Wild Heritage of Uibh Laoire

Hedgerows and Field Boundaries – creating space for nature to function.


By Ted Cook

Some readers will recall this writer’s effort over the past 20 years to highlight the importance of our field system and hedgerow heritage.


It is appropriate consequently to look at the historical origins of Ireland’s largest man-made monument under the heading "The Wild Heritage of Uibh Laoire".


The bulk of Ireland’s 780,000 miles of roadside and field boundaries date from the 1667 Cattle Act although much of our roadside hedgerow dates back to Neolithic Period when the first farmers reached our shores with rafts of Shorthorn, Dexter, Droimin and Moll species of ancient cattle in tow.


The Gaelic word for road, "bothar’’, reminds us that the first roads were "cow paths" through the then dense temperate rainforest of oak and elm and the associate under-canopy of holly, hazel, yew, crabapple, wild cherry and buckthorn.


Prior to the 1641 Rebellion and Cromwell’s consequent arrival to "quell Ireland", an ancient system of "booleying" was wildly practised by our farmers. Under this grazing system, which was tightly regulated under the old Irish Brehon Codes, cattle were collectively driven and grazed on the uplands during the summer months.


The frequency with which the word "booley" occurs in placenames from Rathlin Island to Valencia Island tells us the extent of this transhumance culture. In Uibh Laoire we have Cloghboola townland.


The subsequent settlement of 2 million acres of Ireland by Cromwellians after the Petty Survey (1659) led to the enclosure of lands by earthen mounds and ditches, planted with furze and whitethorn. In some Northern parts the dividing field boundaries were planted with broom (a co-species of furze) as well as whitethorn and blackthorn – valuable for stock proofing a meadow or tillage plot.


On the more fragile and shallow soils of counties Galway, Donegal, Clare and the islands, stone walls replaced the earthen ditches.


Booleying was prohibited under the 1667 Act and later Enclosure Acts of 1710-1730 but continued partially in the remoter districts of Beara and the Burren. The last vestiges of booleying can yet be seen in rural parts of West Limerick and North Kerry – the long acre. The Animal Liability Act (1976) makes little allowance for this locally customary and ancient privilege.


To better appreciate Uibh Laoire’s tapestry of field division – what one might call "art on a vast scale", - there is always high ground nearby through out our parish. Visitors from abroad are truly amazed at our hundreds of thousands of miles of "wildlife corridors" – highways for our bats and butterflies, sparrows and partridges – the essences of our natural inheritance.


Readers who have travelled outside of the islands of Ireland and Britain will know that such historic landscape management is unknown in the rest of the world.


Apart from wildlife and heritage considerations, the functions of a well maintained and managed field hedgerow are manifold.


Livestock need shade and shelter. Simply observe cattle under the wet pelt of a November hill during an east or north wind. No amount of electric wire can replace the visible thrift of a beast that has easy access to shelter and a browse along unfertilised ground and natural field vegetation.


It is estimated that 15% of Ireland’s entire native broadleaf heritage is found dotted along our hedgerow network and over 600 of Ireland’s 817 native flowering plants find their habitat in the dappled shade of a ditch.


It was to the field boundaries of Ireland that De Valera sent the nation’s school children during World War 2 to tap the infinitely renewal resources of Vitamin C from rosehip, bilberry, blackberry, black-whort, crabapple, damson and greengage (buláiste) – natures gift to man as well as to all living things.


It was under these same hedgerows that an outraged and plundered people nutured an almost extinguished light – the light of freedom. In these "hedge-schools" literacy and memory was shared by underground hedge-masters, despite the criminal sanctions of The Penal Law Code from 1695 up to 1782.


To finish it would seem appropriate to include the following anonymous penning by way of an appeal to the farmers of Uibh Laoire to reflect on the archaeological, cultural and agricultural significance of their "sporty lines of woodland run wild"


Leave us our hedgerows, O landowner thrifty,

The Lovely wild hedges adorning our land,

To salvage some inches of soil for your profit,

Must they be uprooted by philistine hand.


The hedgerows in springtime with little birds nesting;

With dogrose and mayflower and woodbine are dressed;

While sheltering beneath them the pale primrose blossoms

And our shrews and our hedgehogs abide there and rest.


How the towndweller longs for countryside blooming,

And dreams of green meadows and by-ways o’ergrown,

And summer airs laden with perfume of flowers,

Where songbirds sing loud and honey bee roam.


When the summer is fading and harvest is coming

The hedgerows hang heavy with secrets untold.

The hips and blackberries gleam rich on the bramble,

Our rowan trees shine out in scarlet and gold.


Plough your fields, busy farmer; sow the wheat and the grain.

By the sweat of your brow shall the needy be fed;

But leave us the hedgerows, our sad hearts to gladden.

Man lives not by bread alone, have you not heard it said.