8 March 2015

The Great Forest of Aughty Project Proposal

The Woodland League would like to propose that a plan be made to restore the remnant shreds of what was once a great oak forest known as the Great Forest of Aughty. We are seeking support and partnership from the Aughty community to explore this possibility. Also known as the forest of Suidane (a reference to sacred and beautiful, in ancient gaelic) which once stretched from Derrybrien near Gort, co Galway, across to Tulla down to Tuamgraney in co Clare. This was the forest of Brian Boru and his people, in fact Derrybrien was known as Brians oakwood and was a known stronghold where the young old and sick found refuge in times of war.

This great forest was gradually destroyed from about the 1500s onwards for shipbuilding, iron smelting using huge amounts of charcoal made from trees, the removal of shelter for rebels, land confiscations to pay officers after the Cromwellian and Williamite wars. This too was the fate of the rest of the Irelands oak woods that once covered almost 75% of the land. One of the ancient bardic names for Ireland was “Inis na bhfiodhadh”, meaning “Island of the sacred trees”. The treecover today stands at approx 10% and of this less than one fifth of one per cent is native woodland. Ireland is unique in Europe in that we held onto our ancient wildwoods longer than most of our near european neighbours who lost their ancient forests to the Romans long before. It is amazing we have any ancient forest remains at all.

The Irish people are a forest people who have lost their forests and with it much of their ancient culture. Restoring the oak forests can have a very positive impact affecting other aspects of this Gaelic culture that remain, like the music, poetry, sport, dancing and storytelling, all of which are intrinsically linked to this ancient forest tradition. Ireland has a unique woodland culture that includes the Ogham alphabet used as an ancient divination system among other uses. There is a collection of historical references and stories connected to the great forest of Aughty as well as the forests in general and this will form part of the cultural/historical aspect of the project in time.

The list of identified oakwoods, include the oakwoods in the owendalullegh River (Abhainn Dá Loillioch, the river of the two milch cows), Cahermurphy on the old road to Derrybrien and the oakwoods that skirt Lough Graney, however the jewel in the crown is the magnificent Raheen oakwood, forty acres of 100 foot canopy with every inch of the trees providing habitat for a broad range of species. The oaks are between 400 and 600 years old and provide us with a bridge through time, we can get some idea of how Ireland would have looked when she was still clothed by her forests. This is one of the richest areas for biodiversity in Ireland due to the fact the forests ecosytems have remained intact for thousands of years, and the oak canopy has been maintained. It is also rich in field and ground plants which are ancient woodland indicators as well as a wide range of understorey shrubs.

One other reason for this abundance of plant and tree species is due to the fact that the forest is situated on limestone that meets sandstone, this provides both acid loving and base loving plants and trees. This makes the area an extremely suitable place to study biodiversity. It has an extensive collection of rare epiphytes and bryophytes too (ferns and mosses) associated with intact ancient Oak forests. This pocket of ancient woodland is a rare example of Irelands natural environment, which is in fact western Atlantic Temperate Rainforest.

The famous 1000 year old Brian Boru Oak tree is on the Raheen estate too, which is a must see for school children in terms of generating awe and respect for their Natural Heritage. The owner has agreed for CELT (Centre for Environmental Living and Training) to create an outline management plan for the ancient forest which can form part of this project, he also has 100 acres of his estate that was clearfelled of sitka spruce and is now the largest native woodland natural regeneration project in Ireland. This hopefully will be allowed to revert back to oakwood when the pioneer species have completed their work of preparing for oak canopy as is their remit. The oaks being the highest ecological achievement in the plant kingdom in a European setting, the pioneer species fix the soil in readiness for oak.

Adjacent to the Raheen oakwoods is the Tuamgraney community woodland project. The project came about through a public meeting set up by the Clare county council biodiversity officer in 2007, to raise awareness around the issue of biodiversity. In response to a request to find a suitable site to demonstrate biodiversity in East Clare, a site of four acres was gifted by the owner of Raheen wood. This had been clearfelled of conifers approx fifteen years earlier and was in a healthy state of natural regeneration by native trees. The site was examined and a partnership was formed between CELT, the Woodland league (two local NGOs) and the Tuamgraney Development Association, A plan was drawn up and a funding application to the Heritage Council was approved.

We are also aware of the oakwoods in the valley of the owendalulleegh river (Abhainn Dá Loilioch) in and around Lough Cutra, Gortacarnaun, Wood, Drummin Wood and Lahardaun Wood. These are also remnants of the Great Forest of Aughty and we were delighted to discover that they had been surveyed in 2007 by Cilian Roden, Michelle Sheehy Skeffington, and Gordon D’Arcy, who are to be commended for this excellent work. They recognised the enormous botanical value of these neglected woods and at the end of their paper called for a visionary project to re-establish the natural forest over a wide area of the valley.

They said the area is ideally suited for such a project as a large nucleus of semi-natural woodland exists, much of the land is under conifer plantation and owned by the State, while much of the remainder of the land is no longer farmed and becoming derelict. Only by conceiving and carrying out such large-scale projects can we hope to restore rather than further degrade our landscape and allow future generations the experience of native woodland. This is an experience which can even now be glimpsed by the naturalist who explores the woods in the owendalulleegh valley.

The following extracts are taken from notes taken by Gordon D’Arcy from a biodiversity discussion group at the Aughty People and Earth day 2008, regards support for restoring the oakwoods.

We decided, just to summarise, having chosen the tree if you like as the theme or the emphasis for the mountains that we would take on a number of actions:

  • The first would be to have another look at Roden’s paper – get him to present it locally or to get more publicity maybe surrounding it.
  • And then talk to the people involved in biodiversity and nature in this part of the world – the Heritage Officers, the Biodiversity Officers, people like that
  • And get a proper survey done on the hills so that we can find out if there are more woodlands there or the extent that the woodlands occupy of the uplands
  • So that the woodlands can be given much more emphasis than was the case in the past.
  • And then we would like to reach out to the other groups here who are interested in the social history, the folklore and other aspects of heritage associated with the mountains

The Woodland League in their Pilot project proposal in 2009 recommended that a survey be conducted locating the oak remnants in Clare, this can be extended so that the Aughty oakwoods could be restored too and linked via planting the rivers and streams as well as the walking routes that already exist. The Great Forest of Aughty project would link Clare and Galway in a partnership to create a long term sustainable plan to ensure the cultural and ecological richness of this region is harnessed under the umbrella of the oakwoods. The Sliabh Aughty area map from Ger Madden’s excellent book on the Sliabh Aughty region could mark the boundary of this partnership.

The landowners and all stakeholders would be contacted with a view to co-operation towards the aims of the project, including the knowledge and experience of local foresters to integrate ecotourism, cultural heritage, woodland management, ecology and biodiversity research, alleviate flooding, create meaningful employment, create partnerships nationally and internationally, examine multiple uses of woodland resources to benefit local communities, establish woodcrafts and training for same, create a brand name to market locally produced products, seed collection and nurseries, etc.

The Pilot project proposals ten priority actions can form part of the outline plan for this ambitious but highly beneficial and worthwhile project. The internationally acclaimed scientist, botanist, ancient woodland specialist and best selling author Diana Beresford Kroeger has written an endorsement for the Pilot project and is the consultant scientist to the Woodland league. To move the proposal to the next stage a steering committee is being assembled of candidates from East Clare and South Galway to seek feasibility funding from Clare and Galway local development companies.

The Woodland League

Dedicated to restoring the relationship between people and their native woodlands