Eoghan Daltun stood on a slope and pointed to a distant vista of verdant fields, craggy hills, and conifer trees across the Beara Peninsula in west Cork.
Sun glinted off the rocks and sheep grazed in meadows. It was serene—the sort of bucolic panorama that draws tourists and appears on Irish postcards to embody the Emerald Isle.
Daltun, however, had news for anyone tempted to marvel at nature’s majesty. “It’s ecological illiteracy. They can’t read the landscape they’re looking at. That is a completely barren landscape. It is biologically empty.”
The scenery, he said, represented environmental degradation. The sheep had devoured wild flowers and seedlings, preventing native trees from growing, and the conifers were part of a monoculture plantation that devastated biodiversity. “We are in the midst of a serious ecological crisis.”
Daltun is a pioneer in a rewilding movement that seeks to restore native forests that once blanketed 80 percent of Ireland but now cover just one percent, one of the lowest rates in Europe.
Over the past 14 years, the sculptor, author, and farmer-cum-activist has turned 30 acres of rugged hillside in Beara, a windswept peninsula overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, into a showcase of biodiversity and climate action.
He fenced off the land to keep out feral goats, sika deer, and other non-native animals, eradicated rhododendron and other invasive alien plants, and let nature do the rest. “The result was amazing,” Daltun said during a recent tour of the land. “Almost from the start the whole place started to transform. You started to see drifts of wildflowers: dog violet, primrose, bluebell, bugle, wood-sorrel. And tree seedlings started to pop up.”
He pointed at the ground. “Within 3 meters [10 feet] of where we are standing you have at least six species of wild native trees, all self-seeded: sessile oak, rowan, downy birch, hawthorn, hazel, holly.” Daltun peered at a seedling. “Actually seven, there’s a willow. They can keep on growing because there is nothing to eat them.”
The site now has forest canopy and an abundance of insects and native mammals, such as pine martens, otters, and lesser horseshoe bats. Wrens chirp from nests and ravens fly overhead. A recent drought dried up nearby streams but water still trickled through Daltun’s property.
“A natural forest retains water like a giant sponge. The soils are more porous. The roots and mosses absorb the moisture and let it out slowly. The whole ecosystem has started to function again properly.”
Ireland is famously pastoral and in 2019 became the second country in the world after Britain to declare a climate emergency. But it is one of the EU’s worst carbon emission offenders and has struggled to protect ancient bogs and contain rhododendron. It has increased forest cover to 11 percent—still low by European standards—but almost all of that is sitka spruce and other monoculture plantations, which critics say are ecological dead zones.
Rewilding initiatives have spread. Trinity College Dublin replaced manicured lawns in 2020 with turf that included 25 types of native Irish wildflower, resulting in a riot of color and foliage three years later. Randal Plunkett, who owns an estate in County Meath, replaced cattle, sheep and many crops with wilderness. Ireland’s Health Service Executive said last week it may rewild the grounds of its headquarters.
Daltun, a sculpture restorer, has been an advocate since selling his home in Dublin in 2009 to buy a patch of the Beara Peninsula. It had mature native trees but goats and deer had feasted on seedlings and wildflowers, and had stripped bark, paving the way for a rhododendron infestation that stifled other plants. “The forest was essentially dying,” he said.
The fencing and the rhododendron extirpation let native nature flourish. Daltun, who keeps a small number of cattle on a separate parcel of land, also favors severe culling of feral goats and sika deer—a pleasant surprise to neighboring farmers who were unsure what to expect from a Dublin environmentalist. “We either start protecting the little natural habitats we have left or we lose them,” said Daltun.
Last year he published a book, An Irish Atlantic Rainforest: a Personal Journey into the Magic of Rewilding, that caught the public’s imagination and won international plaudits. “There has been a massive reaction. Awareness is increasing.”
Unlike Scotland, where a handful of wealthy estate owners can rewild vast tracts, rural Ireland is divided into smallholdings. Daltun said significant action would require subsidies, community consultation, and popular support. “Rewilding can be seen as a rich person’s hobby. It’s really important that ecological and social justice go hand in hand.”