Trees have a magical place in Irish hearts

In her weekly Gardening column, Olive Ryan looks at the importance of trees, the exploitation of woodlands and what we can do about it
Trees have a magical place in Irish hearts

An elder in full bloom, growing out of a rock — these were classified as Shrub Trees in Brehon Laws.

TREES are unique, and will always play an important role in our lives. When we first arrived on this island circa 7000BC, the land was predominantly woodland. Birch and Willow were the first tree colonists, soon followed by Scots pine, joined later by Oak and Elm.

Over time, the more established woodland consisted of mature deciduous Oak and pine forestry. However, this dominance would not last and change was afoot. The initial inhabitants, the Mesolithic hunters did little harm to the woodlands as they mainly hunted and fished and did not till the land or keep flocks. It was 6,000 years ago when the first signs of deforestation started to become evident in the west of Ireland and the south midlands.

As a result of a colder, wetter climate, conditions were ideally suited for the increase in the growth of blanket bogs and this, combined with the development of tools and agricultural practices, led to the clearing of land by Neolithic farmers, contributing to a sizeable decline in woodland. Land clearance alone was not the sole reason or cause of deforestation. Years of clearance was offset in time with the natural re-establishment of our woodlands.

 The oak tree, another of the Chieftain Trees under Brehon Law.
The oak tree, another of the Chieftain Trees under Brehon Law.

There were other factors responsible for the loss of woodland such as disease. Elm was hit particularly hard, leading to an almost complete wipe out by the 7th century AD. The spreading of fires due to moor-burning, from mountaintop heathers down onto the slopes, kiled newly established oak plantations, another factor in the destruction of our woodland.

It was in more recent times that the exploitation of woodlands occurred. Prior to the 1600s, there were still large pockets of woodland in Ireland, despite major population increases. The arrival of the Anglo-Normans upped the ante with regards the harvesting of trees for timber. The real damage and pressures on trees occurred through the increase in industrialisation and the need for vast quantities of charcoal for smelting iron ores. Charcoal was produced through the process of burning coppiced wood with Oaks targeted for use in the production of staves for the manufacturing of wine casks.

As deforestation in England was at a far more advanced stage, a large quantity of timber was also exported for its shipbuilding industry. The plantations and the arrival of settlers from Scotland, Wales and England also contributed to deforestation. The increased need for agricultural land for cultivation and livestock, along with large population increases, resulted in the loss of the majority of woodland on the island by 1800.

 Crab apples were Chieftain Trees.
Crab apples were Chieftain Trees.

It is sad to reflect on the scale of destruction and exploitation our woodlands have experienced, but it is also important to note that by going back as far as Brehon Law times, we know trees were very much protected and an important part of a community. Crimes to trees fell under the remit of trespass upon land. Trespass upon land was divided into man-trespass and beast-trespass. The majority of man-trespass (or crimes) occurred when trees were damaged or felled on another person’s land and taken, likewise for the cutting and removal of turf or rushes from another person’s land.

Interestingly, under Brehon law not all trees were ‘equally noble’. Instead they were organised into four groups of seven trees — Seven Chieftain trees, Seven Common trees, Seven Shrub trees and Seven Bramble trees, with the ‘dire’ fine for the damage or removal of a tree all varying. An example being the ‘dire’ fine of the oak, one of the seven Chieftain trees. A cow hide was payable for the removal or stripping of bark deemed sufficient in quantity to tan enough leather to make a pair of woman’s shoes, while an ox-hide was payable for the removal of bark enough to tan a pair of men’s shoes.

It did not stop there. Until the tree had healed satisfactorily, a paste made from smooth clay, cow dung and new milk was to be applied to the area from where the bark was stripped, spread to an area extending two fingers beyond the wound.

For the more extreme act of cutting the trunk, the equivalent of two and a half milk cows was payable. Damaging or felling a Chieftain tree was deemed to be similar to injuring or killing a human Chieftain and as a result carried a similar punishment or fine.

The Chieftain trees were Oak, Hazel, Holly, Yew, Ash, Scots Pine and Crab Apple. The Common trees were Alder, Willow, Hawthorn, Mountain Ash, Birch, Elm, Wild Cherry. The Shrub trees were Whitethorn, Blackthorn, Elder, Spindle tree, Test tree (currently unidentified), Ivy, White Hazel. The Bramble trees were Briars, Furze, Heath, Gooseberry, Broom and Fern.

Such protection and categorisation is sure to have contributed to the protection and retaining of our woodlands prior to the 1600s.

In recent years, efforts to raise awareness into the importance of trees and in particular our native ones has led to an increase in community orientated tree planting events, with more trees also being designated for special protection. Our native woodlands can continue to be a unique, important part of our heritage and it is possible for us all to contribute.

Fuchsia procumbens
Fuchsia procumbens

Plant of The Week

Very different to the shrubs we are familiar with from the genus, Fuchsia procumbens is a trailing variety native to New Zealand.

It has small leaves, attractive bright purple anthers and yellow flowers developing throughout the plant. Once these die off an edible dark purple coloured fruit is formed, so whether it be displayed in the greenhouse or planted out to the edge of a border, Fuchsia procumbens will provide interest from early May right into autumn.

Grow in moist, well drained soil and in sun or partial shade, they can survive temperatures down to as low as -5.

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