A mix of natural and human influences is evident in the woodland history of Ireland since the end of the last glacial phase about ten thousand years ago. Ireland was then a treeless tundra, which gradually became colonized by woodlands in which willows, birch, hazel, and pine were represented. By about 7000 B.P., woodland may have covered at least 80 percent of Ireland. Species emerging as dominant during a relatively stable climatic climax-phase were elm and hazel in the midlands, alder in wet habitats, oak on the more acid soils of the south and northeast, and pine on the more exposed acid soils of the northwest (Pilcher and Mac an tSaoir; Mitchell and Ryan). Some other species widespread in the postglacial forests of Britain and mainland Europe; for example, lime, sycamore, beech and horse chestnut did not establish themselves in Ireland at this time.
Later species changes can be linked to climate change (notably, the wetter and cooler conditions after c. 6200 B.P.), disease, and human activity. A widespread abrupt decline in the elm population around 5900 B.P. has been attributed to the spread of disease and to the clearances of early Neolithic farmers. Wetter conditions and human activity can be readily associated with the expansion of blanket bog and the decline of the pine from about 4000 b.p.
Significant clearances of woodland for farming must have occurred throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages and in later periods, but their precise scale, extent, and phasing remains open to debate. Some pollen analyses, and the widespread distribution of over 40,000 raths (circular earthwork), suggest that large areas had been cleared by early Christian/early medieval times. References in early Christian law tracts may be interpreted as indicating that some trees then had a scarcity value. However, trees and woods feature prominently in place-names, and documentary records from late medieval times and into the seventeenth century support the local significance of extensive tracts of both oak woods and secondary "shrubby woods." Some early maps—for example, one that shows parts of the east midlands in the 1550s and Baptista Boazio's general map of Ireland in 1599—depict a landscape where lowland woods and bogs were locally prominent, particularly in Ulster and along some river valleys.
Although some estimates place the proportion much lower (Pilcher and Mac an tSaoir), as much as one-eighth of Ireland may have been wooded about 1600 c.e. (McCracken). Much of this woodland was cleared over the next century. Commemorated in evocative Irish language poetry as well as in more prosaic estate and customs records, these clearances may have been on occasion for security reasons (to remove the hiding places of rebels and robbers, the "woodkerne" and "tories"), but they were mainly economically inspired, with Irish timber being used locally by tanneries and for coopering and iron-smelting, and being exported for staves and shipbuilding. By the early 1700s the timber resource had been largely exploited; woodland covered less than 2 percent of the island. Only a few pockets of older native woods (e.g., the Killarney broadleaves and the Geeragh in the Lee valley) survived.
The creation of formal avenues and gardens, and the planting (supported by nurseries and nurserymen) of fruit trees and orchards around landlord houses in the late seventeenth century promoted a range of introduced species, among them beech, sycamore, walnut, lime, and horse chestnut. These developments, and the more general planting of hedgerows, foreshadowed an interest in trees and plantations that expanded during the later eighteenth century as large demesnes in the contemporary "natural landscape" idiom were created to offset landlord big houses. Improvement-minded landlords became responsible for the introduction of an ever-wider range of new species (including various conifers and American varieties of elm and birch) and for the creation of new plantations. Their activities were boosted further by the Dublin Society (founded in 1731), which offered premiums for tree planting, and from 1698 by a series of legislative acts promoting the planting of trees. Records of tenant planting survive as the "tree registers" of over a dozen counties.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century, scientific support was being given for a program of afforestation. In the 1880s, as landlord insecurity intensified, much privately inspired planting yielded to felling and the sawmill. Coincidentally, government economic-development initiatives included a report (1883) concluding that some 2 million hectares (over 25 percent of the land area), much of it in western areas, were more suited for trees than anything else. An ill-fated planting experiment (1889–1898) failed at windswept Knock-boy, Co. Galway, but in 1903, when little more than 1 percent of Ireland was under woodland, a sustained state forestry program began.
In its early decades afforestation progressed slowly. Only some 1,200 hectares had been planted by the 1921 partition, but by the late 1930s annual plantings stood at about 3,100 hectares in the south and 400 hectares north of the border. From the late 1940s, both governments set higher annual planting targets. Social needs, particularly job creation in western areas, influenced expansion, while newly introduced mechanical techniques for deep plowing facilitated site preparation. Annual planting levels of 10,000 hectares in the republic and 2,000 hectares in Northern Ireland were reached during the early 1960s.
The main focus for most of the twentieth century was to plant quick-growing species, with the result that conifers accounted for over 90 percent of all plantings. In both parts of the island, the most favored species was Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), followed, in the republic, by lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), and in Northern Ireland by Norway spruce (Picea abies). Planting was mainly on cheaply purchased marginal land, including cutaway and blanket bog and unenclosed hill slopes. Little attention was paid to the low-potential forest productivity of some of these areas. Although recreational possibilities were recognized and some forest parks were developed, little consideration was given to the visually obstructive and trivializing impact of forestry on areas of outstanding natural beauty.
Reappraisals of forestry policy in both parts of Ireland during the 1980s produced a more explicitly commercial orientation alongside greater environmental sensitivity. A new state company, Coillte, was formed (1988) in the Republic to manage the maturing state forests and to undertake new planting. Assigned explicitly commercial priorities, Coillte also had to consider recreational and environmental issues. Greater private participation and greater planting on agricultural land were now actively encouraged. Accompanied by a range of attractive tax and other incentives, and organized within the context of European Union operational programs, these measures generated unprecedented annual planting levels and succeeded in encouraging farmers and investment cooperatives to such an extent that from 1990 new planting by the private sector outstripped that of the state. With forestry regarded as a particularly appropriate land-use option in many western areas, private planting was particularly extensive in the counties of Clare, Kerry, and Leitrim.
At the start of the present century, some 640,000 hectares of the republic (9 percent of the total area) were devoted to forest or woodland. This was 250,000 hectares greater than in 1980—an indication of the scale of late-twentieth-century landscape change. Forest cover was most extensive in Counties Wicklow and Waterford (20 and 16 percent of the total area, respectively) and least extensive in County Meath (2 percent) and parts of the north midlands (4 percent). With over 16,000 persons employed in forestry and related activities, the spin-off effects of earlier development were evident in an active timber-processing industry. In Northern Ireland, 82,000 hectares (6 percent of the total area) were under forest, some 15,000 hectares more than in 1980.
Some attempt had been made during the 1990s to increase the proportion of broadleaf planting, yet by 2000 little more than one-fifth of all new plantings in the republic were broadleaved. Reservations about the continued emphasis on conifers had been expressed by the European Commission and others, while concerns had also been raised about the degradation of attractive landscapes, the destruction of biodiversity, and the negative impact of conifer-dominated afforestation on surface-water acidification, run-off, and flooding (Heritage Council 1999). But government policy favored a further increase in the forest cover on account of its value as an alternative to agriculture, its appeal to rural tourism, its potential multiplier effects for employment, and its potential as a carbon store absorbing carbon dioxide.
With the aim of creating a "sustainable critical mass" of 1.2 million hectares (17 percent of the land area), by 2030, a future planting target was set for the Republic of Ireland of 20,000 hectares per annum. The agenda for the early twenty-first century was marked, in both parts of Ireland, by a state-supported commitment to sustainability guidelines and to policies involving greater diversity in the age and species of trees, more discriminatory landscaping, and felling programs, and the reversion of former old woodland to its preplantation composition. These measures will favor more broadleaf planting within more holistic landscape and ecological contexts.
Heritage Council (Ireland). Policy Paper on Forestry and the National Heritage. 1999.
McCracken, Eileen M. The Irish Woods since Tudor Times: Their Distribution and Exploitation. 1971.
Mitchell, Frank, and Michael Ryan. Reading the Irish Landscape. 1997.
Neeson, Eoin. A History of Irish Forestry. 1991.
Pilcher, Jon R., and Sean Mac an tSaoir. Woods, Trees and Forests in Ireland. 1995.
Tomlinson, Roy. "Forests and Woodlands." In Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape, edited by Frederick H. A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan, and Matthew Stout. 1997.