“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree…” 

So wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden: A Life in the Woods, a book which describes his two years spent alone in a cabin in a woodland near Concord, Massachusetts.

Hopefully, you won’t have to travel so far on foot, or through snow, to keep an appointment with the magnificent beech tree in Balrath Woods, near Kentstown, Co. Meath. This tree, known as the Great Beech, is the oldest in Balrath Woods, estimated to be about 200 years old. It is thought to date from the 19th Century when estate planting was carried out by Sir William Somerville.                                                                                                                                     
Balrath Woods (also known locally as Knockcomra) was once part of the larger Somerville estate. Some of the original trees from this era still remain but most of the 50 acre (20 hectare) woodland was replanted in 1969 with a variety of species. As part of the division of the Somerville Estate, Balrath Woods, along with other woodlands in the locality, was handed over to the Forest Service in March 1966.            


 The Tree Council of Ireland now lease Balrath Woods, and have developed its recreational and educational use as an outdoor classroom, where visitors are helped to develop knowledge and understanding of trees and the woodland environment. The Council is joined by Coillte, Balrath Wood Preservation Group and Meath County Council in maintaining the woodland. Funding also came from the Neighbour Wood Scheme (Forest Service) which aims to develop woodland amenities in and around villages, towns and cities.

Balrath Woods Preservation Group

The Balrath Woods Preservation Group is made up of a small group of friends and neighbours living in the Balrath Woods area, whose aim is “…to promote an appreciation of the environmental and social value of our woodlands and to protect this important part of our natural heritage for the future.” In 2007, the Balrath Wood Preservation Group received a Wildlife Grant from the Heritage Council and commissioned a 5-Year Management Plan for the wood. 

Nature walk

The Nature Walk has been designed to demonstrate woodland ecology and management to children and adults alike. At various points along the route, numbered marker posts show the visitor different features of the wood and encourage exploration and discussion. Interpretive panels are located in the car park and beside the wetland area, and show a map of the walk along with wildlife that can be seen along the way.Markers are located beside the many trees in the woodland, encouraging identification of the different species. These include natives such as ash, oak, alder, birch and willow; conifers such as Norway and Sitka spruce; non-natives such as beech and Spanish Chestnut and under-storey trees such as hazel and holly.

          

The Nature Walk also points out older sections of the wood where a canopy layer might be identified, and poses questions such as what is the difference between a native and non-native tree and why do woodland flowers mostly bloom in Spring-time.

Spring flowers which can be identified include lesser celandine, dog violet and primrose. Later in summer you may find lady’s bedstraw, germander speedwell, wood avens and the invasive but impressive Rosebay Willowherb. Orchids have also been found along some pathways.

The variety of flowers attract butterflies, including the meadow brown, speckled wood, tortoiseshell and red admiral. There may also be damselflies and dragonflies in the air, especially near the wetland area. Like a waterhole in the African Savannah, this area is an important lifeline for wildlife. Mammals will drink from the pond, birds use the reeds to nest in and many insects lay their eggs in the water.

A teachers pack developed by Meath County Council and The Tree Council is available for download, and can be used by teachers and families alike to enhance their experience of the woodland.

Conclusion

The importance of maintaining mixed broadleaf woodlands such as Balrath Woods becomes ever more apparent as we face threats such as Ash Dieback and other tree diseases. A diverse woodland ecosystem is more stable than one made up of only one or two species, and thus more resilient in the face of such perils.

As the Great Beech in Balrath Woods approaches the end of its lifespan (Beech trees rarely live longer than 250 years), we must continue to manage our woodlands in order to replace what is lost in the natural cycle of life.  The importance of conserving these woodlands has never been so vital as it is now. Their value as educational resources for schools, as amenities for local communities and as vital habitats for wildlife is immeasurable. 

To quote Thoreau once more: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

So get out into the woods today and keep an appointment with that big old beech tree, while it is still there to be enjoyed. 


This is an article I wrote for the Native Woodland Trust magazine. Support their work and become a member.