Forests in Ireland

September 2, 2012, 11:47 am
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North Atlantic moist mixed forest stand, Cahercommaun, Burren. @ C.Michael Hogan

Forests in Ireland are presently dominated by plantations of non-native conifers created with the objective of timber and pulp production, despite the fact that the natural forest in this humid temperate climate is composed of mixed broadleaves. Original forests were comprised of North Atlantic moist mixed forests in the west and Celtic broadleaf forests elsewhere in Ireland.The landscape of Ireland has been greatly affected by people since they first arrived about 8500 years ago. The broadleaf forests which remain today in Ireland cover about one percent of the land area, with another nine percent of the land area planted in the last 80 years for timber. These recent plantations are primarily composed of non-native species, mainly conifers. In recent years, incorporation in government policy of the principles of sustainable forest management has inspired major changes in forest management.


Ireland is an island on the western periphery of Europe, at a latitude of 53°N and longitude of 8°W (just west of the Greenwich Meridian). That’s further north than many Canadian cities such as Vancouver or Calgary. However, the Gulf Stream, which is called the North Atlantic Drift in Ireland, brings a warm current of water from the Gulf of Mexico up along the west coast of Europe, making the climate of Ireland much milder and moister than North American areas at the same latitude.

The eastern side of Ireland receives about 850 millimeters (mm) (34 inches) of rain a year, while the west is wetter, with parts receiving up to about 3000 mm (118 inches) annually, and more on the mountain tops. Because the winters are generally above freezing, nearly all the precipitation comes as rain. Mild temperatures – averaging between two and 18 degrees Celsius (34 to 64°F) winter or summer – result in relatively little evapotranspiration. So, moisture is a dominant factor. Grasslands can be waterlogged, especially in winter, limestone areas develop winter/vernal lakes called turloughs, and there are a lot of bogs and other peatlands. In the West, the mountains bear blanket bog - peatlands which creep up the hills. The forests are often rich in mosses and liverworts hanging from trees and coating rocks, especially along the western Atlantic coast.

Forests in Ireland

Ireland currently has about 10% of its land area under forest. Commercial timber and pulp production has been the main focus, and the plantations are often even-aged and composed of non-native conifers which grow quickly in the temperate, moist climate. Some of the dominant species used are from the West coast of North America: for example, Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) is the most commonly used species. However, since 2002, the Irish government has supported establishment and expansion of native forests for timber, conservation, recreation, landscape, and other management objectives. Other recent innovations in subsidies include an environmental forestry scheme for farmers and a grant to help development of forests for recreation.

Ireland is in the temperate zone, and its natural potential forest is broadleaf forest. Broadleaf tree species currently cover about one percent of the land area of Ireland. Part of this broadleaf forest area includes a small but significant area of native woodland, some of which are unique habitat types in Europe. The rest of the landscape is used primarily for sheep and cattle pasture, along with silage, hay meadows, and some arable cropping.

History of forests and land use in Ireland

caption Forest plantation on former pasture in western County Galway. (Credit: Sasha Bosbeer)

People have lived in Ireland for at least 8500 years. The first people were primarily hunters and gatherers. They came to an island where successive ice ages had resulted in relatively few native plants and animals. (Ireland has about 1300 native vascular plants, including about twenty-five species of tree, most of which are broadleaves.) Neolithic farmers arrived nearly 6000 years ago, and they initiated a process of dramatic changes to the landscape, ecology, and soils. For example, removal of forest cover by Neolithic farmers in the Western county of Clare resulted in loss of nearly all the soil, and this area, called the Burren, is valued today as a special habitat of exposed limestone pavement with a particular flora.

Trees were used extensively by early Irish residents - for buildings, roads, wheels, and bowls. The size of some trees is indicated by a dugout oak canoe over 15 metres (m) (over 16 yards) long and about 1½ m (59 inches) wide found in a bog in the western county of Galway and dated to 4500 years ago. Law texts preserved from the 7th and 8th centuries AD specified who could harvest different types of forest produce and the amounts that could be taken. Bees, bier wood, firewood, and other products were all subject to regulation. Trees were important to the economy because they provided food in the form of fruit and nuts, animal fodder in the form of acorns and ivy and holly foliage, and fuel as wood and charcoal. Trees were also used to delineate land. These descriptions and regulations imply that the landscape was already mainly deforested. This lack of forest probably persisted for centuries, although tree planting, colonization of abandoned fields by natural regeneration, and felling all took place.

More recent political changes in Ireland, over the last several hundred years, has meant replanting was not a priority: owners who felt they might have to leave their land would be less likely to plant trees they might never be able to harvest the timber or other products. There were laws protecting forests: a law enacted by Elizabeth I in 1558 required enclosure for four years following coppicing and the retention of 12 taller trees per acre (30/hectare) when a coppice or underwood of 24 years’ growth or less was felled. Planting of trees for timber, orchards, hedgerows between fields, was also encouraged over the centuries. Trees were planted for landscape design, mimicking wildwood in some cases in Romantic fashions, and also to show status by having exotics such as lime.

New forests were being established and old ones removed. A comparison by Oliver Rackham of the 17th century Civil Survey with the Ordnance Survey of 200 years later shows that only about a tenth of the 17th century forests survived, although new woodlands had also been planted by the time of the 1830s Ordnance Survey. By 1841, there was an estimated 140,000 hectares (346,000 acres) of additional forest. However, this had little effect on a largely deforested country; at the beginning of the 20th century, Ireland had less than 1.6% forest cover. These remaining forests had been in large part over-exploited or neglected. This was exacerbated by the change from tenancy to owner-occupied farming from the late 1800s onwards. This new generation of landowners had no tradition, skills or desire to become forest managers. 

caption Restoring native oak woodland (tubed to prevent deer damage). (Credit: Sasha Bosbeer)

State forestry began in 1904 with the purchase of a forest experimental station. The aim in the 20th century has been to expand the forest area, mostly with exotic conifers, and also to create employment. Much of the land available for afforestation included areas not very useful for farming, resulting in afforestation of peatland and mountains which would not be planted today. The main commercial tree species planted during the 20th century in Irish forests came from humid western North America: Sitka spruce, Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta). Forests were managed in a manner similar to arable farming, with a focus on rapid production. This meant using relatively short rotations, and straightforward, even-aged, single species systems were favored.

During the first 75 years of the 20th century, forestry in Ireland was mainly State-controlled. The progress of afforestation was initially slow: by 1951, less than two percent of the Republic of Ireland was under forest. In 1948, a target of 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) per year was set. This target was reached in the 1960s, a time of great activity in land acquisition and State forest planting. By the 1980s, the afforestation program had increased tree cover to over 7% of the country. Subsidies from the European Union encouraged an increased in private afforestation. The recent focus on farm forestry has resulted in a significant improvement in the quality of land being planted. The availability of more fertile land and mineral soils has made it possible to establish a more diverse range of tree species, both conifer and broadleaf. In 2002, a subsidy was introduced to support the conservation and expansion of native forests. This scheme marks a turning point in attitudes towards forest, with conservation being valued alongside broadleaf timber production. Today, 30% of all new planting is comprised of broadleaf species such as oak (Quercus spp.), ash (Fraxinus excelsior), alder (Alnus glutinosa), beech (Fagus sylvatica, not native), and sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus, not native).

Focusing on the production of timber is not a new trend, but it is now part of a wider consideration of the role of forests. In 1998, Ireland committed to the principles of Sustainable Forest Management (SFM), which comprises three pillars: social, environmental, and economic. Sustainable management incorporates management and use of forests in a manner which allows maintenance of their ability to continue to fulfill social, economic and ecological functions into the future. Biodiversity, recreation, and other non-timber functions are increasingly being considered in forest management.


This article is based in part on the introduction by Bosbeer, S., Denman, H., Hawe, J., Hickie, D., Purser, P., and Walsh, P. (2008). Review of Forest Policy for the Heritage Council.

Further Reading

  • Bosbeer, S., Denman, H., Hawe, J., Hickie, D., Purser, P., and Walsh, P. (2008). Review of Forest Policy for the Heritage Council.
  • Cross, J.R. (2006) “The potential natural vegetation of Ireland” Biology and Environment 106B, 65-116.
  • Dupouey J.l., Dambrine, E., Laffite J.D., and Moares C. (2002) ‘’Irreversible impact of past land use on forest soils and biodiversity’’ Ecology 83, 2978-2984.
  • Forest Service (2000a) Code of Best Forest Practice. Forest Service, Dublin.
  • Fossitt J.A. (2000). A Guide to Habitats in Ireland. Heritage Council, Kilkenny. ISBN: 1901137279.
  • Iremonger, S., O’Halloran, J., Kelly, D.L., Wilson, M.W., Smith, G.F., Gittings, T., Giller, P.S., Mitchell, F.J.G., Oxbrough, A., Coote, L., French, L., O’Donoghue, S., McKee, A.-M., Pithon, J., O’Sullivan, A., Neville, P., O’Donnell, V., Cummins, V., Kelly T.C., and Dowding P. (2007) Biodiversity in Irish Plantation Forests: Final Report. Environmental Protection Agency, Johnstown Castle, Wexford.
  • Kelly, F (1997). Early Irish farming: A study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD. Early Irish Law Series Vol IV. School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, Ireland.
  • Mitchell, F. and Ryan, M. (2001) Reading the Irish Landscape. TownHouse, Dublin. ISBN: 1860590551.
  • Neeson, E. (1991). A History of Irish Forestry. The Department of Energy and the Lilliput Press, Dublin, Ireland. ISBN: 0946640718.
  • O'Leary T.N., McCormack, A.G., and Clinch, J.P. (1999). Afforestation in Ireland: Regional differences in attitude Environmental Studies Research Series Working Paper 99/10. Department of Environmental Studies, UC Dublin.
  • Otto, H-J (2004). Approaches of Close to Nature Silviculture in Sitka Spruce Pioneer Plantations in Ireland. Pro Silva Ireland.
  • Rackham, O (1995) “Looking for ancient woodland in Ireland” In Pilcher, J.R., and Mac an tSaoir, S.S., eds. Wood, trees and forests in Ireland. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, Ireland. p1-12. ISBN: 1874045232.




Bosbeer, S. (2012). Forests in Ireland. Retrieved from


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