The oak, our national tree, and the plunders of our natural forests
John McLoughlin, The Tree Council of Ireland
Up to 6,000 years ago, native forests of oak, ash, elm, birch, pine, alder and hazel trees flourished across Ireland's landscape. By 1900, less than one per cent of these woods remained. Today, although progress has been made in restoring forest cover, Ireland remains one of the least wooded countries in Europe.
The decline of our native woodlands began with extensive clearance for agriculture. The rise in population had an impact, as did exploitation for timber and fuel. These factors, as well as neglect, have resulted in the destruction and decline of our native woodlands.
We begin our monthly columns by looking first our native trees. This time, we concentrate on the best known of our trees, the oak.
Sessile oak (Dair ghaelach) Quercus patrea
Pedunculate oak (Dair ghalda) Quercus robur
Just like birch and cherry, there are two species of oak native to Ireland. Sessile oak found on the poorer soils has no stalks on the acorns, while pedunculate, found on the better soils, has a stalk on the acorns but not on the leaves. Sessile oak was declared our ‘National Tree' in the early 1990s by then Taoiseach CJ Haughey.
Oak has been harvested throughout the centuries because of its fine, strong and durable timber. Oak was also use to make charcoal for smelting iron ore. Oak woods provide and important habitat for many invertebrate, bird and mammal species. Oak does not produce abundant acorns every year, so it is important to make collections on bumper years. Initially oak grows slowly when planted but when it settles in, it develops rapidly until it matures in 200 years. It can live up to 1,000 years. The tallest oak is 37 metres.
The Tree Council of Ireland is a voluntary non-governmental organisation which was formed in 1985 to foster a tree culture in Ireland through action and awareness and is the umbrella body linking together 50 tree organisations. The Tree Council organises National Tree Week every March. Among its publications, which are free of charge, are ‘Champion Trees', ‘Glimpses of Irish Forestry', ‘Tree Trivia'. www.treecouncil.ie