The Emerald Isle... once again?: Ireland's steps to rewilding

What happened to Ireland’s ancient forests, countryside and natural habitats and how is Ireland becoming more sustainable?
Author Headshot
Charles Wells
Dec 14
4 mins
Dec 14
4 mins

Ireland has become known for many things on the global stage - Guinness, potatoes, fiddles… but one aspect of the Emerald Isle that is getting more and more attention is its natural beauty. 

Popular TV series’ like Normal People, or films like Barry Lyndon and The Wind that Shakes the Barley showcased the beauty of Ireland’s countryside. However it has undoubtedly changed over the years. One of these changes being the disappearing natural habitats, forests and woods that covered much of the island. 

 But what happened to Ireland’s ancient forests, countryside and natural habitats? 

The island was once covered in bogland and dense forests, filled with large animals such as wolves, Elk and even bears. Today, however, it has one of the lowest rates of  forest coverage in the whole of Europe. 

Around 80% of Ireland was covered by forests (some say a squirrel could have travelled from one end of the Island to the other without touching the ground!) following the last ice age. But fast forward many thousands of years, and the forests started to dwindle with the first human settlements. 

How did farming change the landscape?

As farming and cattle cultivation grew, more forests were cut down and used as material for a variety of products, it also helped to unearth the nutrient-rich soil below. The development of communities in towns and villages put a huge demand on Irish timber (notably to help London following the great fire in 1666). 

The late 19th century saw many mobile cutting devices travel around Ireland and cut down the last standing trees. This saw the Forest coverage of 80% 6,000 years ago drop to as low as 1%. 

This mass deforestation along with other pressures on the natural environment in Ireland such as the drying out of bogland and the rivers that meandered across the country felt ever-increasing effects from pollutants and the changing of the way the river flows. This damage saw real pressure being placed upon Ireland’s native wildlife.   

Ireland’s history of Dewilding saw many animal populations like bears, wolves, wild boar and deer begin to disappear along with the fragmented habitats and increased human population. 

However, it’s not all doom and gloom! In recent years the Emerald Isle’s great forestry journey is beginning again, with different groups putting all their efforts into re-wilding.

Farmers have begun planting trees to rebuild habitats, re-wilding areas of the countryside, restoration of the rivers and the country’s food scene embracing sustainable cookery with one of the world’s most sustainable restaurants. 

But what is Ireland’s population doing to become more sustainable and embrace this movement?

Loam, a Michelin starred restaurant in Galway was recently awarded the highest rating of three stars for its sustainability efforts by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA). This 14 point marking system focuses on key areas such as; energy efficiency, water saving, staff treatment and cooking with sustainable produce. 

Another Irish establishment putting sustainability at the forefront of their ethos is Dunbrody House - the large country hotel and kitchen garden owned by Kevin Dundon. The restaurant grows as much of its menu as possible on location, introducing bee colonies to its estate along with locally sourced fish and meat.

Kevin Dundon and his team at Dunbrody House are able to do this by returning to the use of native ingredients local to the region. Embracing the plants that grow best in the local conditions is just one part of how people across Ireland are trying to re-evaluate their relationship with the land.

Like Loam, farmers are now being rewarded for the wildlife their land supports, with projects focusing on restoring habitats and making room for lost species. These efforts have also seen the booming of the deer population which has brought about a new wave of sustainable game consumption.

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The main vision of the Irish authorities and rewilding organisations is to return the landscape to a more natural state less impacted by human construction, development and pollution. 8,000 hectares have been set aside to restore, rewild and reforest with further projects in the works both big and small. 

This process of returning much of Ireland’s human-altered land can also look to counter climate change. A natural ecosystem with rich biodiversity is by far and away the most efficient absorber of the greenhouse gases, so not only is the initiative good for regaining lost species - it's also beneficial for the planet.

One of Rassa's virtual test kitchens will take you on a deep dive to Ireland. Highlighting its newfound focus on sustainability. You will begin to reap the benefits of its rewilding projects with Rassa’s specialist ingredient deliveries where you will use things like Dillisk seaweed, sea beet leaves, Atlantic wakame and an Elderflower vinegar brewed in small batches.

Alongside developing your own recipes you will embark on culinary adventures and connect with the people and stories from Ireland, meeting the suppliers and people behind Ireland's effort to become more sustainable and find its roots once again.

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