Caught by the River

Reforesting the Clare Coast

Emma Warren | 7th September 2017

Emma Warren meets the Cornish surfers reforesting County Clare one sapling at a time

There’s a bit of evidence round the back of Moy Hill Community Farm that dispels the myth that this part of West Ireland is naturally treeless. Creamy ancient bogwood is piled up in great heaps like giant bones, dug up as these surfers-turned-farmers bring this land back to productive life.

Matt Smith, the Cornish surfer and publisher of highly-readable magazine Backwash, is looking out towards the Cliffs of Moher from the farm. We’re looking out over the Atlantic and the flat, treeless land that stretches inland as he evokes the colonial roots of Irish deforestation. “It is really easy to grow trees and that’s one of the reasons we’re doing it,” he says. “If we grow a little woodland here, there’s no excuse for the guys down there in the valley not to do it. The first few months we were planting trees in the community garden, the farmers would drive past and they’d laugh but they’d stop and have the craic with us, saying you can’t grow trees here – it’s too windy, too salty, too this, too that. Then after another few months, they’d be like ‘oh I remember when there were trees in my back garden’. Then they started helping us.”

To rewind a bit: back in 2013, pro surfer Fergal Smith (no relation) began planting a small orchard alongside fruit and vegetables on two acres of land kindly donated by a ‘local hero’. Smith had decided to step aside from his high-airmile surf life and was soon joined by fellow surfers Mitch Corbett and Matt Smith in reconnecting with the earth part of Planet Earth. They grew their garden into a pretty and nourishing corner of the community, with free, weekly Pot Luck dinners, workshops on building, cooking and growing, an open-door policy for volunteers, and surfed the Cliffs whenever the chance arose.

They then expanded into a fully-fledged CSA Community Farm up the hill, on 17 acres that no-one else wanted because they were overgrown and untended since the last farmer on the land, Maureen, had stopped working the land in the early 1900s. They cleared a road onto the farm, grew enough food to feed the 40+ local families signed up to their produce scheme, and built a geodesic dome. Two young Danish visitors built a beautiful shed that now houses a table for ten (at a squeeze), a kitchen and a workshop. It is an impressively low-resource undertaking where everything that can be done by hand is done by hand, including a farming method which sees three healthy-looking pigs turn the land over instead of tractors.

Now, trees are back in the mix, big time. A crowdfunding campaign has just launched to enable the purchase of the land that sits between the community garden and the farm, on which the Moy Hill crew want to plant at least another 40,000 trees, and to develop the agro-forestry which currently sees rows of willow sown next to rows of onions and potatoes. They’ve already planted 12,000 saplings, mostly pioneer species, and all native. The sprigs bouncing about in front of us in the drizzle will become hedgerow, blackthorn, hazel, alder, whitebeam and holly trees. Even a few oak, though they’re not expecting great success with these because they need so much space. “The alder will be 10ft in ten years but quite spindly,” says Matt. “It’s not going to be a woodland you can walk under because of the nature of the weather, it’ll be a fairy forest on this side of the hill just because the trees will get blown over,” he says, holding his palm flat next to his shoulder to indicate his saplings’ eventual height, and pointing out a few strips further down the hill that might more closely resemble full height woodland.

“I wasn’t brought up planting trees or hanging out in nature – I was on the beach – but when we started planting the orchard, I was blown away,” he says, hands in the pocket of his new pale green Finisterre waterproof, which he acquired in a side job running the ambassador team for the cold water surf brand, and which has been attracting covetous attention all day. “Why isn’t this encouraged, why are we leaving tree planting to the government, why isn’t this considered direct action? It’s brought me so much joy. No-one ever told me this was a great way to spend my day.”

The freshly-minted farmers are also hoping to tend to their volunteers by developing their social farming. Matt: “So many people who’ve come through have been really resourceful, but a lot of people who’ve come through are just looking for alternatives and answers. It’d be great to help them.”

Moy Hill is attracting like-minded souls. One current volunteer cycled from Belgium and wound his way up the hill after hearing about them from a stonemason he got chatting to on the Cliffs of Moher. A family arrive, spilling out of the car, after emailing to say they wanted to help out for the afternoon. A clean-looking French guy pulls up in a hire car as we’re leaving, tightly clad in a yellow Lacoste puffa jacket. People keep coming and it’s easy, standing by the piled-up bogwood and looking out to the ocean, to understand why.


Find out more/donate to Moy Hill’s crowdfunding campaign here.

Emma Warren on Caught by the River/on Twitter