The Woodland Trust in Northern Ireland

Providing a more optimistic future for Northern Ireland’s priceless woodland heritage

The Woodland Trust is the United Kingdom’s leading woodland conservation charity. Established in 1972, the trust now has over 1100 sites in its care, almost all freely accessible to the public. The Woodland Trust extended operations to Northern Ireland in 1996. Thanks to funding from the Millennium Commission, the trust has since created a total of 51 new community woods throughout Northern Ireland.

These newly created woods represent approximately 210 hectares. In addition, the Woodland Trust has made two important acquisitions of existing woodland, covering approximately 34 hectares, including Drumlamph in Co Londonderry, the first ancient woodland acquired in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s oldest woods have been a well kept secret for many years. Remarkably, there has never been a comprehensive record of the country’s ancient woodland, meaning that this rare resource is afforded little or no protection. Now, thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Environment and Heritage Service, the Woodland Trust is compiling the first ever inventory of ancient woodland in Northern Ireland.

Less than one per cent of the land area of Northern Ireland can be classed as long established woodland (continuously present since the first Ordnance Survey maps of the 1830s). Unlike the rest of the UK, particularly southern England, Northern Ireland has very few ancient trees. Of the already scarce woodland left in 1600, 90% is thought to have disappeared by 1830.

The oldest oak in Ireland is thought to be approximately 350 years old, compared to specimens in England dating back to the 1400s. Intensive agriculture and modern development continue to take their toll, leaving little room for the country’s woodland and wildlife. Knowledge of the extent and location of our ancient woodland is a vital first step in raising awareness of its plight.

The first year’s initial research, carried out by Queen’s University Belfast on behalf of the Woodland Trust, has unearthed some surprising and exciting results, with desk studies suggesting more than twice as many long established woods than initially estimated. While the preliminary results are encouraging, the majority of these woods are very small.

The Woodland Trust has now commenced the second phase of its project. Current field survey work will identify a range of features, including ancient trees and plant species, which could be significant in determining a wood’s history. The survey work is backed by detailed historical research, combining to verify which woods date back to 1600 and are therefore ancient.

Historical research is focusing on seventeenth century sources such as the Bodley maps of 1609, Raven’s maps of the Clandeboye Estate from 1625, Petty maps from the 1650s, and the Civil Survey of 1654. Other records consulted include estate maps, Ordnance Survey Memoirs from the 1830s, and the county registers of trees. These sources can help identify woodlands that are the result of planting in the years prior to the 1830s, rather than being ‘natural’. The end result—an ancient woodland inventory for Northern Ireland—will signal a more optimistic future for our country’s priceless woodland heritage.

Support for the project has also been received from the Community Fund, WWF, the Esme Mitchell Trust, and the GreenCard Charitable Trust.

© The Woodland Trust 2004