- Ireland’s Forest Fallacy
When asked to imagine Ireland’s landscape, citizens and visitors alike will allude to rolling green hills, impressive cliffs, and quaint cottages. However, this tourist-board image of a pristine and untouched countryside masks a historical reality: Ireland’s land has been shaped and manipulated by humans for thousands of years. Moreover, the decreasing number of native woodlands and the rise of forestry plantations offer striking evidence of the historic decline of the nation’s natural resources. After the supplanting of a vast network of native woodlands with a smaller-scale monoculture crop of nonnative conifers, today’s deforested expansive fields and large pastures offer a relatively new feature in the country’s landscape history. Scholarly work on the history of Irish woodlands, which has focused on the period between the end of Tudor rule in 1603 and the nineteenth century, typically concludes with a rhetorical question: what will the island become with the continuation of the conifer plantations?1 Investigations in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries reveal that further cultivation of nonnative conifer plantations will not only disastrously harm Ireland’s ecology but also undermine a familiar image of the countryside.
As of 2018 only one percent of Ireland’s native woodlands remained intact.2 Although the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine (DAFM) has made efforts to include native trees in its plans, its priority is to cover 18 percent of Ireland with forestry plantations by 2046, with only 30 percent of that area consisting of broadleaved [End Page 150] species, most often rapidly growing willows.3 Almost three-quarters of all trees in Ireland were under thirty years old by 2019.4 The oak, once prized by the island’s early inhabitants and still a symbol of Irish culture, constitutes only 2.7 percent of the Republic of Ireland’s trees, while the Sitka spruce, a conifer native to North America’s Pacific Northwest, makes up 51 percent.5 The DAFM and Coillte, Ireland’s leading forestry company, lump the few remaining native woodlands together with conifer plantations under the singular term of “forest.” Despite the company’s insistence that it plants forests across Ireland, such cultivation might better be termed the cultivation of conifer crops since these trees are planted and harvested as low-cost commercial produce. A healthy Irish forest includes a rich array of tree and shrub species such as oak, birch, holly, hazel, ash, willow, and rowan that can support a diverse tapestry of animals and wildflowers, not a barren stand of one or two exotic tree species; such a manipulation of language underscores a rhetorical forest fallacy.6
A 2016 study titled “When Is a Forest a Forest? Forest Concepts and Definitions in the Era of Forest and Landscape Restoration” describes the problem of classifications and definitions used in forest management that do not adequately “distinguish between natural and planted forests.” The authors report that such terminologies are “created for the purpose of assessing global forest stocks, which do not distinguish between natural and planted forests or reforests, and which have not proved useful in assessing national and global [End Page 151] rates of forest regrowth and restoration.”7 Using the word “forest” as an umbrella term to describe either native woodlands or conifer plantations undermines actual conservation measures in Ireland and clouds public perception of what is being planted. The recent history of Irish forests conveyed in DAFM statistics—as well as the language on Coillte’s website—relies on such ambiguous terms, causing the public to fall prey to the forest fallacy.
The definition of a forest varies and is determined by users’ goals. For Coillte and the DAFM, as well as the original Free State government, a “forest” simply referred to any tree-covered area in Ireland. Since few realize that a forest can be something other than a vibrant ecosystem, such loose description perpetuates a falsehood. Chazdon et al. describe the multiple purposes that a forest may serve:
From different vantage points, forests can be seen as a source of timber products, an ecosystem composed of trees along with myriad forms of biological diversity, a...