Health and Fitness

The Irish Atlantic rainforest pulsing life back into the Beara peninsula – The Irish Times

Eoghan Daltun wishes he had a magic gadget to screen swipe the view of his Irish Atlantic rainforest and show us the before. Instead we have to imagine it. The before is more a case of what wasn’t here just over a decade ago.

There were none of the young holly and hazel trees that bend gently to let us wend our way through this regenerating forest. There was no carpet of flowering plants. “There’s self-heal there, there’s herb robert, there’s dog violet there, hybrid kidney saxifrage, or St Patricks cabbage,” Daltun says earlier, pointing to just a small area. He finds a tiny bare area of the path with mud and leaves.

“That’s what the floor of the forest looked like before, with rocks covered in mosses because the grazers didn’t eat the mosses. [There were] some of the ferns and one or two other plants, but from that height down, there was nothing here.”

It’s the absence that snaps into view when you read Daltun’s new book An Irish Atlantic Rainforest. Bare fields suddenly hold the ghosts of forests, and also the promise of them.

We are standing in this gorgeous place on the Beara peninsula in west Cork on a hot summer day. It’s deliciously cool, with the constant sound of trickling streams slowing to pools in places where four-legged pond skaters form vibrating circles on their surface. Daltun has described this temperate rainforest beautifully. It is otherworldly in its beauty. At times you could be underwater, shafts of sun spearing through the layers of light-leafed canopy above, trees and rocks cloaked with mosses thick as duvets, out of which sprout ferns. It is life on life on life.

The best thing we could do to see what wasn’t here in 2009 when he bought the 72-acre, partly-wooded farm would be to head to parts of Killarney National Park now, he explains. In the western parts “towards Kenmare, Molls Gap, there’s nothing there, literally nothing there except for mosses from about that height down because Sika deer, goats, sheep and a few red deer — they just eat everything — and this place was almost exactly the same.”

This precious wildness of the Irish temperate rainforest is perilously close to disappearing. As Daltun explains in the book, “only 19 per cent of Atlantic woodland is in a favourable state, according to a 2012 study. This is such a tragedy, given that these are some of the last remnants of once almost unimaginably rich habitats that covered most — probably around 80 per cent — of this island, but are now down to around a mere 1 per cent.”

The book is both a lament for what’s been lost, and a hopeful story of restoration. In 2009, “on a whole raft of different ways, the place was dying ecologically,” he says. Just 13 years later it is thriving.

Daltun keeps returning to the word “pulse” to describe what happened when he made two key changes. A deer fence was built to protect the woodland, and he cut out and killed the invasive rhododendron. Then the forest pulsed back to life. It is happening at different paces across the farm, but in some areas it was just six years before young trees had formed a closed canopy.

Daltun started writing the book in September 2019. “I was taking my two sons up to a climate march in Cork and I just thought, there was something that had kinda been there in my head for a while. I wanted to write a book that conveyed all the ecology I’ve learned by doing this, but at the same time I’ve read enough books about that sort of stuff to know that it can be a bit dry … I was talking to a friend about it and what she said is ‘what you need to do is just tell your story’.”

Daltun loves being part of a farming community, and has learned much from neighbours who welcomed his family warmly when they arrived

A Dubliner, his story starts with the dramatic moment when he bought a small plot of land in Kilmainham in the 1990s, with the ruins of an old stone cottage atop a mountain of builders rubble. It was to be his first home that wasn’t rented. Over years of hard slog, working with the stone gave him a longing to learn more, and he travelled to Carrara in Northern Tuscany to learn the skills of sculpture. It was in Italy that he first fell in love with the countryside, spending much of his time in abandoned olive groves gone wild, learning the landscape.

On a holiday in Beara in 2008, he climbed over an old stone wall on to part of a farm that was up for sale. “Within seconds I knew with absolute clarity that this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life, if at all possible,” he writes. More than half the farm was commonage, shared with neighbouring sheep farms, steep rocky land with “heart-stopping” views out to the Atlantic. A wilding project was in his thinking.

After his experience of the Tuscan countryside where wilding happened when it was emptied of people, he had wondered “if it might not be possible to make the return of nature instead actually play a contributing role in revitalising declining rural communities”. The book is about teasing that idea out, exploring a possible future where nature and people can thrive together.

Feral goats were the main destroyers of his forest. They’re gone now. “There were about 100 in the area — this was their HQ … Ironically when word went round that this Dublin blow-in tree-hugger had bought this place people said ‘oh we better not shoot the goats because he’ll start making a fuss’. And it was a while before they realised I didn’t like the goats either, and then they carried on.”

Daltun loves being part of a farming community, and has learned much from neighbours who welcomed his family warmly when they arrived. He believes wilding can find peace with farming. Toxic rows help no one.

“I think it’s really important to say that nothing should be imposed on anybody. Nobody should be told: ‘this is what you have to do.’ But at the moment farmers don’t even have the choice to do this because it would mean giving up their livelihood, and I think that needs to change.”

That change needs to happen at European level with the Common Agricultural Policy giving farm payments to farmers who protect and extend natural habitats.

“You’re not talking about people being forced to rewild their land. I think that would be very wrong. All you’re talking about is giving people another option. Society needs much more from the way the land is used than just food production. It needs healthy ecosystems that help stabilise the climate, that produce fresh air, fresh water and above all a stable planet. And it’s just about recognising it.”

For a few years, Daltun farmed sheep on his commonage fields. It was a tough part-time job alongside his work as a sculpture conservator. He swapped the sheep for Dexter cows, a small hardy breed able for the rough ground. But his time as a sheep farmer gave him an insight into its economic realities. Rough commonage sheep-grazed land goes to molinia grass, or fionnán as it’s known locally, and one or two other species able to withstand constant grazing, he explains.

I know that for as long as I live I’ll never get to the stage of thinking ‘yeah it’s nice but I’ve seen everything now’

“It’s a biological deadzone, but the amount of food it produces is practically zero. If you did the arithmetic of the amount of food produced and subtract the amount of food that’s fed to them in terms of sheep nuts and stuff it will work out somewhere like zero.

“So you’re forgoing all of this [he gestures to the rich glowing green forest] in terms of preventing ecological collapse, climate collapse; large scale places like this in Ireland, what it would do for tourism, what it would do for mental health, what it would do on all sorts of different levels? And yet we’re forgoing all that, for almost no reason.”

He is firmly convinced that giving farmers the option to wild land will result in a significant shift. “I do think if you manage to change the farm subsidies criteria to make letting your land go back to nature eligible for farm subsidies in exactly the same way as grazing sheep you’d get some people who’d say: ‘no it’s my identity, I like grazing sheep, it’s my way of life. My family have done it forever I’m going to carry on doing it.’ Fine. You’d get other people who’d say ‘great’, either because they love nature or because almost all of the farmers in a place like this are only part-time.

The really sad thing is there’s so little of this left, and nearly all of it is completely and utterly wrecked

“They all have some other job, and to have the option to let that land go back to nature so they don’t have to spend their weekends running around after sheep or dosing them or shearing them or whatever, a huge amount would say ‘well I’ll take that option’. Others will say ‘I’ll do a bit of both’.”

Wilded areas need managing, but it is less work than livestock farming. Daltun spots a young rowan tree in a sea of green bracken and gently tramples the bracken down around it.

Does he spot new things every time he comes in here?

“I do,” he says with a broad grin. “Yeah, it’s one of the most amazing aspects of having a relationship with a wild place like this. I know that for as long as I live I’ll never get to the stage of thinking ‘yeah it’s nice but I’ve seen everything now’, because it’s constantly changing and morphing, with new things arriving.” Pine martens moved in a couple of years ago, otters are showing up in the stream, and his farm is home to lesser horseshoe bats and barn owls. “It’s fantastic just to see that coming back to life.”

In this summer of drought, his forest is full of water. “Places like this are like huge sponges, so when it lashes rain all winter, these places are absorbing a lot of that water. Where you have this kind of vegetation, the soils are very porous. Up on the commonage, when it rains the water just flashes off it, whereas here the water is sucked up and then it continues to release gradually over time. You’re looking at the solution to flooding and droughts in one fell swoop,” he says.

“So there are so many different reasons for bringing back places like this on a big scale. For me the biggest one is that we are in the midst of an ecological crisis of terrifying proportions. People are rightly extremely worried about climate breakdown, but for me, the die-off of nature and natural eco systems is an even worse problem. The two shouldn’t be seen separately, because they’re facets of the same thing.”

On the drive back to Cork, the fields look bare, grazed to the bone. And the windscreen is clear.

We talk about the privilege and joy of owning or even visiting this beautiful place. “The really sad thing is there’s so little of this left, and nearly all of it is completely and utterly wrecked … So most people struggle to relate to something that they’ve never experienced. And yet this is part of the heritage of every single person of this country and beyond. There are so many thousands of different species living here.”

Does he feel like he owns it? “I do in human terms. That’s something very constructed, I think. In terms of real ownership, absolutely not. I mean how could you? Ask any of these trees or plants or birds if I own it and you’ll get a quick enough answer.” He flows into a West Cork lilt. “Ha. Yer man, the Dublin jackeen …”

On the way out he points to pine marten droppings, left near a path to be visible to another pine marten as a territory marking. We close the gate in the deer fence and leave behind his beautiful world. On the drive back to Cork, the fields look bare, grazed to the bone. And the windscreen is clear.

Only the dust of the winding West Cork roads with their thundering lorries has accumulated on its surface. No insects in over 240km. An absence of life that only a generation that remembers cleaning crusted windscreens would notice. It’s a stark reminder of a natural world in peril. The Beara Rainforest shows how richly it can pulse back to life, and how urgently we need to help that to happen.

An Irish Atlantic Rainforest, A Personal Journey into the Magic of Rewilding by Eoghan Daltun is published by Hachette Books

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