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Extract: Moving to the country helped me discover the secrets of the natural world

Richard Nairns details some of what he discovered when he moved to Ned’s Wood in Co Wicklow.

Richard Nairns

As an ecologist, Richard Nairn has worked to protect the environment for most of his adult life. Yet, during his lifetime, Ireland’s wildlife has undergone a catastrophic decline. After years of writing, protesting and trying to influence nature policy, he could see no change in this depressing trend and worried for the future of our natural world. He needed to be inspired again, and he knew that nature could provide that inspiration.

When a small farm and woodland near the Devil’s Glen in Co Wicklow was put on the market, Richard threw caution to the wind and bought the land outright. He fell in love with the place and began to spend more and more time there, experiencing all its moods and seasons, discovering its wildlife secrets and learning how to manage it properly.

Partly memoir, Wildwoods is the story of that journey of discovery over a typical year, including visits to many other native woodlands in different parts of the country to discover what they can teach us about nature.

Getting to know the wood

For years, my family had been searching for some land to establish a smallholding where we could grow most of our own food and wood for fuel, moving our lives more towards self-sufficiency with a lower environmental footprint. We had searched far and wide and, when Ned’s farm was finally put on the market, we knew that it was offering an opportunity. On the south-facing side of the valley were the permanent pasture fields and hedgerows where he had toiled all those years ago. I imagined him in summer driving the horse-drawn mower through the flower-rich meadow to save the hay that would sustain his cows over winter. The woodland where he and his sons had cut timber to roof the cow byre was still there in the valley and the river that wound its way down from the hills still flowed crystal clear.

Throwing caution to the wind, I cashed in part of my pension and bought the land outright. Even if times turned harder, I foolishly reckoned that I could sell the land and the timber to recover my investment. Instead, I fell in love with the place and began to spend more and more time there, experiencing all its moods and seasons, discovering its wildlife secrets and learning how to manage it properly. I realise now that our woodland has found its way into my heart.

I spent the first year after becoming the owner of Ned’s Wood just observing and getting to know my way around the place. Finding a dry path was important as some areas flood in the winter and it is good to be able to keep dry feet. This meant building a boardwalk across some small springs and streams. As well as the fox, I found where the tracks of deer and badgers were leading in and out of the wood. I found many fallen trees, some recent but others so rotten that they had almost been absorbed back into the woodland soil. I found the best areas for bluebells and wild garlic and I made a note of the locations of old hazel trees that might provide a good source of poles later on.

Ned’s Wood lies in a fold of the Wicklow landscape that makes it difficult to see from anywhere, even from the top of nearby Carrick Mountain. Close by is a well-known landmark, the Devil’s Glen, where the River Vartry flows through a deep glacial gorge filled with a mixed woodland. One small tributary of this river rises to the west and powers down through a wide valley carrying leaves and sticks from many small copses and plantations along its banks. The woodland itself is small, about three hectares, and it has grown up in the wet floodplain of the river, where the water frequently overtops its banks and spreads out to saturate the soils. This makes parts of it impassable in winter.

The woodland is dominated by tall trees reaching towards the light. Unlike a planted forest, this native woodland has a tangled mixture of species, ages and sizes of tree that has evolved over centuries. The trunks are fairly close together and in summer the canopy is dense, casting a deep shadow on the ground below. The commonest trees are alder but there is plenty of ash, birch, holly, hazel and oak with willow in more open areas.

In winter, when the leaves have gone, the alder trees still hold onto their crop of tiny cones, the seed from which has long blown away in the wind. Alder is adapted to living in waterlogged soils and the largest specimens grow along the riverbank where their roots are permanently in the water.

Alder has a close relationship with a specialised bacterium, Frankia alni, in its roots. The bacteria absorb nitrogen from the air and make it available to the tree. In return, the alder tree provides the bacteria with sugars and minerals, and they use these to create enzymes which are eventually converted into amino acids – the building blocks of protein.

When the leaves fall, they also add mulch and more nitrogen to the soil as well as providing food for worms and other decomposers. This nitrogen then becomes available to other trees in the wood. I have often found holly growing so close to an alder tree that it looks like it is in an embrace. The holly clearly benefits from the nitrogen levels in the soil around its neighbour. When a branch falls, the exposed wood of the alder is a rich orangey-red colour, but the timber is light and does not make good firewood due to its high moisture content.

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The fact that alder evolved to grow best in wet soils made it a valuable wood for many specialised uses over the centuries. A fast-growing hardwood, it was widely used for building boats, mill wheels and anything that was frequently in contact with water. During the Industrial Revolution, alder was used to make wooden clogs for the workers who had to stand all day on the cold, wet floors of the factories, mills and mines of England. When Ned was a child in the mid-nineteenth century, he would have seen men from Lancashire making clogs in the woods around this part of Wicklow. These migrant woodsmen lived among the trees where they worked, and the local children called them the ‘cloggers’.

After one year, the wood started to feel familiar. I knew when to expect the first leaves on each of the trees and where the deer liked to wallow in a muddy hollow.

But I am just a casual visitor to the wood compared with indigenous forest dwellers around the world, who know every corner of their habitat as well as I know my own house.

Wildwoods by Richard Nairn is published by Gill Books and available now in bookshops and online, priced at €14.99. Richard Nairn is an ecologist and writer who has spent a lifetime studying nature. During his career he has worked as a nature reserve warden and was the first Director of BirdWatch Ireland. He owns a farm and woodland in County Wicklow.

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Richard Nairns

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