The Irish Parliament had three main concerns regarding the environment: the encouragement and protection of afforestation, the preservation of fish and game, and farming practices. All had commercial as well as aesthetic implications.


The wars and devastation of the seventeenth century had not encouraged building, but the building boom of the eighteenth century required timber for both construction and furnishings. Even at the beginning of the century Ireland was an expanding market for imported timber, but as the century progressed it imported ever-increasing quantities.

In 1711 timber imports were valued at £11,300; during the 1760s they more than doubled from an average of £49,000 at the beginning of the decade to an average of £103,000 between 1764 and 1769, and by the early 1790s they were valued at £187,400 p.a. ‘The Baltic fir,’ wrote Arthur Young in 1779, ‘supplies all the uses of the kingdom … and the distance of all the ports of Ireland from that sea makes the supply much dearer than it is in England.’ As the population rose, the demand increased for this most versatile of raw materials.

Wood was the all-purpose material of pre-industrial society. It was used in building houses and ships, in charcoal-smelting iron, in construction work and for innumerable items of domestic and agricultural equipment, while tree bark had an industrial use as an agent in tanning. At the beginning of the century wood was used for shingles, but as early as 1737 the north aisle of St Macartin’s Church in Enniskillen had to be slated, because sufficient oak shingles were not available.

There were few substitutes for wood, and it was often used where metal or plastic would be used today; for instance in household utensils and piping for urban water. In 1698 the Irish parliament described the problem in the preamble to 10 Will. III, c. 12:

For as much as by the late rebellion in this kingdom and the several ironworks formerly here, the timber is utterly destroyed so that for the present there is not sufficient for the repairing the houses destroyed, much less a prospect of building and improving in after times.

The sponsors of this act envisaged a programme of reafforestation. Over a period of 31 years, 260,600 trees were to be planted through a system of county quotas. The statute, which was to be read at every assize ‘in a loud and audible voice’, decreed that those cutting down trees between sunrise and sunset were to be fined treble the value of the trees with an additional fine of between 5s and 40s.

The problem was intractable, as young trees or saplings had many uses that hindered their mature development in a primitive agrarian society. For example, only saplings or tree shoots were sufficiently flexible to be used in boat or house construction, woven into baskets or to bind the staves in utensils together. For purposes such as these there were few or no alternatives, yet they were ‘very destructive to all young plantations of woods’, and cutting them was forbidden.

These lengths of flexible wood were known as gads or withes, and anyone found using them on a plough, cart, car, harness, tackle, etc. was to be fined 2d for each. As this proved ineffective, in 1721 another statute, 8 Geo. I, c. 8, increased the fine to 5s for each conviction by a credible witness before a Justice of the Peace. The futility of these successive statutes was finally conceded in 1765, when 5 Geo. III, c. 17, emphasised that ‘the distress this kingdom must soon be in for want of timber is most obvious’; two years later, 7 Geo. III, c. 23, admitted that ‘the several acts passed for the preservation of woods and timber have in a great measure proved ineffectual.’

Before admitting defeat parliament sought to remedy this social and economic problem of deforestation by a variety of coercive judicial or voluntary administrative means. For instance, an act of 1705, 4 Anne, c. 9, attempted to switch the executive responsibility for planting trees directly to the owners, tenants for life or tenants for 11 or more years of estates worth at least £10 p.a.

Under the act they were made responsible for planting a quota of fir, elm, ash, walnut, poplar or alder trees, and were required to file a certificate of completion with the Clerk of the Peace for the county. But it was discovered that to comply with this act trees were actually being transplanted from existing woods. To stop this abuse a further statute, 9 Anne, c. 5, decreed in 1710 that trees were to be planted out of nurseries only.

Many landlords, both in and out of parliament, were alarmed at the depletion of the environment and anxious to encourage reafforestation. Some planted nurseries to supply their estates with trees; others offered their tenants premiums for the number of trees planted per rented acre. In 1732 a traveller remarked of the estate of George Mathew (1362) of Thomastown, Co. Tipperary, that ‘’tis supposed that there are more improvements in planting about this seat than any in Ireland; large plantations of fir, and the water brought with no small charge from a great distance.’

In 1776 Arthur Young commented enthusiastically on Thomas Mahon’s (1334) woods at Strokestown, Co. Roscommon: ‘they were all his own planting, and having besides 100 acres a vast amount of hedgerows well planted round many inclosures which join those woods … He began 35 years ago with ash which are now 70 to 80 feet high.’

Leases usually contained clauses requiring tenants to plant various types of trees; for example, leases granted on two south Tyrone estates, the Caledon estate in the early eighteenth and the Ranfurly estate in the late eighteenth century, required tenants to plant orchards of apple and pear trees.On the Caledon estate a book was kept that recorded the tenants’ obligations and the penalties they incurred for neglecting them. Similarly, in 1751 Lord Abercorn’s agent informed him that ‘the tenants shall have everyone notice of that covenant obliging them to plant and preserve so many trees.’

Tenants enclosing their fields were often required to plant trees in addition to hedges; for instance, on the Ranfurly estate near Dungannon a 1783 lease required hedges planted ‘with white thorn or crab quicks and … one good ash or elm tree on the said ditch at twenty feet distance each’. Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that despite parliamentary statutes and the efforts of individuals to arrest or even reverse the process of deforestation, it continued in some places into the nineteenth century.

The eighteenth-century traveller was continually struck by the treelessness of the country: ‘The whole island is remarkably bare of trees and exhibits a naked appearance,’ wrote Wakefield, ‘which is more striking to a traveller whose eye has been familiarised to the woody counties of England.’ He observed that ‘from Edgeworth’s town [Co. Longford] to Athlone … I scarcely saw a twig,’ and, with the exception of trees planted around the seats of the gentry, ‘The country between Limerick and Adair is exceedingly bare of trees’, while in Co. Wexford he found it artistically deplorable that ‘the baronies of Bargie and Forth are in a high state of cultivation, but there is scarcely a single tree to be seen in them.’

The romanticism of the early nineteenth century hankered, and could afford to hanker, for the wooded banks of the nearby river Slaney. However, Carr, who visited Ireland about the same time, remarked on the regional variations:

In Ulster and the county of Donegal, also along Lough Erne in the county of Fermanagh, and in the north part of Tyrone, there are considerable forests; and the county of Wicklow, King’s County and Queen’s County abound with wood; and so do parts of the counties of Wexford and Carlow; but the greater part of Ireland is bare of wood.

Irresponsible absenteeism encouraged land abuse; for instance, in 1808, Lady Bessborough wrote that the Kerry landlords ‘Lord Kenmare and Mr Herbert live in England; they make the most of estates they never see: the trees are all to be cut down for timber, and the money sent to them.’ Normally, the devaluing of an estate was not in the owner’s or the tenant’s interest, but some types of estates were more vulnerable than others to mismanagement, particularly lands held on terminable leases when a tenant thought that the lease would not be renewed.

Church lands were also vulnerable, as ecclesiastics held them only during their tenure of a see or benefice. Translations were often frequent so that the bishop’s tenure was uncertain, while his family responsibilities might be considerable. In the early days of the century the bachelor Archbishop King complained bitterly of certain bishops selling the timber on their diocesan estates. Among these was Dr Wetenhall, Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, who was alleged to have sold £10,000 worth of woods on his diocesan estates, while similar profiteering was attributed to Dr Charles Hickman, Archbishop King’s successor to the see of Derry.

It has been estimated that between 1600 and 1800 the afforested proportion of the country was reduced from one-sixth to one-fiftieth. Between 1730 and 1780, 27,461 acres – including five forests of over 500 acres and 79 woods of between 100 and 500 acres – were advertised for sale, as well as a number of smaller planta­tions.183 Parliament was still wrestling with the problem of forestation in 1788 (28 Geo. III, c. 28).

Other serious economic problems were created by continuing deforestation, for example the decline of the charcoal-smelting and tanning industries. The latter had been encouraged by the prohibition of the export of live cattle in the early 1660s. Tree bark, preferably from live trees, was an essential ingredient in the tanning process.

The problem was constant throughout the century. For instance, in 1706, when Arthur Brownlow (0263) purchased the estate of Richmount in Co. Armagh, it was described by the Belfast merchant George Macartney (1300) as ‘being as fine an estate of the value as any in Ulster for its extraordinary good ground and about £8,000 worth of woods thereon which would yield ready money, that commodity being very scarce in Ireland especially the bark of it’.

By 1710 Ireland had to import bark in fluctuating but increasing quantities. For example, between 1719 and 1727 the average value of imported bark was £16,100, in 1736 it was £18,000, in 1744 (in the aftermath of the famine) it was £15,400 but by 1783, despite poor harvests and the War of American Independence, it had risen to £36,000. Most of the bark imported was from England; the remainder came from north Germany. English bark was preferred because it tanned faster than the less expensive German bark.