Irish Landscapes Will Never be the same

Before delving into the components Irelands rural landscape and the changes that have come with it over the decades, firstly I’d like to begin by defining the key words of this topic.

What is a landscape?

The word landscape, regarded by most as a static backdrop to urban activity (Foley, 2020) derived from the word landschop, which translated to shovelled land. Englishmen from the 16th century misheard or mispronounced the word as ‘landskep’, which then became landscape (Wylie, 2007). Landscapes are the expression of the interaction between the natural environment and man’s activities who tries to create an environment more suitable for his living and needs. (Antrop,1998)

Land and landscape are not synonymous. “Land” refers to soil or earth and therefore ownership or territory. The word “landscape” is considered as a common heritage and a part of a shared identity. It is regarded as mediated land or land that has been aesthetically processed. (Foley, 2020)

What is Rural?

The word rural as described by Paul Cloke is ‘an exclusive place to be lived in; rural communities as a concept to be bought and sold; rural lifestyles which can be colonised; icons of rural culture which can be crafted, packaged and marketed; rural landscapes with a new range of potential from ‘pay-as-you-enter’ national parks, to sites for the theme park explosion’(Cloke, 1997)

What Shapes the Irish Landscape?

When thinking about the Irish landscape, five main features come to mind that shapes our unique island. Those are our climate, topography, land use (predominately agriculture), our physical boundaries (hedgerows, bocus and stone walls) and rural housing. (Foley, 2020)


The Atlantic Ocean is the predominant influence on Ireland’s climate. Consequently, Ireland does not suffer from the severe temperatures experienced by many other countries at similar latitude. Sea temperatures have been influenced by the warm North Atlantic Drift. This maritime impact is strongest near the Atlantic coasts and reduces with distance inland. The mountains and hilltops , many of which are near the coasts, provide shelter from vigorous winds and from the direct oceanic influence. Winters tend to be windy and cold, while summers, when the depression track is further north, are mostly mild and less windy. (Climate of Ireland – Met Éireann – The Irish Meteorological Service, n.d.)


The topography of Ireland features a hilly, central lowland composed of limestone surrounded by a fragmented border of coastal mountains. The mountain ranges alter greatly in geological structure. The island of Ireland has seen at least two general glaciations. (Topography of Ireland)

The central plain, broken in places by drumlins, round hills and low ridges, courses from east to west. (Glassie, 2014). It has numerous lakes and considerable areas of bog.

Land Use

When breaking down Irelands land cover, agriculture is the leading driving force for the overall layout of our landscape. Arable and tillage land covers approximately 10% of our landscape while 60% of is used for pasture. Approximately 10% of our landscape is covered in woodland. (Foley, 2020)


Hedgerows are a mundane part of Ireland’s rural landscape and a core of our nation’s identity. Most fields and ownership boundaries have hedgerows surrounding them, only giving way to stone walls on higher ground or more derelict lands. (Nation Biodiversity data centre,2015)

Hedgerows provide shelter for farm animals during wet and windy conditions while also being the main source of shade in an otherwise very open environment. (heritage council, (2019)

To increase yield and productivity, farmers received payments for a period of 20 years to remove hedgerows between fields. This saw a loss of 30% of our natural hedgerows (EPA, 2018) to make way for more efficient farming methods. However, in 2015, a new common Agricultural Policy was introduced which not only encouraged better environmental practices, but farmers received subsidies to re-establish old hedgerows, conserve existing hedgerows and move towards greener practices. (IFA, 2017).

Today the hedgerows cover about 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) or 6.4% of the landscape. (Irish Wildlife Trust, 2019).


Another one of Ireland’s most distinctive landscape features are dry stone walls. It’s estimated that the Irish countryside is covered in over 250,000 miles of stone wall. Due to the naturally stony landscape, particularly in the western regions, in order for the landscape to be farmed they had to be cleared of these stones. Since there was no easy method of getting rid of stones and there was a need to create separate divisions of land, the obvious thing to do was to build these walls. (Gibbons, 2013)

Each county which builds dry stone walls has naturally developed its own style. The most common type of wall which dominates much of western and central Ireland are low, rounded off stone which have big gaps between each stone. (Gibbons, 2013)


Bocage refers to a landscape of mixed woodland and pasture, with fields and winding country roads sunken between narrow low ridges and banks surmounted by tall thick hedgerows that break the wind but also reduce visibility.

A majority lowland Ireland is characterised by bocage landscape, a result of pastoral farming which requires enclosure for the management of livestock. In more fertile areas these usually consist of soil banks, which are planted with trees and shrubs. This vegetation can give the impression of a wooded landscape, even where there is little or no woodland. This arrangement of hedgerows was largely established in the late 18th and 19th centuries, a time when Ireland was virtually barren of natural woodland.

Rural Housing

According to the l2006 Census, 40% of Ireland’s population live in rural areas, defined as settlements of 1500 people or less. (Foley and Scott, 2012). Approximately 70% of the rural population live in single, scattered housing built in the open countryside. I will discuss this further when focusing on the contemporary changes in the Irish landscape.

Landscape Change

The landscape is composed of different factors all having their own dynamics. Many changes will occur simultaneously and continuously, however, all at their own speed and magnitude. (Antrop, 1998)

According to Han Lörzing, there are three different ways of experiencing the phenomenon of landscape change. These are:

  • Landscape as object: change in the appearance of the landscape
  • Landscape as subject: change in the status of the landscape
  • Landscape as subject: change in the public’s opinion of the landscape. (Lörzing 2005)

Among the purposes of landscape change are agricultural intensification, urbanization, land abandonment and forest expansion and development of renewable energy uses. (Plieninger et al., 2016)

Meeus et al 1990 describe three different definitions of landscape change. They are:

  • Continuity – Where a new land use is inserted into an existing historical land use pattern
  • Rupture – The result of deliberate human activity where a new situation in terms of layout and visual character is created
  • Deterioration -The interruption of an existing land management practice. (Meeus et al 1990)

Over time, the three types of changes will induce changes in the spatial pattern. Spatial patterns are composed of two aspects: (1) spatial units called areas, regions, patches or zones, defined by shape and size, and (2) boundaries between them, which can be specific or diffuse. Thus, patterns can change in many ways. New zones can be formed, while others recede or are fragmented into smaller ones, the shape of the zones can change and consequently the length of their boundaries and probably (by edge effects) also their nature or qualities. (Antrop, 1998)

Agriculture History

There have been drastic changes to the style of Irish agriculture over the past century. From natural to politically driven, these past changes are what shape agriculture in Ireland’s rural landscape today.

During the 18th century, Ireland saw mass cultivation of the potato, which was nutritious and well adapted to Irelands damp climate and poor soil. The agrarian reforms that followed the devastation of the Great Famine of the 1840s saw the end of the native Rundale and clachan system. (Koch and Minard, 2012)

Further famine in 1879–84, left the British government with no choice but to push ahead with radical long-term land reorganization. Many improvements in farming techniques and land management were wrought, particularly in the west. Recognition of the serious injustice of the Irish land ownership system, led successive British governments to adopt a policy of land redistribution. In agreements with a series of Land Acts coercing landlords to sell land, this policy resulted in two thirds of Irish tenants owning their own land by 1914. (Koch and Minard, 2012)

Post-civil war and after Ireland’s partition in 1921, this movement continued under the newly formed Land Commission. The Fianna Fáil governments of the 1930s and 1940s limited farm sizes to an unenviable size of between 20 and 30 acres. (Koch and Minard, 2012)

On joining the European Union in 1973 resulted in further evolution of the farming economy. Increased specialization, encouraged by generous funding, saw the previous arrangement of ubiquitous ‘mixed’ farms change to large zones dedicated almost exclusively to one specific farming exercise. The Munster dairying area and east-central dry cattle area are examples of this pattern. European Community grants have disproportionately favoured larger farms. (Koch and Minard, 2012)

Currently there is an average payment per hectare however this was only introduced in 2015. (Foley, 2020). Previously to that there was decoupling of agricultural payment support from productivity (2004) but was replaced by payment based on what the farmer received during reference years 2000, 2001, 2002. (Foley, 2020)


Increasing woodland cover is a common goal internationally and has been supported within European agricultural policy for several decades. Land alteration to forestry is a complex issue that is determined by economic, social and environmental factors. (Upton, O’Donoghue and Ryan, 2014)

Coniferous species account for 74% of the total forest area, with deciduous species amounting the balance. (O’Donnell, Cummins and Byrne, 2013)

Ireland offers an interesting example of forest expansion policy as it possesses one of the lowest areas of forest cover in Europe, despite maintaining excellent growing conditions for commercial forestry. (Upton, O’Donoghue and Ryan, 2014)

Current forest cover stands at 10.9% with most of this area composed of plantations established in the last century. The goal of state policy is to increase forest cover to 17% by the year 2030 through private planting. (Upton, O’Donoghue and Ryan, 2014)

An important factor inspiring the participation of farmers in afforestation has been the availability of government grants and annual premiums (Collier et al., 2002), which grant financial support to compensate farmers for the income forgone when agricultural land is afforested. These policies have been largely successful, and the private forest area now accounts for 43% of the estate. (O’Donnell, Cummins and Byrne, 2013)

Rural Housing

Ireland is one of the least urbanized societies in Western Europe (Brunt, 1988; McDonagh, 2001).

The old houses of rural Ireland are narrow and low, whitewashed and thatched, much the same throughout the island. (Glassie, 2014) However, in the Irish case, the fundamental driver of landscape change in rural areas relates to new housing development rather than changing agricultural practices. (Foley and Scott, 2012)

Ireland’s traditionally dispersal of rural settlements was consolidated from the mid-1990s by a major increase in housing supply in rural areas. The reason being a strong cultural preference for rural living and increasingly urban-generated processes. (Foley and Scott, 2012)

It’s estimated that 70% of the rural population live in single, dispersed houses built in the open countryside (i.e. outside of towns and villages) often referred to as one-off houses. (Foley and Scott, 2012)

In just ten years (1994– 2004), more than half a million dwelling units were built (520,317 completions), 40% of which consisted of single-detached houses and bungalows (205,938 completions) (Gkartzios and Scott, 2009)

New rural housing was also associated for many participants as a sign of social change. New gentrified landscapes, emerging from the increasing middleclass consumption of rurality as an expression of class identity or wealth. (Foley and Scott, 2012)

Palmer (2004), states that landscape preference decreases as housing density increases. (Foley and Scott, 2012)

Rural housing policy is, by and large, regulated based on whether the location is experiencing population increase or decline and whether applicants can demonstrate a local connection with the locality. (Gkartzios and Scott, 2009)

Renewable energy

In the year 2050, it is estimated that 70% of the electricity produced worldwide will come from renewable energy sources. Wind energy will contribute towards 42% of the energy produced along. (Teske, Zervos, Schafer, 2007)

Any development in the countryside will have an environmental impact of some kind, and wind energy is no exception. (Boyle, 2012). In terms of the Irish landscape, the visual impact will be the biggest influence.

A variety of factors determines the visual perceptions of wind turbines or wind farms. These are physical parameters such as turbine size, turbine design, number of blades, colour, the number of turbines on a wind farm and the layout of the wind farm. (Manhattan Institute, 2019)

One approach being used to reduce visual impacts is to site fewer turbines in any one area by using numerous locations with larger and more efficient models of wind turbines. (Manhattan Institute, 2019)

Unfortunately, it is obvious that the landscape will be radically changed, and it will never be the same as it was before.

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Irish Landscapes Will Never Be the Same. (2021, Oct 14). Retrieved October 27, 2021 , from

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