When the first Neolithic families migrated to Ireland around 4000 BCE they found an island that was overwhelmingly forested, with at least 80% tree cover. Primordial, post-glacial woodlands of oak, alder, ash, birch, lime, maple and willow stretched across the landscape, confining most settlements and travel to the coasts and navigable river basins. However the technology of farming which the new settlers brought with them, in contrast to the previous nomadic hunter-gather communities of the Mesolithic, was to have a significant effect on the flora and fauna of the country. Over the next few thousands years the forests were to be pushed back through sheer human will and labour, making room for pastoral and arable agriculture, and rapidly expanding populations. Further reductions in the treescape would follow in the late pre-Christian and early Christian periods, associated with the greater use of timber for building and technological materials, while the emergence of the Scandinavian-Irish seaports of the 9th to 11th centuries CE was another source of deforestation. However, as dramatic as these changes were, the majority of the island continued to be characterized by huge tracts of closed and open woodland, interspersed with thriving concentrations of population.
This was the environment which both appalled and attracted the Norman-British and Anglo-British invaders and colonists of the Middle Ages. The very English fear of the greenwood, of the wildernesses where many “pure Irish” and “wild Irish” were driven through sword and fire, was coupled with an avaricious desire for the exploitable wealth the timber of Ireland represented to the fledging Medieval state of Greater England. By the 14th century settlers from Britain had launched a sustained programme of land-clearances, reducing the tree-cover to 10% in the space of three hundred years. It was this campaign possibly more than any other, which broke the back of native resistance to foreign domination (and which contributed towards the early economic foundations of what was to become the British Empire). With the loss of the wildernesses enclaves of western Leinster, Ulster and parts of Connacht, by the 1700s the last refuges of Gaelic civilization were all but gone.
When the greater part of Ireland and its people regained independence in the 1920s just 1% of the new state’s territory was given over to trees, much of it on the estates and lands of the old Ascendancy class, the colonial aristocracy. This represented a level of woodland destruction unparalleled anywhere else in Europe. A restoration of the forests was launched for financial, social and environmental reasons, coupled in some cases with the purchase or redistribution of property from the recalcitrant landlordist Anglo-Irish. The increase in the country’s woods from 1% in 1922 to 11% in 2016 has been a great success story, though one not without its own problems. Slow-growing native broadleaf tress remain very much in the minority, public and privately owned forests being given over to imported coniferous species, which are notoriously poor habitats for our indigenous plants and wildlife. Furthermore, despite all the good work that has been done over the last nine decades we remain at the bottom of the league in the European Union, where tree-cover averages at an incredible 40%.
Of course some countries don’t realise how lucky, how utterly blessed by history and circumstance they are, particularly those who have managed to retain the kinds of primordial woodlands we in Ireland effectively lost centuries ago (and never to be regained). Evidence for that can be seen in this feature report by the Guardian newspaper:
“Europe’s last primeval forest is facing what campaigners call its last stand as loggers prepare to start clear-cutting trees, following the dismissal of dozens of scientists and conservation experts opposed to the plan.
Poland’s new far right government says logging is needed because more than 10% of spruce trees in the Unesco world heritage site of Białowieża are suffering from a bark beetle outbreak. But nearly half the logging will be of other species, according to its only published inventory.
Oak trees as high as 150 feet that have grown for 450 years could be reduced to stumps under the planned threefold increase in tree fells. Białowieża hosts Europe’s largest bison population and wolves and lynx still roam freely across its sun-mottled interior. Its foliage stretches for nearly 1,000 square miles across the border between Poland and Belarus.
Beneath its green canopy, sunlight filters down on to a panorama of skyscraper trees soaring as much as 180 feet into the air, swampy water pools dammed by beavers, and psychedelic fungi that sprout from tree trunks.
But a recently-passed logging law to allow work to begin on the old-growth forest has divided families, and led to death threats against campaigners and allegations of an “environmental coup” by state interests linked to the timber trade. The logging in Białowieża is expected to raise about 700m złotys (£124m), and pave the way for extensive and more lucrative tree clearances.
Sources say that internal government discussions have already begun on extending the new timber regime to the national park, which covers 17% of the forest and has been untouched by humans since the ice age.
At a conference organised by the national forestry authority in December, a former forester and beekeeper close to Jan Szyszko, the environment minister, received loud applause when he said that environmental experts “should be beheaded or put in jail for 25 years. They should be deported for what they did against the forest”.
At the same meeting, Mikołaj Janowski, a councillor from Podlaskie, told environmentalists: “You are parasites. You get money for your incomprehensible, hostile scientific papers … You should be sent to Putin’s gulag for 10 years or more.”
Revulsion against environmentalists has reached the highest levels of government. Earlier this year, the foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, told Bild newspaper: “We only want to cure our country of a few illnesses … a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion.”
Sections of the Catholic and Orthodox churches have played a partisan role in the debate, with a passage from Genesis – “be fruitful, and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it” – often used to justify increased logging.
One orthodox priest from Hajnówka, Leonid Szeszko, recently called for scientific, environmental and NGOs which opposed the logging plans to be banned.
Szyszko, who has championed the logging law, is a regular guest on the ultra-conservative Radio Maria, a Catholic radio station, and appears at conferences with a priest garbed in a forester’s green uniform.”
Even the partial loss of the Białowieża Forest is a criminal act of environmental vandalism not just against the people of Poland but of Europe as a whole. Puszcza Białowieska represents one of the largest remaining parts of the immense primeval wood that once stretched across the whole of the European Plain, from the French Pyrenees mountains in the west to the Russian Ural Mountains in the east. It is not just a natural treasure of Poland but of the whole of the Europe. Of course we have other treasures too, ones under similar threat from the same culturally and intellectually illiterate attitudes. From a recent article in the Irish Times:
“Katarzyna Kielbasa (35), known as Kasia for short, was also one of the first wave of Polish people to come to Ireland, and has been living in Galway for nine years.“I arrived in 2007, just before the recession here, and I intended to practise my English,” Kielbasa, who is from Poznan, says. Her boyfriend, Bartosz Wozny, had travelled over several months before her.
Kielbasa has a passion for languages, and had studied English philology at university in Wroclaw. Her second job was in Dunnes Stores, and she says it opened many doors.
Kielbasa is currently employed at Lake Region Medical in Parkmore, and is studying English philology and Spanish part-time online. She hopes to qualify as a teacher at a later stage. Her daughter is in senior infants at Claregalway Educate Together primary school and also attends a Saturday school where she learns both Spanish and Polish.
Kielbasa believes learning a second language from primary school is imperative, and can’t understand why it is not part of the system here.
“I know children learn Irish, but it is like Latin, a dead language, and in Poland a second language is compulsory from the age of six,” she says.”
An ancient living language is every bit as precious as an ancient living forest, and like the latter it doesn’t just die – it is killed.