by Conan Connolly
I’ve been an outdoor lover since I can remember. Growing up on my family’s smallholding in Magheracloone in the 1990’s, little did I know that the land based skills I was so keen to learn from my grandfather would be made virtually redundant by “progress”. These very skills, passed down through centuries of land working, and developed through the experimentation and ingenuity of our ancestors, are all but lost in rural Ireland today. Our connection with the wildlife and seasons, our skills of observation and ingenuity, of thinking outside the box, gone! Our ways of taking it easy, stopping for a chat with passers by, gone! Our ways of working with the neighbours, sharing tools machinery and knowledge, all gone. It seems like the only thing that hasn’t gone is the hard work! The way of life of rural people has been completely transformed by destructive national and EU strategies and policies on how we manage our land. These policies have undermined the production of healthy, affordable produce by forcing rural people to intensify and compete with each other. This seemingly small and uncontrollable factor has left rural communities in Ireland decimated. We all intuitively know that small farms and coops create employment. We know they can protect and even enhance cherished landscapes and provide local sustainable and varied food if managed and supported correctly. The unfortunate thing is we don’t seem to have been able to do anything to help ourselves succumbing to this “progress”. I am very glad to see among the rural people of this area of England a though real awareness here that small-scale, ecological land use is at the heart of their rural culture and communities. They knew this way of life is good healthy and sustainable, and they’ve kept it.
I had the pleasure to visit the woodsman and master craftsman, Ben Law in the past few weeks. His knowledge and passion for his work inspired me to write this article. He is a shining example of how small-scale, ecological land use can work. His case demonstrates how simple ingenuity and creativity can enhance the landscape, build community, protect dying crafts and provide local sustainable and varied food (and drink!). Ben has been managing the woodland areas at Prickly Nut Wood for over 20 years. Ben started off trading his labour for 8 acres of woodland. He transformed and improved his plot so expertly that now he looks after nearly 100 acres for his neighbours. The wood is primarily coppice woodland of sweet chestnut and some mixed coppice – hazel, ash and field maple with oak standards. There is also an 80 tree cider and juice orchard and a larch plantation.
Coppice management is the oldest known form of woodland management, by cutting broadleaf trees during their winter dormant phase, the trees do not die but send up vibrant new shoots which grow on to become poles which are sustainably harvested for a wide range of products. When we were there we got the chance to help with some of the harvesting, I think he likes to “share” the heavy work! The area of trees Ben is currently coppicing will be coppiced next again in thirty years time. The periodic coppicing process allows new light into the woodland floor stimulating growth of flowering plants and in turn food for butterfly and bees. He says “today’s management provides timber for products, whilst also ensuring increased bio-diversity for future generations”. Through his desire to see buildings constructed from local, sustainable materials, Ben has also pioneered roundwood timber framing. As it was in a special area of scientific interest it took ten years to get planning permission for Ben to build his self-sufficient straw bale woodland cottage on his land. Ben has built his own and other houses, shops, school buildings from the local supply of renewable coppiced timber.
I realise that many see living on the land as a chore and a “dead end career”. “Go get yourself an education”, they say. “Get off the land and away from the back breaking toil and stress.” I never saw farming as a chore until I stopped and looked back. When I see how we farm in Ireland, doing as we’re told by policy makers and market owners, I now get why it is seen as a burden. When I went to get that university education (also doing as I was told) little did I realise that it would lead me back to Permaculture.
Channel Four’s Grand Designs followed Ben’s build. It’s available at http://www.channel4.com/programmes/grand-designs/on-demand/41975-012
Conan is outgoing Secretary of Transition Monaghan. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering from TCD. He is currently completing a Certificate in Permaculture Design with ShiftBristol.