Coillte has begun a massive tree-felling operation in a bid to prevent the spread of a fungal disease through a scenic forest park.
Lumberjacks are working in Gougane Barra park, near Ballingeary in West Cork, to cut down the first of an estimated 16,000 diseased trees, mostly Japanese larch, which have been affected by the so-called Sudden Oak Death, caused by an organism called phytophthora ramorum.
Coillte is using large, mechanical tree-cutters, and a special high-wire cable system in more environmentally sensitive sites to remove between 25% and 30% of the park’s trees across some 20 hectares.
The felling operation has forced the closure of the park for up to six months.
Tourists and hikers will not have access to 5km of motor trail, 10km of hill walks, vista points, and nature trails during the work.
However, access to the lakeside church, one of the country’s most popular wedding venues, and to the remains ofSt Finbarr’s monastery, will be maintained.
Timber from the infected larch can still be used. The felled logs will be taken, under licence, to authorised sawmills in the region, where a range of agreed biosecurity precautions have been introduced.
Coillte forestry productivity manager Padraig Ó Tuama, who is overseeing the operation, said the timber will have to be stored separately, and its bark and sawdust will be burned on site.
Once the felling is complete, the park will be replanted with a range of different tree species, including Scots pine and oak.
Mr Ó Tuama said if Coillte did not act now, the larch would succumb to the disease in a few years, and act as a source for further infection.
Pure Japanese larch make up less than 2% of the Coillte forest estate.
Gougane Barra, where the River Lee rises, is one of 20 Coillte sites where this fungal disease has been identified.
Coillte has already felled 150 hectares of forest around the country in an effort to contain and prevent the spread of the disease. It is awaiting test results on a further 29 sites.
The disease can be spread over several miles in mists, air currents, watercourses, and rainsplash. It may also be spread on footwear, dogs’ paws, bicycle wheels, tools, and equipment. Movement of infected plants is also a key means of spreading it over long distances.
Certain varieties of larch, oak, beech, and chestnut are the most susceptible to the disease.
Ireland is only the second country where the disease has been found in Japanese larch.
The disease was first found here about eight years ago in wild rhododendron, but was discovered in Japanese larch in the Galtee mountains in the Cahir area in 2010.
Up until then, it was regarded as a disease of broadleaf trees, linked to the presence of wild rhododendron shrubs.
However, the Department of Agriculture said it has concerns that when present in Japanese larch, the phytophthora ramorum organism produces spores at a much faster rate than is known to occur on rhododendron, and could act as a very significant source for further spread of the disease.
Up to 250 hectares of trees could face the axe if tests confirm the presence of so-called Sudden Oak Death disease.
Coillte confirmed yesterday that 20 forestry sites across 100 hectares have been earmarked for felling following confirmation of the fungal infection.
Coillte’s Padraig Ó Tuama said they are awaiting test results from a further 29 suspect sites across 150 hectares where felling may also be required.
Coillte has been working with the Irish Forestry Service since 2010 to conduct aerial and ground surveys to monitor the spread of the disease, which is caused by an organism called phytophthora ramorum.
The 2010 surveys revealed 17 infected forestry sites across 154 hectares which were felled.
Coillte said subsequent surveys have revealed a rapid expansion of the disease, with the most recent surveys identifying a total of 54 suspect sites, five of which subsequently tested negative.
Gougane Barra is among 20 confirmed diseased sites. The other large infected sites are in West Cork, south Tipperary, south Kilkenny, and Wicklow.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved