“Special patrols are being put on by the rangers because people come along and remove whole trees, not just a sprig here and there,” a spokesman for the National Park and Wildlife Service said.
The holly in the Killarney woods this year is spectacular, with masses of red berry clusters among its shiny dark green leaves and this is partly because of the kind weather this summer.
The holly, one of the 19 native Irish trees identified by the Tree Council of Ireland, is often older than realised, a spokeswoman said. A modest holly can be hundreds of years old.
“It takes a long, long time to grow because it has a double root and a large holly tree could be up to 300 years old,” according to the Tree Council spokeswoman.
Although the holly is not on the protected list yet, it is becoming rarer, partly because of the hacking down of whole trees this time of year and also because people are not planting the slow-growing shrub anymore.
In a bid to stem this decline, the Tree Council handed out 1,000 small hollies this March.
The berry-bearing female tree, part of the Christmas tradition, has disappeared from most roadsides in Kerry, according to the environmental officer with Kerry County Council.
“We are left with a situation along most roadsides now, where only the plain male is left,” Micheál O’Coiileáin said.
The Conor Pass between Tralee and Dingle which once hosted healthy plantations now has only the rare female tree.
There is “no real protection” now for the tree and it may be time to review this, Mr O’Coileáin said.
Liam Lysaght of the Heritage Council of Ireland is appealing to people to have regard for the tree this time of year.
“The tradition of taking a sprig or two is not the problem — it’s the fact that trees are hacked,” Mr Lysaght said.
Meanwhile, penalties have accrued to cutting down a holly since ancient times and under the Brehon laws, two milking cows would have to be handed over. These days it is an offence to cut down a holly that is more than 10 years old without being licenced to do so — and a further offence may be committed if the tree is growing in a preserved area such as along the roadside of the Killarney National Park between Killarney and Kenmare. However, detection is a problem.
In the meantime, rangers in Killarney are on red alert and the public is being urged to report commercial type activity particularly with people arriving to take away van-loads of holly.