Who would you like to leave in charge of our forests?

Sat, Dec 15, 2012, 00:00

ANOTHER LIFE:Simon Coveney faces mounting resistance to plans for the 4,500sq km of public woodland

The drive to Louisburgh these evenings, eight miles door to door, offers a scatter of lights in near-total darkness, unless the moon is up over Mweelrea or all the stars are out. Only at the crossroads and the church does a flare of orange street lamps scorch the night, leaving Our Lady starkly spotlit in white among the graves. Otherwise, for most of winter, the journey is a sparse peep show of domesticity: glimpses in amber, shot with telly blue.

Now, however, in darker reaches towards the shore, windows are aglow with gloriously jewelled triangles, icons of the Christmas tree even where bringing in the real thing might have passed its best years of festive promise.

In the early Christmases, still with a trailer for the car, we made an expedition to prune a tree-shaped branch from the wind-blown casualties of the forest over the hill. Today it’s a far smaller, slimline version, severed from the prostrate yew in the garden. This has quite enough branches to give us a few more years, and at least it doesn’t drop its needles.

Outside of arboreta and big-house estates, the non-shed noble firs of Christmas, Abies procera, are held to a juvenile, shapely stature, their plantations under guard against hackers, or whatever the rustlers of trees should be called. (“Rustlers” is actually quite good.) But how do we feel, now, about the workaday Sitka spruce and Lodgepole pine of the 4,500sq km of public forest? How much would we care if the rights to fell and sell them, now with the semi-State Coillte, were auctioned off to private companies or consortia?

Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney hasn’t quite decided on this, but he reckons the deal might be worth up to €1.8 billion once the standing timber is valued.

Some of this, he soothes, would go to a programme of further afforestation. In selling off harvesting rights for terms of 50 to 80 years, he has said, he would keep the legal obligation to replant forestry land that has been harvested and do his best to leave “high amenity areas” alone.

He faces mounting resistance, not least from Coillte’s branch of Impact, the public-service union, and the Society of Irish Foresters. Planters, loggers, road-builders and silviculturists are unanimously appalled.

The Impact manifesto, Save Our Forests, is a beautifully leafy production, with forest views shared judiciously between workaday conifers and seductive glades of the many great broadleaf trees that Coillte has under its wing. Its language, too, can be uplifting: “The intergenerational commitment implicit in the creation and stewardship of forests means they are best owned by altruistic and long-surviving institutions like the great land owning families, monasteries or nation states. Ceding their control to quick-buck (or even slow-buck) harvesters would diminish Ireland as a progressive nation.”

Who, it demands, would trust them to look after Coillte’s 23,000km of forest roads or guarantee the public’s right to walk them; who would police company promises about caring for forest streams, biodiversity, species mix, landscape design? (For Impact’s own text and pictures, go to saveourforests.ie.)

Since so much new forest planting, on better and private land, was passed to farmers and investors, Coillte has been free to improve its green credentials, adopting sustainable forest methods, restoring ancient woods and redundant bogs and respecting the marginally wild.

Hand-on-heart blandishments of private enterprise may tempt the Minister but, like the thousands of Irish people who enjoy a walk in the woods, I know who I’d rather leave in charge.

New books

Two more “local” books earn notice in time for Christmas, both excellent examples of publications that grants from the Heritage Council have helped to make possible.

First, in my own county, a splendidly produced pocket guide to Ireland’s longest off-road cycle and walking trail, some 43km long, that wraps around the rim of Clew Bay from Westport to Achill, following the path first set by the old railway line.

The Great Western Greenway (€12.99 from greatwesterngreenway guide.com) marks the success of a community venture that managed to conjure goodwill from 161 farmers along the way. Iris Galloway’s lively guide delves beyond delights of scenery and wildlife to the human story of the landscape.

Townlands: A Habitation (€20 at townlands.net), an elegant book in large format, celebrates another remarkable venture, the Townland Project, in which the people of Johnswell, in north Co Kilkenny, have been exploring their landscape and community. From family names, field names, memories and perceptions, they have woven a portrayal of their place in Ireland to inspire the new interest in the local and enduring.

The project has attracted poets and writers (Dervla Murphy among them), and the book’s great visual pleasures reflect the engagement of editor Alan Counihan and fellow artist Gypsy Ray, both of the Johnswell community.

Eye on Nature Your observations and questions

I’m happy to report a sighting of a red squirrel on the back road in Kilpedder, about a mile south of Glen of the Downs. Is this the first return to the Garden County in over 25 years?

Catherine McGrane Kilpedder, Co Wicklow

Red squirrels have been long established in Wicklow, but they are under threat at present from a virus being spread by grey squirrels.

In August rooks attacked the unripe Bramley apples in my garden. I shot one and hung up the carcass. That ended their attack. After I harvested the crop in November and removed the carcass, the flock returned within the hour to eat the remaining apples. Were they particularly hungry because of the bad summer?

Anthony Deevy Killoteran Co Waterford

Rooks will eat any food on offer.

Among the tits at my feeder stations I see an unusual one with a blackish head and a paler body. I’m quite sure it is a marsh tit.

Justin Doyle Virginia, Co Cavan

It is more likely to be a coal tit.

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