forest species.

An Illustration of an Ash Tree, Leaves and Seeds

So how did we get from that 1% leftovers, to us having all of these neat, tidy and unnatural rows of conifer forestry we see today?

The way the British empire was managed was so that the needs of the mother nation were divided up, and each colony would provide for one or two primary needs. So Ireland, having been reduced to about 1% tree cover was, on the good land, basically turned into a farm to provide cheap food for the English working class. Their labouring class who had been taken off their own farms were sent down into the mines for coal, which became the next major fossil fuel resource after charcoal, and put into factories too. So many thousands of English people were really pushed into horrendous working conditions during the industrial revolution. They needed to be fed, and they needed cheap basic foodstuffs. Ireland was providing butter, salted meats and grains.

Jamaica plantations, for example, were providing sugar. Malaya was providing rubber a little later in the industrial revolution. All of the colonies were supplying a product. And all of the prices of these products were controlled by the London stock exchange. And to this day the prices of wheat, sugar, bananas, rubber, butter, etc. are still controlled by the City of London. So it’s all connected to colonisation.

Horus Plunkett set up the farm co-operative movement to help to get the farmers better prices for their products in the late 1800s. He was trying to help to improve the conditions of the Irish people. He created a committee called the Recess Committee to research the conditions of Irish farming and the needs of farmers. And from the Recess Committee report, a Department of Agriculture was established in Dublin for the first time to develop Irish agriculture, improve the conditions, and introduce science and technology. What’a forgotten about this report is that it included a recommendation that Ireland should re-establish forestry. But Plunkett’s vision was more that it would be integrated into farming- with timber production, fruit, nuts and shelter for animals. He was basically talking about agroforestry ahead of its time. He also recommended a shelter belt along the entire length of the west coast of Ireland to improve the conditions inland from the winds and salt coming in from the Atlantic. That never happened, but it’s something The Woodland League would like to see happen. However, because of his report, London did decide to establish a forestry division in 1904, and it was set up by 1906. Avondale in Wicklow became the first Irish school of forestry. At that time they were looking at the economy of the United Kingdom, and what the timber needs of England were, not Ireland. So fast-growing timbers were chosen, which are linked to war, and to coal. Coal was the primary fuel. More coal mining meant more need for wood as pitt props. They were also developing new explosives using the cellulose from conifer trees. Paper was being made, and many industries were being created around the use of wood pulp. So that’s where our non-native conifer model basically came from. It’s a “clear, fell, re-plant” model. It was called scientific forestry, and was based on a Bavarian industrial model, and it’s not natural. Also, all of these conifers are clones, cloned from the mother tree to ensure that they are all the same, and straight for the timber industry.

Slieve Aughty Centre

You mentioned The Woodland League, can you tell me more about that? And about the native forest corridors you’re encouraging. How would it work?

Our current campaign is a petition calling for the government, as part of the next forestry strategy which is being developed this year, to prioritise and expand the remains of our primeval forests, which only occupy 0.2% of our land mass. They are the most valuable forest resources in terms of biodiversity and adaptation, because those trees have been there for thousands of years. Their DNA has adapted and has been through climate change before and has a genetic memory. So if we want to have any future native woodlands, those trees are the seed banks we need, as they contain the mother trees. We want to see them restored. They have a major problem of neglect, with no management plans. They have invasive species problems with Rhododendron and Laurel, and also deer. There’s no regeneration because of the deer [eating the seedlings]. We want to see encouragement and reward for the landowners surrounding these ancient pockets to fence off areas, to allow the forest to expand naturally rather than planting.

So just to clarify, which is actually better in the long run – to allow land to go wild/untouched or to plant native trees?

Planting is a new idea, again, coming from the 18th Century forestry model. Natural regeneration is the opposite. If you have enough seed trees, the best tree is the naturally regenerated one. It’ll be the right tree in the right place. Most of Europe now uses natural regeneration instead of planting, but the difference is that they have more seed sources. The problem here is that we don’t have many seed trees, we have overgrazing by cattle and sheep, and we also have the problem with deer. So to allow natural regeneration we have to protect the seedlings, and expand out from the original seed sources. That’s why the ancient woodland pockets are crucial. And the corridors would be the hedgerows, rivers and streams. We’d have some targeted planting too, but only in areas where there aren’t enough seed trees, and ensuring that the seed is collected locally. Native trees are adapted to within 10 miles of their place. Oliver Rackham and George Peterken’s research showed this.

We’re spending €100 million per year of public funds on a tree farming model that’s not working for nature or for people. It’s only working for pension funds and a few big saw mills really. There are not enough benefits for local communities or for nature for such a big investment. We also have another problem- the replanting part of this industrial model has gone off a cliff. It’s predicated on a minimum of 10,000 hectares a year of new planting. In the last 4 years, the average was 3000 hectares. In one sense it’s a good thing that people don’t want to plant them as much anymore. But the money- the shortfall- of €9 million was sent back to the exchequer. We believe that this shortfall should have been re-allocated to our ancient woods, and to the corridors, and for riparian setbacks of 5-10 metres either side of rivers and streams, to create a matrix of ecological connectivity. If we can just fence the areas off from predators- the sheep and deer- and if the pioneer species are already in (birch, willow, alder), they can do their job of improving the soil for the bigger canopy trees. Even just for bees and pollinators we can sometimes forget that it’s the trees that are the most successful plants- they’re the largest producers of flowers. For instance a mature oak tree has 284 insect species associated with it. There are up to 2500 species overall that benefit from one mature oak tree. Of that 2500, there are 368 obligate species, meaning that they only live or exist depending on the oak tree. In the European context, in all of nature, the mature oak canopy is considered the climax vegetation, and the best for biodiversity.

Could you explain a little more about why it’s more important to allow the trees to seed themselves rather than planting a sapling, and a little about the mycorrhizal [fungus root] network?

 

On a basic level, we’re going back to the fact that a native tree is adapted to about 10 miles from its place, so the seed of that tree will have the same characteristics of the mother tree, but improved because of cross-fertilisation. It will already have a connection with the fungi, and the seed itself can contain elements of the mycorrhiza which then gives that tree a head start when it lands, and it starts the process quickly of connecting in with the existing network. The planted tree sapling also has probably been nursed in unnatural conditions, fed and forcefully grown and will be weaker than a tree that survives naturally. Remember a birch tree is pumping out millions of seeds, an oak tree thousands, so the ones that survive are the cream of the crop. You could have a little oak tree under a patch of bramble that could be 2 inches high and 5 or 6 years old. But once it makes its way up and gets its head above the bramble it’ll take off because it has already established its root system and it’s connected into the fungal network.

 

But until we have enough seed sources and mother trees we should be looking at a combination of natural regeneration with targeted planting with seeds from local trees. Scotland’s highland restoration project “Trees for Life” came across, and learned from this exact problem. Where they had pockets of old woods there was no problem with regeneration where they fenced off the land around them. But where they didn’t have those mother trees it was much more difficult. So they had to grow trees in situ, in conditions they would have to face when they were planted. That’s the next best thing to natural regeneration.

I’d like to thank Andrew for taking the time to talk to me. 

Visit The Woodland League’s website www.woodlandleague.ie. Their latest campaign to “Save, Restore and Expand our Ancient Temperate Rainforest Remnants, Create Ecological Native Forest Corridors for Connectivity and Reform of Coillte, the Irish Forestry Board” includes an online petition at www.woodlandleagueforestinabox.ie

You can scroll through a gallery of Andrew’s unique wood carving and bespoke furniture pieces at www.acanthus.ie