Dreaming of a new Irish Landscape (Guest post)

By Neal Hegarty

When I left Ireland in 2008 I was still a boy. I’ve worked for most of the last 15 years in Guatemala, as a Permaculture designer, builder and farmer. My partners and I built Granja Tzikin, a diverse permaculture farm, in which we have integrated goats, chickens, food forests, native trees, bamboo and organic vegetable gardens. All of the food we produce is sold at our farm to table restaurant. A large part of the motivation for developing our project was to demonstrate that permaculture and ecological farming can be done, that it can be economically sustainable as well as environmentally beneficial. 

My team and I have designed and built a wide array of eco-communities, regenerative farms and homesteads. We run a permaculture school from our farm and work with groups from all over the region wishing to regenerate ecosystems and create positive change in a country that so desperately needs it. It has been a wild ride, full of adventure, ups, downs and lessons that I never could have imagined. 

This summer I came back to Ireland for the first time in 10 years with my Colombian wife and our 2-year-old son. It’s a strange thing to see my homeland with fresh eyes after all these years. Mythology and storytelling are passions of mine, my siblings run the wonderful company called Candlelit Tales, which they use to retell all of the great Irish myths. At one of their shows recently I listened again to the familiar story of Oisín. Oisín comes home after 100s of years of living with Niamh in Tir na Nog and is dismayed by the look of the land, the great forests have been replaced with pasture land, and the people appear small and weak. This story, among other things, is telling of what we lose when we lose touch with the wild places. Historically speaking it is talking about the transition from horticulture to agriculture. Both these words end in the word culture, this is because the way we interact with the land and feed ourselves produces shifts in the cultural landscape. Agriculturalists domesticate plants and animals, but they also domesticate themselves. 

Permaculture is a design system that attempts to mirror nature’s model and give us the tools to design farms, towns and cities that contain all the functionality of healthy, long lasting ecosystems. The core idea in the model is that by doing this, we can create cultures that can endure permanently. While this may sound like a lofty goal, I believe that it is truly within our grasp. Not only that, I believe that if we don’t get it together and at least try, then we are quite literally doomed. The climate is changing, forget the politics associated with this statement and walk outside, use your senses and turn off the tv. Most importantly educate yourself in the basics of ecology. 

I believe that the discourse around reducing emissions is way off the mark. Of course in the long term we must find greener, less destructive forms of energy, but in the meantime we must focus on drawing down all the carbon in the atmosphere. Our educational and consultancy platform is called CreaSol, it is inspired by Lugh Law Fada, ancient sun God of the old Irish people who understood that ultimately all life on this planet is made up of sunlight. Plants and trees combine sunlight, carbon and water to make up their bodies and make life on this planet possible. Climate change in Ireland means that we have more sunlight, more water and more carbon. The problems seem overwhelming, but the solutions are embarrassingly simple. 

A healthy ecosystem is a large storage of water, sunlight and carbon. All healthy ecosystems, from tropical mangroves, to temperate rainforests have certain features in common; first and foremost they all capture and store energy (sunlight, water and carbon) in massive quantities. Then through the maintenance and creation of diversity they cycle this energy endlessly through the system. The waste of one element becomes the food for another. Integration is the key. 

It’s not a case of capitalism vs the planet

In Guatemala, so many of the barriers to ecological regeneration are actually socio-economic by nature. People who live in poverty simply don’t care about ecology and can’t be expected to make long term decisions, when putting food on the table today trumps all else. Poverty in these areas has its roots all the way back to colonial times, when forests were cut down to grow crops like cotton, sugarcane and bananas to fuel expansion in the west. Valuable ecosystems were destroyed, but vibrant cultures were also converted into pools of slave labor. Guatemala, and much of the developing world is still suffering the effects. Chief amongst them is what Gabor Mate calls trans generational trauma, suffering and mistreatment inflicted on the Mayan population are now replicated in homes, alcoholism and domestic violence are rife, as is crime, fear and mistrust. And yet in spite of this, the revolution is happening, it mostly goes unnoticed and undocumented, lost in all the noise and negativity, but all over the continent I live in, groups of people are bravely going back to the rural areas, regenerating the landscape and attempting to reintegrate with local communities. If we can do it there, with all the challenges, why can’t we do it here?

One big problem I see is a discourse in the media, which disempowers people. It’s true that capitalism has its dark side, but it also, unlike any other system we know of, it creates wealth and encourages creativity. We must take the positive aspects of capitalism, and move beyond the negative ones. This is called evolution, all evolution is characterized by a tendency to integrate and transcend. A molecule integrates all of the atoms, which make it up, and transcends them, by creating something new. If we are to solve the problems we are faced with, we must focus on creating new systems, which follow this principle. 

Understand how evolution works so you can help it.

Just as molecules integrate atoms to create something new, we must integrate our dark sides and realize that our capacity to harm and destruction is matched by our capacity to love and create. Furthermore we must realize that we are part of nature. The old model of big overcrowded cities, surrounded by extensive farmlands must come to an end. Monocultures of all types need to go, and be replaced by diverse integrated landscapes, which meet our needs while following the basic laws of ecology. Monocultures, the planting of a single species are harmful, because they are segregated as opposed to integrated. An integrated ecosystem is one in which the output of one element becomes the food for another. Most people understand this when it comes to the difference between say a native forest and a plantation of spruce or 200 hundred acres of grass and cattle. What most people are failing to understand is that we must now focus on the integration of human beings back into natural systems. 

What if problems like rural depopulation, the housing crisis, climate change and food production could all be solved by a new approach, one in which farmland is diversified, to include – native woodlands, crop production, multiple animals and most importantly vibrant communities of ecologically literate people, who wish to live in symbiosis with the land that sustains them. If we learn how to read the landscapes, we start to see familiar patterns across Ireland. Rolling hills, of mostly pastureland, used to graze cattle, dairy cows or sheep. This is a good start, grass is perennial, it protects soil, prevents runoff and is capturing carbon call year. But we could do so much better. 

When attempting to do anything well, its best to focus on correctly following basic principles. When doing regenerative design, we simply follow the principles that all healthy ecosystems have in common. 

Principle one – Healthy ecosystems don’t loose water, all regenerative design starts here. By analyzing the topography of land, we could hugely improve things. Digging swales (ditches dug on contour) and planting belts of native trees and berries below them would prevent erosion and reduce flooding in towns and cities downstream. Water capture can be compounded by creating wetlands and forests in low lying areas, ideally these ecosystems can be connected to one another by the aforementioned belts of trees, thus creating ecological corridors across miles of our landscape. 

Principle 2 – Healthy ecosystems capture and store energy in large amounts. 

The application of slurry, smells bad and is upsetting to the senses. Joel Saletin said, ‘if it looks bad and smells bad it’s bad farming’. The bad smell is ammonia or nitrogen escaping into the atmosphere. Slurry contains huge amounts of nitrogen, an important energetic input for all farms, but, nitrogen is fast, it wants to escape, and when we apply it in liquid or chemical form it runs off into our rivers and lakes and escapes into the atmosphere. By using biodigestors, or placing dry bedding under our animals (which can be composted), we can store massive amounts of energy and carbon on the land, thereby increasing its fertility and the microbial life in our soils. 

Principle 3 – Diversity creates resilience and stability in nature.

Herbivores follow omnivores; around all continents of the world a similar relationship between grazing animals, grasslands, predators and omnivores can be observed. Grazing animals move regularly and stay in large groups to avoid being picked off by wolves or lions. Omnivores like birds and pigs follow them, eating the bugs living in the their manure. This alleviates soil compaction, reduces ticks and other illnesses for the herbivores and brings extra fertility to the grasslands. Diversity combined with energy capture means ecosystems can increase in their life supporting capacity every year. By introducing ‘follow the leader’ grazing systems, we can greatly improve access to high quality food while also storing tones of extra carbon in our soils. 

Principle 4 – There is no waste in nature

Having mixtures of animals like cows, goats, pigs and chickens sharing our pasture creates a further opportunity, the creation of large amounts of high quality compost. Composting is easy, especially if efficient systems are designed from the start. All the excess manures could be composted and used to fuel small, intensely managed gardens, where enough vegetables and fruits could be produced in areas no bigger than a few acres to feed entire communities. 

Principle 5 – Humans are part of nature and when we are properly educated, we can be an extremely positive force for the planet. 

The key to reintegrating ourselves with nature and to becoming positive net contributors to the environment is to interact. We want more people in the countryside, not less. We live in a unique time. More and more people can do their jobs with only occasional visits to the city. Right now people are being put off making the move because they fear living in isolation and because zoning laws basically rule most of the land to be undevelopable. 

Back to Oisín, I think I know a little how he might have felt, yearning to see a different landscape. But while Oisín dreamed of the past, I dream of the future. I believe that we must integrate all that has come before us and create something new. We don’t just need trees on the landscape to capture carbon and slow down water, we need wild places and connection with nature. Wild places have medicine, some of it can be foraged, and some of it can be found in the silence and majesty of nature. We need to keep alive the long living cultures and connection to places that make it special to be Irish. But we also need healthy vibrant economies. Digital nomads vastly populate the area I live in. People who do their jobs or run their businesses while living by a lake in Guatemala. Why not encourage people to pull away from the offices and to live the good life in the Irish countryside? Why not give farmers the chance to get off subsidies and into making real money by developing diverse farms, which provide excess yields to local markets. These farms can become profitable and central to the cultural and ecological evolution many of us are yearning for.  

My name is Neal Hegarty, I am 41 years old. I come from a family of Irish dairy farmers and have worked all my adult life on sustainable permaculture projects. I’ve had the great fortune to have learned from and worked for some true masters in their field like – Agro-forestry experts El finca por venir, Bio-intensive vegetable growers like Caoba farms, diverse profitable permaculture farms like Atitlan Organics, indigenious community farmers IMAP, mushroom cultivation experts like Fungi acedemy and rotational grazing pioneers Finca. 5 years ago my partners and I started a farm to table restaurant called Granja Tzikin. We produce our own Goat Dairy, eggs and meat and grow a wide variety of organic veggies and fruits. The goods produced are served at our restaurant and sold at our store. We also run a Permaculture design and project management cooperative. Over the last ten years we have built and designed a wide array of farms, water remediation systems, naturally built houses, and edible forest gardens. We have had some wild successes and some catastrophic failures. Out of a burning desire to see more people take an active part in the permaculture revolution, we have created an accelerated learning program. The program is designed for anybody wishing to design and develop a permaculture project.

Riparian Forestry: Forests for Water

In December 2021, the EPA warned that increasing demand on our waters, coupled with their deteriorating quality, poses a risk to the “health of a large portion of the population”. As the situation worsens, the consensus emerging is that, despite our best efforts, we can not protect our waters with current policy.

We present a nature-based solution to harness the synergies of an integrated catchment management plan. This innovative solution uses services provided by the natural environment to maximise return on investment. Whilst protecting our waterways, we can simultaneously achieve afforestation targets, store carbon and increase biodiversity. 

Two-thirds of Ireland’s land is under agricultural management which is the most significant pressure on the Irish water environment. Fertiliser, slurry, silt, chemicals and pathogens ‘runoff’ fields into streams, rivers and lakes, especially after heavy rain. This is known as diffuse pollution and is responsible for a large proportion of water bodies failing to achieve good status as required by the Water Framework Directive (WFD).

Pollutants flow directly into watercourse while cattle trample the riverbank.

A riparian buffer zone is a permanent, semi-natural strip of vegetation along a watercourse that intercepts pollution. These buffer zones incorporate trees, shrubs and grasses to attenuate and purify runoff, by order of magnitude, both above and below the ground (McIntyre, 2013). This is known as ‘breaking the pathway’.

Due to limitations of research at scale, the degree of water quality improvement through riparian vegetation remains to be clarified at a catchment level (Dosskey, 2010). However, when we consider the multi-factor benefits of application, large scale implementation should be considered for At-Risk rivers without delay.

A multi-species riparian buffer system can play an important role in connecting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, especially in the Irish context, where our woodlands are small and isolated. This strip facilitates migration and increases functional biodiversity (Schultz, 1995).

Over 70% of Irish agriculture is livestock which often drink from adjacent rivers: as can be seen in the image above. Their hooves break up the soil and accelerate erosion, which has the cumulative effect of carrying pollutants into watercourses, this is known as poaching, and causes nutrient enrichment (eutrophication). 

Nutrients which were intended to support terrestrial plant life are now used by aquatic plants which require oxygen to grow. The nitrogen and phosphorus feed an unnatural and unsustainable population boom of algae which absorb all the dissolved oxygen and suffocate other aquatic life. This also creates the conditions for rooted plants to enter the habitat, further disturbing the riverbed.

Image taken from Teagasc: Structure of Riparian Buffer Zone

Solar pumps can bring water from a watercourse to a trough which facilitates a setback while the roots of the vegetation provide additional bank stabilisation (Simon, 2002). This protects aquatic life, such as fish spawning beds, from being buried in sediment.

The buffer zone can be fenced from the main part of the field with a gate to allow occasional mob grazing, which has been proven to increase biodiversity and will allow farmers to continue to avail of their current grant schemes without penalty.

One example, amongst many nation-wide, is the Blackwater River in Meath, which flows from Ballyjamesduff, to Kells, and into the Boyne River. It is ‘at-risk’ of diffuse pollution yet there is currently no management plan to restore water quality. A riparian buffer is a viable solution that will protect this river and enhance the touristic chain value of the area.

Ballyjamesduff and the historic town of Kells would be enhanced by the natural beauty of a riparian buffer zone which would increase eco-tourism by offering anglers and walkers a spectacular, spiritually nourishing experience. A well designed riparian buffer zone will naturalise into the landscape and requires little maintenance. 

An impediment to implementation, and probably the most daunting aspect, is landowner participation. However, this could be achieved with improved policy and engagement through environmental consultants and the Local Authorities Water Programme. 

Soil health is crucial to improve resilience in Irish farming. Soil is 95% sand, silt, clay and air; the rest is Organic Matter. This is where the exchange of nutrients occurs, bringing bacteria and fungi. Fields adjacent to a riparian buffer zone will benefit from this organic matter, reducing reliance on fertiliser (Marquezi, 1999). The trees and shrubs also provide shelter for birds which offers natural pest management.

Flexibility of riparian design also means that farmers can diversify their income by producing marketable goods, such as apples. As we import 95% of our apples, this riparian crop would improve Ireland’s food security. Any land under tillage will also benefit from the wind-breaking over the trees which can protect crops from storms and can increase yields up to 16% (Smith, 2021).

Restoring adjacent wetlands, such as fen, creates an effective buffer and provides the opportunity for Paludiculture (wetland agriculture): facilitating the production of load-bearing insulation, typha boards, from cattails. As the price of insulation is currently skyrocketing, this indigenous material could reduce costs in construction; this requires rapid market chain development.

These incentives will not be sufficient for most farmers who haven’t the equipment for tillage, so a stipend for this public service must be provided. At the Gaelic Woodland Project, we believe that we must support our rural communities as their well-being and stewardship is a necessity.

Taken from Environmentbuddie.com: Imagine if this was the Shannon.

Riparian buffer zones as Natural Flood Management features aren’t being seriously considered for our Integrated Catchment Management Plans due to a lack of large-scale empirical evidence. However, conceptual models suggest that this could be a complimentary alternative to hard infrastructure, which often has disastrous ecological consequences.

Rain falls on a catchment and flows from headwaters, into streams, rivers, lakes and into the flood plain before entering transitional waters. The volume increases incrementally as sub-catchments merge which collectively contribute to large scale flooding events in the lower-catchment. 

The riparian buffer strips increase channel complexity and hydraulic resistance to slow the flow into waterways, reducing Peak Flow (Dixon, 2018). Research suggests that as these trees age, they become important areas for water storage and sinks for storm rainfall, with their root networks facilitating lateral infiltration toward groundwater (Archer, 2015).

Each riparian buffer zone requires a site-specific design but may include holly, willow, hazel, guelder rose, alder & downy birch with hawthorn scattered throughout and pedunculate oak as the climax tree species. As this oak grows, cracks appear in the bark which allows for ferns and mosses to create a rising ecosystem, which can support over 900 species.

If we do not remedy our deteriorating water quality we create greater problems in the years to come. As farming is a family business, those working the land have seen rivers change throughout their lifetime. Perhaps there is even a sadness to see their parents’ farm lost to the Common Agricultural Policy.

We eagerly await a new forestry policy in June 2022, where we hope that riparian forestry will replace peatland plantations. Research published in Kerry last year showed that the carbon emitted from degrading peat can emit more carbon than the trees sequester (Sancho, 2021). This requires a drastic change in policy as 40% of Irish forestry is on peatland.

Mistakes have been made but now we know our approach to land management isn’t adequate. We must harness the synergies and work with nature. This requires courage from the Department and pressure from an informed public. Failing to make this necessary shift is a disservice to posterity.

The Gaelic Woodland submitted this suggestion during consultations for the CAP in November 2021. Please share this article.


  1. The role of riparian vegetation in protecting and improving chemical water quality in streams Dosskey, M.G., Vidon, P., Gurwick, N.P., Allan, C.J., Duval, T.P. & Lowrance, R. 2010. Journal of the American Water Resources Association 46(2):261-277.

2. Land use management effects on flood flows and sediments – guidance on prediction McIntyre, N. & Thorne, C. (Eds.). 2013. CIRIA Report C719. CIRIA, London.

3. Design and placement of a multi-species riparian buffer strip system Schultz, R.C., Collettil, J.P., Isenhart, T.M., Simpkins, W.W., Mize, C.W. & Thompson, M.L. 1995. Agroforestry Systems 29(3):201-226.

4. Quantifying the mechanical and hydrologic effects of riparian vegetation on streambank stability Simon, A. & Collison, A.J.C. 2002. Earth Surface Processes & Landforms 27:527-546.

5. Windbreaks in the United States: A systematic review of producer-reported benefits, challenges, management activities and drivers of adoption. Agricultural Systems. Volume 187. February 2021. Matthew M.Smith, Gary Bentrup, Todd Kellerman, Katherine MacFarland, Richard Straight, Lord Ameyaw.

6. Assessing soil quality in a riparian buffer by testing organic matter fractions in central Iowa, USA (1999) C. O. Marquezi, *, C. A. CAMBARDELLA2 , T. M. ISENHART1 and R. C. SCHULTZ1 1 Department of Forestry, 251 Bessey Hall, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011, USA.

7. A conceptual model of riparian forest restoration for natural flood management (October 2018). Water and Environment Journal Vol:33(1-2). Anthropocene Landscapes and Processes Group. Simon J. Dixon, David A Sear, Keith H Nislow

8. Rainfall infiltration and soil hydrological characteristics below ancient forest, planted forest and grassland in a temperate northern climate (2015)Nicole A. L. Archer, Wilfred Otten, Sonja Schmidt,A. Glyn Bengough, Nadeem Shah, Mike Bonell. Ecohydrology.

9. Soil carbon balance of afforested peatlands in the maritime temperate climatic zone (May 2021) Global Change Biology: vol: 27(1) Antonio Jonay Jovani Sancho, Thomas Cummins, Kenneth A Byrne