There be giants : why we need more trees



Every now and then I come across a mind-boggling fact. Here’s one: a mature native oak tree may host many hundreds of species. Imagine that; whether you are a bird or a beetle, a mouse or a moss, a fungi or a fern, you can call that tree home.

One of the venerable trees in question was pointed out by Mary O’Neill-Moloney, head guide at Kilmacurragh during a tour of Kilmacurragh, National Botanic Garden, Co Wicklow. I must admit my count of tree residents hadn’t got much beyond the occasional bird or squirrel. Nor had I realised just how old some trees can be. Some of the yew trees along the yew walk at Kilmacurragh, where a monastic settlement was founded by St Moochorog in the in the 7th Century, date back to Tudor times.

Usually, I am more focussed on the ‘treeness’ of trees, a bit like Shinrin-Yoku, the Japanese healing art of forest bathing. This is a mindful way of connecting with Nature and allowing the senses to take in the pleasures that woodland offers. I have some special bathing companions and am lucky enough to live close to some truly giant trees — Sequoiadendron giganteum (picture) . In their native habitat in California where they were discovered in 1853, they can grow to 300 feet high, the largest living organism on earth. With a girth of up to 70 feet they aren’t the easiest of trees to hug. But standing under one of them gazing upwards and taking in the resinous scent of tree armpit (branchpit?) certainly helps me to put the world in perspective.

These giants also bring home to me what trees can do for us. We are forest poor in Ireland, a country which was once 80% covered by native forests, before wholesale felling for ships, buildings and industry began from Tudor plantation onwards. Now we have only 11% of land under forest compared with the European average of 30%.

Aside from their value as habitat, the trees we do have can be a cost effective way to offset carbon emissions, pulling CO2 out of the air, binding it with sugar through photosynthesis and releasing oxygen. In a year, an acre of forest can absorb twice the amount of CO2 emitted by the average car’s annual mileage.

The trouble is that we don’t have enough of the right kind of forests. Only 1% of our forest coverage is of native trees like oak, birch and elm, the rest is mainly a monoculture of Sitka spruce, fine for commercial use but which can be a source of carbon release rather than a carbon sink when bog or wetlands are ploughed up and drained in order to plant them and when they are felled. Dark and densely planted, they are also an inhospitable environment for wildlife flora and fauna.

There is growing awareness of the importance the Amazon Rain Forest and its value to the planet as carbon sink and the threat posed to it by agriculture. But we need to be more conscious of the need to plant more trees and our own native rain forests. Trees thrive better together as a community, supporting each other, exchanging nutrients via their root systems, often aided by the mycorrhizal networks of fungi.

Spring has a way of making us more aware of the gloriousness of trees.In the next couple of weeks my view the nearby valley will be transformed into a patchwork of colour from pink to acid green as trees burst into leaf.

Just now there is a blackbird singing a veritable symphony at the top of a larch tree, announcing his territory. He might be praising trees too.


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