John Feehan, in his magisterial 'Farming in Ireland', reports that between 1790 and 1850, some 50 million trees were planted in Ireland: nearly a million a year. That was good news then, and bad news now, because the life-span of the beech-tree is roughly two centuries.
Another tree, the horse chestnut, is under attack from a deadly new virus. In my lifetime, the elm tree, one of the great joys of Irish parkland, has disappeared as totally as the Great Elk. So in addition to bequeathing vast bank-debts to our great grandchildren, are we also going to leave them a landscape without trees?
We already have the least-treed countryside in Europe. Coillte was founded in 1988 to change that. But like many state agencies, it has the communicative skills of mute swans. Check on its website, pray: but in the meantime, allow me . . . Interested in Coillte's "stakeholders" (ah yes, that obligatory buzz-word)? Click on it, and you learn: "Coillte's stakeholder list is under constant review." You are then asked to supply your name and address before you may discover who these "stakeholders" actually are. Interested in buying? Well, click "How to Buy", and you're told: "The Coillte Group conducts the purchase of its goods and services in accordance with the Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies 2009. Goods and services are typically procured by calls to competition in either the 'Official Journal of the European Union' or the Etenders website through competitive tendering processes."
Good: now is that all clear? So: how can a body that speaks in such gibberish to its owners -- you and me -- seriously be expected to rescue our landscape from the ruin that time and viruses have in store for it? And anyway, the issue is not just the large woodland projects that Coillte encourages. Just as pressing -- and even more so in many parts of the country -- are the individual hedgerow trees, which don't attract the grants that Coillte gives for afforestation (if, that is, you are able to hack through Coillte's impenetrable website-thickets with your e-machete).
For it is the individual hedgerow trees -- the ash, the beech, the birch, the sycamore, the oak, and most of all, the sublime whitethorn -- that give our countryside its texture and its appearance, especially when they have spread naturally along the line of the hedgerows, thus sparing them the harrow and the plough. And yes, the hedgerow-offspring of the original trees planted 200 years ago are not in any particular danger from age; but their parents are. In short, over the next quarter of a century we are looking at a near-ecological disaster; for while large, grant-aided and managed woodlands might prosper, the humble unmanaged trees of the field-systems will be dying by the hundreds of thousand, or even millions.
Where I live, in south Kildare, the tree-population is dense but informal: trees seem to cover the landscape, though in fact they are mostly hedge-trees, with fields between them, and with few proper woodlands. What will this landscape be like if we allow the trees that were planted 200 years ago to die of old age or virus attack, without having replacement trees already maturing alongside them? For no sapling can take a grown tree's stead.
There's no easy answer to this. Grants can work, to be sure; but to prevent corruption (What, corruption? In Ireland? Impossible!) they would have to be policed, which is expensive: moreover, our culture bitterly resents an inspectorate intruding on our own affairs, even as it strenuously insists that it should intrude upon the affairs of others.
Indeed, the creation of an ignorance of the countryside was one of the very first legislative acts of the Free State, as it compelled schools, yes, by law, to drop nature-studies from the curriculum. The result? Generations of country folk who don't know the difference between a larch and a lark. And as a matter of interest: when was anyone last prosecuted for felling a tree without the felling-order that the law requires?
John Feehan records that Ireland was originally known as "Inis na bhFiodhbhadh": Island of the Woods. But over recent centuries, trees were seen as the mark of the planter. Kildare people say that the first thing a Wicklow man does on inheriting a farm is to fell all its trees. A Dublin man who bought land in the country was urged by his new neighbour to chop down all the trees. Why? "You'll be kilt with the leaves."
We are historically, ecologically and morally obliged to start planting trees, so two questions follow. Can such a programme be done without state assistance? And if not, how can massive corruption or crippling incompetence be avoided?
The bailout of our banks is child's play compared to the vast task of planting millions of trees, which must start NOW. Kilt with the leaves? Kilt without them.