If you want to know what Tipperary looked like over the past few hundred years, you can go to historical written references. That’s pretty straightforward. But what did the countryside in Tipperary look like during the 9,000 years before that? How could you possibly find out? The answer is pollen. Pollen grains can survive for thousands of years and the pollen from individual species of plants can be identified.
Frank Mitchel from Trinity College Dublin studied the pollen laid down in a bog in Littleton, and published his findings in the 1960s. The layers of sphagnum moss laid down over thousands of years provided a perfect continuous chronological record of the vegetation of the area.
After the last ice age, the area around Littleton was dominated by grasses, docks and meadowsweet and these were quickly replaced by juniper and willow scrub. These in turn were replaced by pine and hazel at about 9,000 years ago. Oak and Elm came to dominate the landscape from 7,000 to 5,000 years ago. This forest cover was almost complete as there were almost no grass pollen grains found in the samples for this period.
Around 3,000 years ago, there is a sharp drop in the amount of elm present in the pollen record. This coincides with the arrival of the first Neolithic farmers and marks the end of the golden era of Irish forests. As the elm disappeared it was quickly replaced by birch and hazel. It appears that these early farmers were using a kind of ‘slash & burn’ method of farming where the used a clearing for a few years and then moved on. The clearing was then colonised by birch and hazel and eventually reverted back to Oak and Elm. As more and more Neolithic farmers arrived, the proportion of forest decreased and the proportion of grassland increased.
The arrival of Christianity and monasteries in 400 AD is mirrored by the arrival of cereal pollen in the pollen record. The growing of cereals was very important to the monks who were abstaining from meat. By about 800 AD, there is a fall-off in agricultural activity. Birch, Hazel, Ash and Alder all increase. This change coincides with a period of Viking raids on the monasteries (Cashel fell to the vikings about 950 AD) and this may explain the decline in agriculture.
With the English invasion in 1160 AD, the clearance of the remaining forest continued, because the forest gave shelter to wolves and to Irish rebels and were also a source of income. By 1780 AD ‘the greater part of the country exhibits a naked, bleak, dreary view for want of wood, which has been destroyed for a century past and with the most thoughtless prodigality, and is still cut and wasted’. The last change to be seen in the pollen record is the arrival of beech trees which were planted in the large estates.