This article was originally published on Conor McCarthy's blog, Reflections from Damaged Life on the 6th of April.
Last January I climbed Djouce Mountain, in Co. Wicklow, with my old friend and comrade Andrew. We went up by the Barr and White Hill, and on to Djouce summit. It was a beautiful day of hard frost, and the hills retained a dusting of snow. It's a magnificent, easy hike. Cresting the Barr, where we passed the memorial to JB Malone, the view down to Lough Tay and Luggala, over to Fancy and Knocknaclohoge, and beyond to Lough Dan and Scarr, was superb. Snows fringed the rim of the great cliffs above the lake, backed by pale azure skies. Every blade of grass bore its own banner of hoarfrost.
The walk is deceptively easy, as much of it is now 'boardwalked'. By this I mean that the path had been becoming severely eroded, and some combination of agencies – the Wicklow National Park, perhaps, and Coillte, and Mountain Meitheal – came together to lay a pathway over the soft heather and bog, made of old CIE railway sleepers bound together, and laid in pairs end to end, in steps or stretching out over the moors. For once, a decent and environmentally-sound intrusion has been made into the over-pressured Wicklow hills.
But a much bigger problem is in the making, and has been for some time. Andrew and I parked the car at the entrance and carpark of a state forest on the east side of the Sally Gap-Luggala road, a Coillte forest that drapes the southern flanks of Djouce and White Hill. These forests, which litter Wicklow, and are present all over Ireland, are mostly composed of fast-growing lodgepole pine and sitka spruce and other unprepossessing conifers, that can cope with rugged or boggy or otherwise marginal land. They are planted very densely, and in ugly boxed formations that lap up the mountainsides. They are planted so closely, in fact, that in the resultant darkness there is no undergrowth, and much the ground beneath them becomes sterile. Very little wildlife can survive in these forests once they are mature, though some species like the plantations when the trees are young. The pine needles and other detritus from these trees, which are grown mostly for pulp, not for quality timber, cause acidification of the soils, such as they are. When Coillte decides to fell a certain crop of trees, the procedures used are extraordinarily destructive and ugly. 'Clearfelling' involves simply smashing down all the trees in a designated area. They may be felled by axe and chainsaw, or they may be pulled down by some kind of pulley machinery. Either way, the result is a blasted landscape of grey deadwood, resembling some dismal blend of Flanders in 1916 and Tunguska in 1908.