The Surfers Aiming To Plant Acres Of Native Atlantic Rainforest

‘If not now, then when?” Matt Smith says. “And if not us, who?” The CEO of Hometree is explaining why his organisation felt the time was right to launch its most ambitious initiative to date.

After eight years working with landowners, farmers and foresters, the Clare-based woodland charity is setting out to re-establish 4,000 acres of native Atlantic rainforest on the western seaboard.

“The State has declared an ecological biodiversity crisis,” the 36-year-old says. “We’re told every day in the news about the situation — climate change, biodiversity collapse, how it’s impacting us. So, all we’re really doing is responding to this information in a rational way. An irrational response would be to do nothing.”

Baiba Sustere, Ray Ó Foghlú, Matt Smith and Cía McElveen, Hometree staff members, at one of the sites last week. The Clare-based charity hopes to re-establish 4,000 acres of Atlantic rainforest. Pic. Cathal Noonan

Put simply, Ireland’s quota of functioning wild habitat is dismal. We have roughly 1pc remaining of our native woodland, among the lowest in Europe. A 2014 EU-wide study also found that the so-called “Emerald Isle” was at the very bottom of the Ecological Integrity Index.

It is all the result of a gradual chipping away over millennia. We cleared the land not only of trees, but also of apex predators such as wolves that control the very herbivores that stymie regrowth. Add to this numberless flocks of sheep nibbling our uplands and a germinating acorn hasn’t much chance.

The bare rocky hills of Connemara and Kerry might make for enigmatic landscape photos, but they are in fact, to borrow George Monbiot’s phrase, “sheep-wrecked”.

Combining both land purchased directly by Hometree as well as close partnerships with adjacent landowners, the project’s first phase aims to acquire eight sites.

A target budget of just under €12m will include built-in supports for farmers and landowners.​

The figure might seem daunting, but Smith and his colleagues are accustomed to risk. As Cornish pro-surfers, Smith and Hometree co-founder Mitch Corbett rocked up in Lahinch a decade ago in search of its coastline’s legendary waves.

In 2012 they co-founded Moy Hill, a 70-acre, not-for-profit vegetable farm. They soon discovered that planting trees was crucial to sheltering winter vegetables from the elements.

Necessity turned to deep love and stewardship. A life of surf competitions and magazine photoshoots (Smith remains a brand ambassador for sustainable clothing company Finisterre) was replaced by a full-time desire to help Irish trees regain a foothold on the map.

Today, Hometree has seven full-time staff on its books, a stable of expert consultants in ecology and business, legions of volunteers, and a board featuring champion surfer Easkey Britton and broadcaster and bestselling author Manchán Magan.

“One of my specialties was the big, heavy, scary waves,” Smith says. “In that, you’ve got to navigate this story of fear inside your head because you know you’ve got the skills and that you’re safe, even if you fall off.

“In a way, it’s the same with this project. We know that there’s a social longing for more native woodlands. We know that the community will get behind it in big and small ways. And we know there’s a desperate need for it and that the climate is begging to have some restoration ran through it.”

A core pillar of the team is Ray Ó Foghlú, an environmental scientist and the organisation’s landowner engagement co-ordinator.

A passionate surfer as well, the 39-year-old Corkonian relishes both the size of the task and the benefits it will bring to society as well as the environment. He is confident the project will find a flagship supporter to come on board for the journey.

“We have a bloody good track record,” Ó Foghlú says. “We have an excellent team — our advisers are some of the best ecologists and conservationists in the country. At this early stage there’s space on our jersey for an anchor tenant, someone who will support us and become completely synonymous with our project, like they would be if it was Liverpool football club. This message of ecological restoration really does resonate.”

Magan happened upon Hometree in 2014 shortly after its formation and soon became a director. He feels Hometree has hit on a special recipe.

“It’s a tiny organisation with a huge vision,” he says. “The reason they connect with everyone is because of that can-do attitude and the way they engage with sensitivity and respect with the community.

“We can wait for the Government, but the Government is only going to work at a certain level. If we’re going to restore wild spaces across the island, we need to also be doing our own thing.”​

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(Source – Irish Independent – Environment – Hilary White – 20/11/2022)

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