Christmas tree growers have had to step up security on their farms to combat the rising numbers of criminal gangs trying to hack down their festive firs.
The Irish Christmas Tree Growers Association says many of its members are on high alert and have employed security guards and set up CCTV around their plantations.
Gardaí have even launched air patrols in parts of Wicklow — which is home to one of the highest concentration of Christmas tree farms in the country — to spy on raiders.
But that has not saved at least 500 trees from being stolen in the past month in Wicklow alone.
Dermot Page, chairman of the Irish Christmas Tree Growers Association, said raids on farms are the biggest problem facing growers, most of whom are in the middle of harvesting what appears to be a promising crop.
“This year’s growing season has been good despite the wet summer and the trees have hardened off well and are a good colour,” said Mr Page.
“But theft is always a problem and this year the growers are on high alert. Security is a big cost but necessary during harvesting, and growers are employing security personnel and also securing their farms and plantations with CCTV and motion detectors. Local gardaí are being very co-operative with the growers.”
Christy Kavanagh, a three-time winner of the annual best Christmas tree award, will supply 6,000 firs to the domestic market this year.
Although his isolated farm in Newtownmount-kennedy, Co Wicklow, is hard to access, he said he had no choice but to employ extra security.
“Things are looking good for growers in general, because there’s a strong demand for good quality trees,” said Mr Kavanagh. “If anything, demand is up and I think that’s because people want to get away from the doom and gloom and enjoy Christmas. And having a proper tree is part of that.
“But there have already been a lot of trees stolen around Co Wicklow, around 500 or so, which would sell for €50 each and so be worth €25,000 to the gangs.
“The gardaÍ have been great and the air support unit has been keeping an eye on farms round here. But you can’t just rely on that. I’ve had to be more vigilant and so I’ve security organised here and have had cameras put up around the farm.
“There definitely appears to be an increase in stealing this year and I’d attribute that to the recession and people trying to make money coming up to Christmas.”
Despite dwindling household budgets, up to 400,000 Christmas trees will be sold to Irish consumers, with 300,000 being shipped to the UK and continental Europe.
Denmark is still the largest producer of Christmas trees in Europe, but the high-quality trees produced in Ireland, helped by a suitable climate and good seed cultivation, have made this country the biggest exporter of trees to the UK, with strong demand also from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.
More than 100 growers are affiliated with the Irish Christmas Tree Growers Association, with the greatest concentration of farms in Wicklow, Wexford, and Carlow, while Tipperary has the highest acreage of Christmas trees in the country.
The Noble Fir Christmas tree accounts for 60% of the market, followed by the Lodgepole and Nordman varieties, and the Norway Spruce.
Mr Page said the industry is growing, with a steady stream of new growers joining the association in recent years.
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