Huge potential for a wild country

Rewilding for Ireland – from theory to practice

After centuries of deforestation and degradation, ecological restoration projects are starting to spring up across Ireland – seeking to address climate change and reverse biodiversity loss.

There is useful scope for establishing a few standardised principles of good practice, and this was the theme of a presentation to some 120 members of the Irish Wildlife Trust, given in 2021 by Zoltan Kun of Wild Europe and member of the IUCN Thematic Rewilding Group.

The presentation first assessed the decline in species and ecosystem quality, unresolved by a steady increase in the number of protected areas. One key challenge has been small size and fragmentation, perhaps inevitable with average landholdings under 83 acres. Enter the rewilding agenda, as originally espoused by Dave Foreman in 90’s USA, with its focus on large naturally managed, ecosystems linked in a mosaic of habitat types and self-sustaining so far as possible. 

The Wicklow Mountains, and Torc Mountain near Killarney, templates for a wilder future

The principles of the IUCN CEM Thematic Group and the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) were examined in the presentation, with particular attention to non-intervention management, drawing from experience in Drawa National Park in Poland where this had been extended over 5500 acres with ecological enrichment of forests previously managed along conventional lines. Perception of ‘wildness’ is a central consideration.

Wider potential in Ireland

These principles are being applied to an increasing number of smaller holdings, ranging up to 1700 acres of forest and grassland in Dunsany, County Meath owned by Randal Plunkett.

Larger still is the Nephin project in County Mayo intended to restore natural wildness to 20,000 acres of previously commercial forest with peatlands adjacent. In 2013 Wild Europe co-chaired the launch of a rewilding initiative there, in tandem with Coillte (the Irish State Forest Agency) and Ballycroy National Park which now manages the whole area.

Wild Nephin, a landscape in transition

The overall outcome for Nephin in terms of wildness remains to be determined, but there is no doubting the scope for large scale rewilding across Ireland as a whole, not least to mitigate climate change, with particular opportunity to recover the peatlands in the central areas and turn net carbon emissions into massive sequestrations. 

The payment for ecosystem services (PES) agenda, offers significant income and employment for local communities through carbon and biodiversity credits, coupled with ecotourism potential.