Kevin Myers: It's time we saw the wood for the trees
Published 02/11/2012 | 05:00
PLAGUES spread. That's why they're plagues, and not "outbreaks". The British Ministry of Agriculture did not act on the first warning about the calamitous disease afflicting Danish ash trees, and now it is too late. The fatal fungus that causes "ash dieback" has been found in several sites in the east of England: the toll knells across the English countryside, just as it did 40 years ago with the arrival of Dutch elm disease. Back then, it was assumed -- or at least hoped -- that Dutch elm disease would not cross the Irish Sea. We know the bitter truth today in this now elmless isle.
The chances are, the same calamitous process will destroy our ash population. The lethal fungus has already been reported in Wicklow. If ash dieback repeats the horrors of Dutch elm disease, nature will merely be repeating the sorry practices of mankind in Ireland, which turned a largely afforested island into the least arboreal country in Europe. Yet the first settlers here after the Ice Age had to have arrived with the necessary seeds, for the trees of mainland Europe could not possibly have spread here without direct and intended assistance. Acorns and beechmast could never have got here without help, and though ash seeds are wind-borne, the prevailing winds are in the wrong direction; and anyway, the modest wing on the seed would make a long journey practically impossible.
Certainly, the ancient Gaels revered trees, and ash especially. Iubhdan, King of the Lepra, sang its praises: "Dark is the colour of the ash; timber that makes the wheels to go; rods he furnishes for horsemen's hands, and his form turns battle into flight."
But by the Middle Ages, the tree in Ireland had forfeited common respect. In 1534, the first of many afforesting laws required every farmer "to plant 12 ashes within the ditches and closes of his farm". But such laws made little difference to practice, especially since the Tudors felled forests to deprive the native woodkerns of shelter. It was the common observation among visitors to Ireland from the 17th Century that the countryside was bereft of both trees and of the associated husbandry. "For the natives and possessors of these woods, not observing any seasons nor dividing them into coppices, as they do here, they also do cut down the main timber in all times of the year for their private benefit."
In addition to loss of skills, common English arboreal words -- copse, spinney, grove, hanger -- have no real meaning in Hiberno-English. Two centuries ago, aided by government grants originally from Dublin, and later from London, some 50 million trees were planted across Ireland. Most were beech -- and herein lies the other blade of the environmental scissors about to scythe across the Irish landscape. For the beech tree typically has a lifespan of two centuries. We are thus about to lose our entire population of beech trees, just as the ash plague slaughters the most common tree in our hedgerows.
If this double threat becomes reality, it will constitute the greatest disaster to befall the Irish landscape since the initial destruction of the Irish tree population half-a-millennium ago.
The problem is made more acute by the rising prosperity of our agriculture sector, with soaring food prices causing the price of land to go in the same direction. What incentive is there for farmers to plant trees, with no possible return for decades, when there is instant profit on dairy and beef production? Which of us would forego today's certain profit for someone else's profit in a generation's time?
Yet we are borrowing from that very generation to pay unsustainable pensions to our retired politicians and civil servants: and that unfortunate generation might also inherit a virtually treeless wasteland. The very least we can do is to grant them the bounty of mature timber, which we can do with a major afforestation programme, NOW, before the tree die-offs begin.
THIS can only be achieved with a generous system of grants, accompanied by the re-education of Irish farmers in the lost skills of tree husbandry. But this absolutely must not mean an enlargement of Coillte or Bord na Mona. The State should get completely out of land management, just as it has got out of flying airliners and running telephone exchanges.
However, there seems to be an almost vigorous neglect and dogmatic inertia in how we are responding to the mortal perils facing our countryside. Yet actually, these threats could turn out to be a blessing: they are alerting us to ways of repaying the generation upon whose blameless heads we are landing today's atrocious debts. What glorious stands of trees could be gracing the Irish countryside by 2050 if we act immediately!
The mass-plantation of trees will cause vast amounts of carbon to be sequestered, enabling us to match or even exceed our EU greenhouse gas targets. It just takes some vision and willpower -- qualities as traditionally evident in Leinster House as are cross-town trains today in New York's subway.