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In the stark sheep pastures of Ireland’s Maumturk Mountains, just a few gnarled trees cling to the hillside, twisted and bent by decades facing down the raw Atlantic winds. Now this unlikely landscape, where native woodlands have been gone for almost 1,000 years, is at the heart of a bold plan to bring back long-forgotten rainforests.
The nonprofit Hometree, started by a group of surfers, wants to buy 800 hectares of land across eight sites in western Ireland to reforest over the next four years. Then it wants to encourage neighboring farmers to pledge 800 hectares more—yielding a total area just shy of five times that of New York’s Central Park. The hope is that bringing native trees back to parts of this landscape will inspire a much wider reforestation. But the surfers face steep challenges on a coastline where conservation and rewilding can provoke suspicion and anxiety.
For Hometree cofounder and former pro surfer Matt Smith, bringing native forests back to this coast is a logical response to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. “We’re going for it as if it was an emergency,” he says. “We’re just responding with what I believe is a realistic response based on the meaning of the word emergency.”
Forests of oak, birch, and pine once covered the mist-shrouded hills of Ireland’s west coast. But beginning about 6,000 years ago, waves of settlers cut, burned, and sent their flocks to graze on the woods, transforming this once lush, temperate rainforest into a terrain of treeless bogs, heaths, and pastures. Rainforest fragments cling to the landscape where deer and sheep can’t reach—in high mountain cliffs and deep-sided valleys. These woods boast a huge diversity of moisture-loving ferns, mosses, and lichens.
Hometree bought its first site last year, a 113-hectare former sheep farm along the salmon-rich Bealnabrack River in the Maumturk Mountains. Largely denuded of trees, “there’s probably about 10 or 12 native trees on the whole 280 acres,” says Hometree’s project lead Ray Ó Foghlú. A former teacher who returned to college to study environmental science, Ó Foghlú met Smith through the surfing scene. Their group funded the US $700,000 purchase of the site through a mix of small donations and a loan from a philanthropist.
Hometree’s restoration effort, says Ó Foghlú, will be based on the advice of ecologists and foresters. But the tentative vision is to return pine forests to the upper slopes of the valley, willow and alder to the floodplain, and oak and birch to the valley sides. The group will also work to regenerate blanket bogs and protect species-rich grasslands.
But reforestation won’t be easy. Parts of these hills are so bereft of native trees that woods can’t easily regenerate. Centuries of heavy rainfall have also leached nutrients from the soil. James Rainey, an ecologist at Trees for Life, a nonprofit working on rewilding Scottish forests, says that while tree growth in such environments can be slow at first, woods will regenerate if you reduce the grazing pressure, make sure vegetation doesn’t catch fire too often, and ensure there is a local source of tree seeds. “If you have those criteria, you’re going to get recovery,” he says.
It’s about more than trees though. Rainey says specialist wildflowers and lichens may need to be reintroduced to piece the ecosystem back together. He also stresses the need to protect peatlands and other sensitive habitats in these hills. But he believes restoring temperate rainforests is vital. Globally, he says, they can only thrive in narrow climatic bands like the west coast of North America, the south of Chile, and the west of Ireland and Scotland. “We’ve got a massive challenge ahead to restore this ecosystem,” he says.
Yet Hometree’s wider vision could prove a tough sell in a land where native woodlands have been gone for so long. “Three to 5,000 years in most parts of Ireland,” says Ó Foghlú. “They’re not really part of our culture. We’ve become pastoralists, and that’s a reality we have to deal with.”
There is also little financial incentive for farmers to restore forests. Many farmers, says Ó Foghlú, see giving land over to reforestation as permanently taking it out of economic productivity. Farmers don’t see how their children will be able to earn a living from native woodlands in the future, either, Ó Foghlú says. “And as of right now, you’re left with nothing to say to them.”
Many of Ireland’s hill farmers are also skeptical of conservation measures in general. In the 1990s, large tracts of Ireland’s western mountains were designated as conservation zones. Farmers say this was done with little input from landowners, that it restricted farming activity and devalued land, and that the payments offered in return have decreased over time. “The designations and the way they’ve been applied in Ireland has been fairly toxic,” says Vincent Roddy, president of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association. “It’s probably done more to undermine the objectives as regards biodiversity than anything else. … And this is why farmers are very suspicious of anything new.”
But Hometree hopes to make forest restoration worthwhile for farmers. The organization is looking to raise at least $13-million from government, corporate, and philanthropic sources to fund its 1600-hectare ambitions. It says it will put $2.7-million of this into a fund to reward farmers for protecting and restoring woodlands, run community events and school programs, and pay for visitor facilities.
Ó Foghlú imagines a future where farming and forests thrive side by side. He envisages healthy corridors of woodland providing shelter and forage to grazing animals on hill farms, safeguarding water quality, and connecting larger wooded areas. “I do think you can sell the concept of these woodlands on the idea that there are benefits to the farming systems, too,” he says.
If Hometree can demonstrate this along the Bealnabrack River and at its other project sites, the twin goals of thriving forests and thriving farms in these mountains might not seem so poles apart.
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