Ignorance & Bliss: Chopping Down Trees

First published in Crann, Ireland's Tree Magazine, Summer 2008

Looking at recent times gives me hope for a better future – the Greens have made into government (just) for the first time ever, there is increasing awareness about global warming, the importance of the environment and the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of development has fallen foul of the global recession. All this is good news for the Irish environment, however there is no room for complacency, as the recent article “The Killing Fields” showed, a tremendous amount of damage is done through ignorance – ignorant practices and also the general ignorance of the public as to what is happening in every county right under our noses.

It came to my attention two years ago when a new development gained approval opposite my home in Co. Wexford that there are a number of loopholes in the law or its implementation that allows a host of ecological disasters to happen. Using the above development as an example – four mature Ash trees were to be retained, which has happened, however all four were badly damaged by removal of the ditch and a large amount of their roots, following this the ground has been laid with hardcore and compacted in advance of concrete paths being created.

The Council’s requirement for retention was complied with, partly I am sure because I wrote to the developers to warn them that I would ‘snitch’ on any infringements, however the requirements were not sufficiently specific to prevent damage. Fortunately last year’s wet summer may well have saved these Ash trees, time will tell.

In addition to poor planning it also appears that the Council has no real teeth when it comes to enforcement. It is unlikely that they would visit such as sight unless a local person, who also has some understanding of bad practice reports a problem. In the event of a report, the Council may send an officer out, but there is little that can be done unless the tree is already placed under a protection order. In theory one needs a licence obtained from the Gardai to fell any tree older than ten years, however I was also told by the Forestry Officer in Wexford County Council that this does not apply, even where a protection order exists, to any tree that is standing within 100m of a dwelling.

Hence, developers are really in a position where they can do whatever they like if they are not bothered by a slim chance of having to pay small fines and deal with some extra paperwork, in practice it is easy for developers to rip out hedges, ditches and any trees that they consider superfluous to requirements. Most of us are aware of the ignorance and lack of concern within the building trade, but these rules apply to anyone – house owners, businesses, schools etc. If I felt like it I could go into my garden tomorrow and cut down every tree and bush and rip out the ditch with a digger, all without any impediment or punishment.

Sadly in recent months I’ve seen many incidents of unchecked ‘butchery’ in the local area which is what has prompted to write this article – approx 30 beautiful Lawson Cypressus were felled by the main road to Tinahely, Co. Wicklow, presumably for potential sites. In Hollyfort, Co. Wexford ten or more mature beech were felled for no discernable reason other than that they grew along road frontage that has great site potential. Along the main road in Courtown over ten mature cedars were felled to give a clearer view of the local berry farm’s restaurant.

The perpetrators of these acts may well think their actions are justified for commercial reasons but such travesties also frequently occuring because trees are ‘untidy’. ‘blocking light’, ‘blocking the view’ or ‘they drop too many leaves’. The current situation allows for whimsical decisions, ignorant of the terrible effect that removing these trees has on air quality, the water supply and wildlife. There has been much talk locally about these events and a report appeared in a local paper, however people are largely ignorant of why these things happen, what the law is with regard to trees or how to do anything about it.

Being particularly interested in trees, I have made it my business to look into what I can do to protect the trees in my locality and the unfortunate fact is that I can do very little to prevent felling. Usually no-one is aware of a problem until it has already happened and in the cases where there is time to do something it is extremely difficult to prevent people from felling trees on their own property.

Given the powerless situation that we are in, our only hope is to look to the government to change the law to give genuine protection to our woodland, hedgerows and the trees growing in fields, streets and gardens. In countries such as New Zealand felling of mature trees without permission is punishable by heavy fines and even prison sentences; the fact that the law is actively enforced also has a significant impact on the level of offences. It simply isn’t good enough to allow people the freedom to chop down whatever they like on a whim and it is high time that some serious legislation was put in place to prevent this continuing in Ireland.

Within the last few years I’ve seen countless mature trees and hedgerows disappear, and the damage continues even though the building boom has ended. I believe that the best thing that we can do (apart from more planting) is to try to avail of whatever influence the Green Party might have during the remaining term by writing to the Minister for the Environment (John Gormley) to highlight the inadequacy of the law in this area. If we do not do something about the current situation I fear that the Irish countryside will suffer a slow death through ignorance and selfishness being allowed to triumph for want of proper legislation and enforcement.