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‘the Result Was Amazing’: One Man’s Mission to Reforest a Barren Irish Hillside

Eoghan Daltun has spent 14 years rewilding part of Beara peninsula into a showcase of diversity

Eoghan Daltun stood on a slope and pointed to a distant vista of verdant fields, craggy hills and conifer trees across the Beara peninsula in west Cork.

Sun glinted off the rocks and sheep grazed in meadows. It was serene – the sort of bucolic panorama that draws tourists and appears on Irish postcards to embody the Emerald Isle.

Daltun, however, had news for anyone tempted to marvel at nature’s majesty. “It’s ecological illiteracy. They can’t read the landscape they’re looking at. That is a completely barren landscape. It is biologically empty.”

The scenery, he said, represented environmental degradation. The sheep had devoured wild flowers and seedlings, preventing native trees from growing, and the conifers were part of a monoculture plantation that devastated biodiversity. “We are in the midst of a serious ecological crisis.”

Daltun is a pioneer in a rewilding movement that seeks to restore native forests that once blanketed 80% of Ireland and now cover just 1%, one of the lowest rates in Europe.

Over the past 14 years the farmer-cum-activist, author and sculptor has turned 30 acres of rugged hillside in Beara, a windswept peninsula overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, into a showcase of biodiversity and climate action.

He pointed at the ground. “Within 3 metres of where we are standing you have at least six species of wild native trees, all self-seeded – sessile oak, rowan, downy birch, hawthorn, hazel, holly.” Daltun peered at a seedling. “Actually seven, there’s a willow. They can keep on growing because there is nothing to eat them.”

The site now has forest canopy and an abundance of insects and native mammals, such as pine martens, otters and lesser horseshoe bats. Wrens chirp from nests and ravens fly overhead. A recent drought dried up nearby streams but water still trickled through Daltun’s property.

“A natural forest retains water like a giant sponge. The soils are more porous. The roots and mosses absorb the moisture and let it out slowly. The whole ecosystem has started to function again properly.”

Daltun is part of a global effort to rewild gardens, estates and countryside to try to halt catastrophic biodiversity losses.

Ireland is famously pastoral and in 2019 became the second country in the world after Britain to declare a climate emergency. But it is one of the EU’s worst carbon emission offenders and has struggled to protect ancient bogs and contain rhododendron. It has increased forest cover to 11% – still low by European standards – but almost all is sitka spruce and other monoculture plantations, which critics say are ecological dead zones.

Rewilding initiatives have spread. Trinity College Dublin replaced manicured lawns in 2020 with turf that included 25 types of native Irish wildflower, resulting in a riot of colour and foliage three years later. Randal Plunkett, who owns an estate in County Meath, replaced cattle, sheep and many crops with wilderness. Ireland’s Health Service Executive said last week it may rewild the grounds of its headquarters.

The fencing and the rhododendron extirpation let indigenous nature flourish. Daltun, who keeps a small number of cattle on a separate parcel of land, also favours severe culling of feral goats and sika deer – a pleasant surprise to neighbouring farmers who were unsure what to expect from a Dublin environmentalist. “We either start protecting the little natural habitats we have left or we lose them,” said Daltun.

Last year he published a book, An Irish Atlantic Rainforest: a Personal Journey into the Magic of Rewilding, that caught the public’s imagination and won international plaudits. “There has been a massive reaction. Awareness is increasing.”

Unlike Scotland, where a handful of wealthy estate owners can rewild vast tracts, rural Ireland is divided into smallholdings. Daltun said significant action would require subsidies, community consultation and popular support. “Rewilding can be seen as a rich person’s hobby. It’s really important that ecological and social justice go hand in hand.”

Source : theguardian.com