Sunday, 24 May 2015

For Love of Trees

For Love of Trees – trees, hedgerows, ivy and the environment. Risteárd Mulcahy. Environmental Publications. 1996 pp 79.

This book was published 15 years ago. Because the ivy situation in Ireland has worsened since my book was published I thought of republishing it in 2012 with some additional comments which had been omitted in the first edition. I had the text added to my computer by my daughter Barbara for this purpose. However, as the additions I had in mind were hardly sufficient to merit a new edition, I thought a rider would suffice which can be added to the early copies which I have left in my library.

Struggling to breath in Ballymore Eustace

I can say at this juncture that my book which was so critical of the excessive amount of Ivy on our hedgerows trees received a mixed reception; some agreed with my general thesis while others believed that ivy is not harmful to our casual and woodland timber; they even deemed it attractive when the tree is heavily laden. Those who agreed with my views, particularly on the aesthetic effect of a heavy growth of the plant, were rarely outspoken or active in discouraging its worst features.  Others were entirely opposed to my view, some of whom expressed opinions denying its harmful and aesthetic effects. Some thought me obsessive in my opinions.  In no case has there been any evidence provided to counteract my views about the harmful aesthetic and functional effect of the climber as it heavily envelops the trunk and branches of our hedgerow and small clumps of trees.

Both trees were freed of ivy 15 years ago. One is re-infested.

I have no reason to change my opinions about the problems created by the widespread growth of ivy in Ireland.  In my chapter The Mechanism of Damage by Ivy, I underline the plant’s roots competing for water and nutrients, and, through the gradual spread of the lateral branches, the loss of leaf production. We need to underline the loss of leaf production as is so evident when the climber has reached the top of the affected tree. It is clearly impossible for the tree to grow in a natural way if it is deprived of its leaves, its source of energy and carbon production. It is also obvious that the normal growth and habit of the tree is changed because of the gradual distortion and loss of the lateral branches.

I had no idea in 1996 why the ivy infestation of our trees has been a very recent aspect of our hedgerows and hedgerow trees. I had been familiar with the hedgerows in Co. Wexford as a youth and recalled them as being rich in trees, and of ash in particular.  The reduction in ash was evident 15 years ago and I can say with confidence that the ivy incursion into our countryside has worsened during the last 15 years since I published my monograph. I was not aware of the cause of the widespread presence of ivy 15 years ago but since then  I have found evidence that goats are being used professionally in the United States to control the spread of ‘’English Ivy’’ and many other forms of brushwood and weeds. This information is available on the web under the headings of goats and ivy. You can look up Rent-a-goat gains a foothold and Fias Co Farm. Herds of goats are hired by landowners and other institutions in the West Coast of America. The goats are proving most effective in clearing brushwood and much more economical than clearing scrub mechanically or by human hand.

Goats have four stomach cavities and are notorious browsers of almost any plant or shrub which they encounter. Goats were widespread in Ireland in the past but are now rarely seen. It is very likely that they may have played a significant if not the major part in the growth and spread of our hedgerow ivy. It is surely the most rational reason we can attribute to the increasing and widespread prevalence of ivy in our countryside.

Near my daughter Tina's home in France
In my chapter Methods of Control I describe the simple method of control by cutting the ivy stems with a sharp saw, secateurs or hatchet, whichever is most appropriate. It is clear however that when the tree is heavily laden the thickness of the ivy stems and their multiplicity are such as to make it more difficult to divide them, particularly when the base of the tree is occluded by scrub and other hedgerow weeds and plants. This is a good reason to attend to the tree before the climber has travelled too far in its journey to the top.

The classification of the ivies is very complex because of their huge variety and their propensity to changes in morphology in response to many factors in the environment. The Common Ivy is spoken about in the UK but the ivy in Ireland is called Hedera hibernica and tends to be large leafed and invasive.  Ivy is found as ground cover on the continent but I had thought that it was only a problem for our trees and hedgerows in Ireland and to a lesser extent in Britain. However I noted some common ivy on the trees beside the railway line from Nantes to La Rochelle last autumn but the plant was far from being conspicuous, and a friend who had been in Portugal and is sympathetic to my views noted some ivy on the trees in Portugal.

With my wandering mind, wandering further with age, I find myself switching my mind without obvious reason.  In recent years I have collected the nuts of our common and ever-green oaks and some fine chestnuts during my walks in the nearby UCD grounds and in the spacious roads and avenues of our nearby quiet suburb of Ardalea. This year’s plantings were in October of last year. The plastic pots measuring ten to 15 centimetres were filled from my wife’s spare garden soil.  I planted twelve evergreen oaks and twelve chestnuts in separate small pots and left them to winter behind her tool shed. Although I did not see the first appearance until early April (it was a chestnut) I enjoyed a certain feeling of expectation of their arrival long before that date and found myself sneaking out in the early morning and examining each pot carefully for signs of life. It was a daily brief note of excitement during a cold and wet winter!

In Wexford, patiently waiting to be planted.
The first arrival of a chestnut tree in early April was quickly followed by others and to-day at the beginning of May as I write this account I now have the twelve chestnuts but no sign of the oaks. The first two chestnuts to appear measured exactly 20 centimetres (8 inches) by the 30th of April. I fear that my oaks must have been infertile although in past years the common Irish oak which I planted was a welcome arrival in the late spring. So there is still hope.  The holly or evergreen oak is certainly more reluctant to make its appearance. During previous years I had no trouble in reproducing the Irish or English oak which are abundant in the UCD grounds.

The first six chestnuts have gone to my son Richard’s farm and four will be going to cousins in Kilkenny next week. The latter were among the first recipients to receive three silver birches some years ago and they tell me that they are now a trio of more than ten feet high. We will be rewarded by having lunch in their house and by seeing the birches.  Our hosts will be rewarded by thinking of their friends and being aware of our gift as long as they stay in their home.

Lissenfield with some of  it's trees, young and old.
The remainder of our young trees will be distributed shortly by friends and family. Twelve years after my marriage I and my family moved to my parent’s house in Rathmines. We had two acres there and in response to friends and family wishing to mark the occasion, we asked for a gift of a tree. When the house was vacated 22 years later we were left with a small but striking arboretum including a young and sturdy redwood, reaching 30 feet or more but unhappily cut down by later developers.

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