I bought the cheapest land I could find in Ireland. Now I’m planting a forest bigger than St Stephen’s Green

Three years ago Catherine Cleary and her husband decided to build a native woodland. This is how they did it

It’s a tentative start. We crack open wet soil, slot the roots of a small birch tree into the gap and firm it in. The blessings of Mother Earth on you, little tree. The birch is a bare slip of a thing barely anchored in the ground. One down, 23,999 to go.

I’m in a field in Roscommon and this is the hardest work I have ever done. We straighten aching backs and squint to make out the rows of brown saplings bent by the wind in this rain-streaked place. It’s one of many “how the heck did we get here?” moments.

These fields were the cheapest land my husband Liam and I could find nearly three years ago when the idea came to us to try to grow a native woodland. After a 10-year stint as restaurant critic for The Irish Times, I took a midlife swerve into the woods back in 2020 when my focus switched from food to forests. As a version of the proverb goes: the best time to plant a forest was 20 years ago. The second best time (and maybe our last chance) is now.

The search for land was an education and we nearly gave up. In a Father Ted moment, there was one farm owned by two priests. One wanted to sell, the other didn’t. Then there was the genial gentleman who wanted a chunk paid off the books so the bank wouldn’t discover the real price. We declined. In the end we found these fields scattered across three different areas, close to a train station. They made a sort of sense.

We are both urban culchies. When I was eight my family moved from a suburban bungalow to a house with a few acres on a hill. Over the years there were cattle, a couple of pigs, a field of raspberries, potatoes. I stood in gaps and longed for smooth flat asphalt and roller-skating. Liam grew up not far from Roscommon, where rushes are called rishes and horseflies that can bite through denim are clegs. Both of us ran to cities and met in a busy newsroom as far from fields as we could get. But in the shock of Covid came a yearning to circle back somewhere solid.

We are not born landowners, farmers, rewilders, ecosystem restorers. Feel free to pick your term. I’ve only ever managed a postage stamp garden. He is a dab hand at killing plants. When we first met we had a running joke where we would make up the name of any bird we saw – “Isn’t that a chuffing spacklespot?” – both of us entirely ignorant of their actual names. Now we have stewardship of roughly 40 acres, home at various stages to a cuckoo, countless frogs and field mice, several hares, foxes and a chorus of birds, mewling buzzards, murmurations of starlings, and a thrillingly glimpsed barn owl, more of which later.

We are building a forest. In this we are working with forester Bernard Kiernan. We first rang him three years ago and he surveyed prospective land for us, planned and calculated and pushed the mountain of paperwork through the pipeline to get us here. On the morning of the winter solstice last December the brown envelope arrived, thick with folded planting licence documents. Every woodland over a certain size needs to be licensed by the Department of Agriculture and some licences have taken years. We were thrilled.

The soil here is gley, a word as claggy and airless as the ground it describes. Get the bend wrong and this gley can snap a spade handle like a toothpick. Some fields have a loose peaty layer that turns to mud pie in the wet. Grass will grow, but rushes grow better. Chest-high in summer with flag irises spearing up through the throng. This year brought forests of nettles and bramble stems thick as your thumb. In winter the heavy kind of frost, that only happens this far inland, furs everything white, mulching the green back to yellow. As rented land, the fields were grazed until recently by beef cattle. The animals sank into the mud, leaving the ground potholed. Ankles can be wrenched, and wellies lost. Misjudge a hummock and you have to be pulled out with a cartoon sucking sound. It feels like every easy calorie has been wrung out of the place. In all the days of tree planting, we don’t encounter a single earthworm, just beetle grubs, like maggots in a corpse.

“I had a fhaarm in Africa ...” a friend intones in her best Meryl Streep when I talk about our project over dinner. They call me Farmer Cleary in the WhatsApp chat afterwards. It is scrappy and messy and tentative and has woken me at 4am more than once, but we are building a full-size forest.

We are planting a forest bigger than St Stephen’s Green. The remaining 13 acres will be let do their thing

For the last three years, my day job has been building pocket versions since my brilliant friend Ashe Conrad-Jones showed me an article about Tiny Forests. Together we set up our version, Pocket Forests, to bring native trees and shrubs to urban areas where nature was barely getting a look in. I have loved this work more than anything. Trees make me happy, loosen the tightness in my chest and calm my climate anxiety. And it has been a joy to bring communities of people together to make space for nature.

For a large part of those three busy Pocket Forest pioneering years, the Roscommon forest-in-waiting has been there in the background. On quiet visits I try to get to know some of the fields, turning over the daunting notion of “owning” something as ancient and other as land criss-crossed with hedgerows of hawthorn, blackthorn, birch, willow and elder towered over by ash trees, which are hammered by ash dieback.

The hedgerows are linear forests, stems and branches furred with moss, lichen and tiny ferns. Primroses pop up in spring, mushrooms in later months. In one low-lying area, just glimpsed bulrushes mark ground too wet for woman or beast, so birches and willows have gleefully claimed it for themselves.

These “scrub” areas were long the bane of farmers’ lives, outlined in red on their site maps to be taken out of their farm payment as “unproductive”. Good farming meant clearing, draining, spraying and fertilising scrub areas to turn them into pasture. But that dial has shifted and we realise how urgently we need what these habitats produce: space for nature, healthier soil and a much needed way to draw carbon dioxide out of our overheating world and absorb our weather extremes.

We are planting more than 27 of the 40 acres, just over 11 hectares. “What size is that compared to, say, Stephen’s Green?” a friend asks. As it turns out, St Stephen’s Green is 22 acres (it was originally exactly 27 acres when it was first marked out as a park in 1663). So we are planting a forest bigger than St Stephen’s Green. The remaining 13 acres will be let do their thing, habitat for the frogs and birds that love water, rushes and long grass.

So how do we do it? The first batch of trees arrives on my birthday at the end of March, more than 13,000 bare-root trees in bags, the load small enough to fit in a single white van. Matt from Hometree takes a breather after we unload them, looking out over the raggedy fields. “This land is lucky,” he says, because we are not here to take from it. We feel lucky to be able to do this.

Generosity is all around us. Neighbours have been kind and welcoming. No one seems bothered by the idea that we’re turning (or returning) these fields to forest. “Not sitka,” is the first thing I tell everyone when we talk to them. It’ll be native trees. “Sure the land’s not good for much else,” has been the response from more than one neighbour.

The planting is a white-knuckle stressor by the end. The clock ticks. The dormant trees can last a short time in their bags, but there’s been a wait for the contractors, the fencer and field excavator and the team of planters.

When the excavator arrives I take a selfie with the huge beast of a machine, excited as a nine-year-old. Mark, the driver, moves methodically through each field, lifting and dropping a bucket-sized sod at regular spacing, one for each tree, with a clanking sound as the metal bucket scrapes on boulders laid down by glaciers. They fence as they go. The machine makes manageable work of this.

But the planting has to be done by hand, and boot and spade. And there’s no sign of the planting contractors. Family rallies around. Easter weekend is late in the chilly spring and we barbecue and blather on about meitheals to the English cousins.

Leaning on a spade, I look up as Liam, our son, my cousin and her partner plant in lines, carrying fistfuls of trees. We are peasants in a 19th century French oil painting, in better rain gear. Cars slow to see people bent over lines in these rushy fields.

In the end our meitheals are not enough. With Bernard’s help we manage around 6,000 trees, but the rest look like they might die in their bags. It’s nearly May and they are leafing up, making one last push to live. The professional planters arrive just in time.

When spring arrives with a clamour of birdsong, there is a sense of peace as the land recovers from our assault. And just like that our tentative start begins to flourish

Seven men travel in a van from their base in the southeast. In just a few hours they plant roughly 18,000 trees. They have lighter spades and a strength and skill that makes the work look almost easy. Stamp on the spade, bend with the tree, final stomp to seal the roots. Three precise moves at a rhythmic fast pace. Their skill and speed is phenomenal. It’s what happens when you’re paid per tree: the faster the better. It takes roughly four seconds to plant an oak, a tree that may grow for centuries. I am beyond grateful to them.

By the end we have sourced and planted roughly 24,000 native trees: birch, scots pine, hazel, willow, alder, crab apple and sessile and pedunculate oaks. This winter we hope to add more species: wild cherry, rowan, black poplar, aspen, whitebeam, spindle, guelder rose and holly. The hedgerow trees already here will seed themselves through the mix.

When spring arrives with a clamour of birdsong, there is a sense of peace as the land recovers from our assault. And just like that our tentative start begins to flourish. Scots pines come back from the dead, throwing up the brightest, greenest new growth in the hot June sunshine. It’s been some year: the driest February, the wettest March, the hottest June, the wettest July has put farming on a knife-edge. But these are conditions our trees welcome with open branches, turning warmth, light and water into growing wood and palm-sized leaves, mini solar panels soaking up the sun when the clouds part and it glitters from a washed blue sky. The thin wands of birches throw out leafy side branches like feather dusters, racing the rushes to get to the light.

The magic never gets old. One- and two-year-old trees planted in winter look like dead sticks, but plug them into the ground and a lifeforce pulses through them. A key meets a lock and things open with a flow that is fast and heartening. There is a rightness to the combination of young dormant tree and old dormant ground. Sligo beef farmer Clive Bright put it brilliantly recently, describing a visit to a rocky Galway farm of gorse and bracken where the land “was just itching to be forest”.

Yet the system we are doing this in needs fixing. There is a shortage of labour, Irish-grown trees and people who have land and are willing to take the leap. We are among only a handful of landowners to plant trees last season as farmers and foresters waited for the new Forestry Programme to be approved by the European Commission. This is announced as I write. The €1.3 billion programme will see payments up more than 60 per cent for the kind of forest we have planted. Assuming that the forest grows well every year for 15 years (20 for farmers), a forest like ours will receive a per hectare payment of €1,103 a year. The scheme will reward woman-made forests, rather than a “fence and leave” approach allowing land to forest itself.

There is a more modest payment for areas of “emerging woodland” of €350 a hectare. Central Statistics Office figures from 2020 show that the average annual farming income in Roscommon is €12,000. Even on a small farm, farmers can make as much per year in 20 years of payments for native woodland with less work, less methane emissions, less pollution of our waterways. Farmers qualify for 20 years of grants. Landowners like us get 15 years of annual payments. To be considered farmers we need proof that the bulk of our income comes from farming or a herd number, and three sons don’t, as yet, qualify for herd status.

Now, every time we visit there is something new to see, another surge of growth, more nettles to trample. They (like the clegs) also sting through denim. We camp in warm weather and see bats flit around at dusk. Sitting with my son at the camp fire, I look left and catch a glimpse of a large brown wing, flying sideways close to the ground, a barn owl hunting for the field mice and frogs that live in the grass.

I remember childhood adventures playing in a stream in a leggy hedgerow my brothers and I christened the Zambezi river. Here in Roscommon walking through the grass and rushes with a cloud of tiny moths rising around me, it smells like a lost past. I remember the girl I was, who loved James Herriot books and wanted to work outdoors with animals. This project has cracked open endless wonder, noticing the world in technicolour. There are huge orange dragon flies like flying cinnamon sticks, tiny mushrooms sprouting from sods that the digger upturned, common spotted orchids with their purple and white flowers like massed wings of beautiful insects. This “marginal” spent land is home to so much already.

The future for the forest will be to manage it as a forever resource. We are growing it for biodiversity and as a carbon sink. We can also manage some or all of it for timber, thinning out the trees in five to seven years’ time, providing firewood, gardening and crafting material. This has the potential to provide some income. Long-term management will all be done under continuous cover, a way of harvesting timber without cutting down the whole forest, or clear-felling as has been the standard practice with conifer plantations. Forester Bernard Kiernan will be our expert guide.

According to the carbon calculators, our forest should begin to sequester significant amounts of carbon in about a decade. Depending on how the trees grow and how the soil life grows with them, our 11 or so hectares could remove 120 tonnes of carbon a year. It’s a drop in our emissions ocean (Irish per capita emissions are 12 tonnes a year). But with the national target of 8,000 hectares to be reforested every year, we can see how land use can play a huge role in our climate ambitions.

For that to happen, forestry needs to become as sexy a job as cheffing, something both women and men see as a tough but desirable and satisfying career. We need to give it the status it deserves as an important tool for our survival. Farmers and landowners need to see potential for forests to help them do what they do. So it doesn’t feel like losing land to trees but gaining all the benefits, beauty and health they bring, along with a new system of payments for ecosystem services once the 15 or 20 years of forestry payments finish.

Healthy diverse forests are the critical infrastructure of our future, the only kind of infrastructure that grows stronger and more effective the older it gets.

I love our knee-high trees, but there are a few that are most beloved. Towards the end of the planting, my parents visit and my mum plants a tiny oak, my dad surrounds it with small hazel whips. Oaks take their time to leaf up. My mum hasn’t been well, but she’s on the mend. It took a while but the small stick she planted has pushed out leaves. These new baby oak leaves have a silken texture like the softest skin. Here is hope, the quiet beginning of a story which will continue to strengthen and unfold beyond us.

And the person I married who is many things but not a plant person? Just recently I overheard him talking to a tree, in the same encouraging tone I regularly use with my beloved baby trees (think Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek). In this respect alone, my work here is done. When they are big enough we will hug them. For now we talk to them, praise them to the skies and hope to see them thrive.

How to build a forest

1. Find a registered forester in your area.

2. Ask them to visit the land to assess it for potential as a woodland. Not everywhere is suitable for woodland. In areas of special habitat, what is already there may be doing a better job for climate and biodiversity than any forest can.

3. If the land is suitable, the forester will apply for the licence on your behalf. You will sign lots of paperwork.

4. If the licence is granted, you can work with the forester to plant part or all of it yourself, or they will source and plant it for you. The establishment costs of fencing, trees and planting are covered by a grant from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. You can plant a number of forest types. If your interest is climate and biodiversity, one of the best options is continuous cover native woodlands. If you want to farm the land, plant agroforestry, wide-spaced protected trees which will improve soil, provide habitat for wildlife, shelter and potential fodder for farm animals and create a beautiful biodiverse farm.

5. Watch and enjoy the wildlife. If you build it they will come.

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