The west coast of Ireland is famed for its wave-beaten shores and bare, stony mountains, where only a few stunted trees grow in hollows and valleys, bent by harsh storms blowing in from the North Atlantic.
The coastline, with its cold, clean winds and ever-changing skies, gives an impression of unspoiled, primal nature. In 2014, the Irish government designated a 1,550-mile tourist route along the coast, and called it “The Wild Atlantic Way.”
Yet, where generations of painters, poets and visitors have rhapsodized about the sublimity of nature and the scenic Irish countryside, ecologists see a man-made desert of grass, heather and ferns, cleared of most native species by close-grazing sheep that often pull grasses out by the roots.
As climate change threatens even more ecological disruption, a growing Irish “rewilding” movement is calling for the restoration of the native forests that once covered these lands, both as natural machines to capture atmospheric carbon, and to preserve and extend what remains of Ireland’s dwindling biodiversity.
Rewilding, the practice of bringing ravaged landscapes back to their original states, is well established in Britain, where numerous projects are underway. For Ireland, this would mean the re-creation of temperate forests of oak, birch, hazel and yew that once covered 80 percent of the land but now — after centuries of timber extraction, overgrazing and intensive farming — have been reduced to only 1 percent.
For some, rewilding began with a personal choice.
In 2009, Eoghan Daltún, a sculpture restorer, sold his house in Dublin to buy 33 acres of gnarled oaks and rugged hillside on the Beara Peninsula in County Cork, in the far southwest. Where local farmers had once raised a few cattle and sheep, he erected a fence to keep out feral goats and sika deer, two nonnative, invasive species that nibble undergrowth and saplings down to the roots, and kill older trees by gnawing away their bark.
One day in late spring, with the wind driving rain off the foaming ocean, he proudly showed off the results. Wood sorrel, dog violet and celandine were already in flower beneath the twisted branches of mature oak and birch, thickly draped in mosses, ferns and epiphytic plants. New shoots of oak, hawthorn and ash pushed up through the grass and dead ferns.
“The sheep and deer would eat those little saplings before they even started on the grass, so when the old trees eventually died, there’d be no new ones to replace them,” said Mr. Daltún, who wrote about his experiment in “An Irish Atlantic Rainforest,” a memoir. “But the native forest is returning here, all by itself. I don’t have to plant anything.”
Ireland has committed to increasing the total proportion of forested areas to 18 percent by 2050, from 11 percent currently. Yet this would still be well below the European Union average of 38 percent, and most of it would consist of commercial spruce and pine plantations that make up more than 90 percent of Ireland’s current woodlands.
Grown to be harvested within 30 to 40 years, these nonnative conifers are treated with chemicals that pollute groundwater and rivers. Ecologists say little can grow on a forest floor carpeted with dead needles and a desert for insects and native wildlife. And much of the carbon they store is released again when they are harvested.
It would be better for biodiversity and carbon sequestration to pay farmers and landowners to grow native trees and leave them unharvested, according to Padraic Fogarty, the campaign officer of Wildlife Ireland. He cited the example of Costa Rica, which has reversed the Central American trend of deforestation by paying farmers to preserve and extend the rainforest.
Ray Ó Foghlú of Hometree, another rewilding organization, believes farmers could be paid not to plow or graze strips land that border remaining pockets of native woodland — often only a few trees and bushes — that cling to inaccessible hillsides or in the awkward corners of fields. Biologically rich, these microforests would, if left to themselves, quickly recolonize neighboring areas, Mr. Ó Foghlú believes. He himself recently bought nine acres of “scrubland” — home to sessile oaks (Ireland’s national tree), hazels, wood sorrel, blue bells and anemones.
“I pinch myself still that I own it,” he said. “It has a river running through it, and I can’t believe it’s mine, for the price of a second hand car these days.”
Irish rewilding enthusiasts look enviously at the highlands of Scotland, ecologically very similar to the west of Ireland, but where the concentration of ownership in the hands of a few hundred aristocrats and magnates allows rewilding at much greater scale.
Ecologically minded figures like the Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, Scotland’s largest private landowner, with 220,000 acres, can clear deer and livestock from tens of thousands of acres, allowing native growth to quickly regenerate. Eradicated native species, notably lynx and the European beaver, have also been reintroduced to Scotland to restore ecological balance.
In Ireland, where the average farm size is 83 acres, such large-scale rewilding would seem to be unfeasible. The big exception, so far, has been in the unlikely setting of County Meath, in the flat, highly fertile and intensively farmed east of the island, and in the unlikely person of Randal Plunkett, a New York-born filmmaker, vegan and death metal enthusiast.
Since Mr. Plunkett — better known, to some, as the 21st Baron of Dunsany — inherited his 1,700 acre ancestral estate in 2011, he has cleared it of livestock and left one-third to revert to unmanaged forest, complete with a wild herd of native red deer.
“Biodiversity is expanding dramatically,” said Mr. Plunkett, 30, standing in thick woodlands humming with bees and other busy insects. “At least one species has returned every year since we started. Pine martens. Red kites. Corncrakes. Peregrine falcons. Kestrels. Stoats. Woodpeckers. Otter. We think there’s salmon in the river again, for the first time in my life.”
One of his forebears, Sir Horace Plunkett, pioneered modern, industrial farming in Ireland early last century, encouraging small farmers to set up cooperatives and to mechanize their operations and use fertilizers and chemicals. Today, Randal Plunkett says, not everyone in this rich farming area is happy about his decision to abandon intensive agriculture, or to ban all hunting on the estate.
“It’s safe to say I’m not popular with the hunting crowd,” he said. “I’ve had death threats.”
Rewilding has its opponents. Ireland’s influential agribusiness lobbies are economically and culturally suspicious of suggestions that farmland should be allowed to revert to what they traditionally derided as “scrub.” People will always need food, they point out. In more marginal areas in the uplands and west, farmers argue recent regulations have reduced the numbers of sheep they can graze per acre, and that removing them altogether would harm existing biodiversity.
“If you leave an area ungrazed and unmanaged, you leave an area that’s at risk of being burned,” said Vincent Doddy, the president of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association. “I think cattle and sheep are the most cost effective way of managing the land.”
Even on poor soil and small farms, where livestock production is sustainable only through government grants and second jobs, the title of farmer is still prized beyond its cash value.
“You’d have some of them who’d say, ‘Sheep are a part of my family tradition, and my identity, and it’s what I want to do,’” said Mr. Daltún, who himself keeps some cattle on his 33 acres. “But others would see the benefit of being paid for looking after the land, and letting it regenerate, and to have time to focus more on their other work or business.”