Rhodo, a pretty big problem

SCARCELY a week passes without news of yet another invasive species, plant or animal, reaching our shores.

A yellow-bellied slider turtle recently turned up in the tidal waters of the River Maigue, at Adare, Co Limerick. It is native to the South Eastern United States, Florida and Virginia, but may have been brought here as a pet.

We also have firm warnings that our native red squirrel and pygmy shrew are in grave danger from stronger and more aggressive cousins which have been introduced and are currently rampant here.

But some species have been here for centuries and are continuing to undermine what’s native to this country. One of the most striking is the rhododendron, introduced from the Iberian Peninsula to parks and gardens as an ornamental shrub in the 19th century.

A total of €500,000 has been spent on ongoing work to eradicate it in Killarney National Park since 2011 and it’s the most serious conservation issue there.

The irony is that the rhodo is a beautiful plant and looks magnificent in areas of the park and surrounding mountains when in bloom at this time of year. Its deep red and purple hues create delightful backgrounds in picture postcards of places such as Muckross House and Gardens, for instance.

But, if left unchecked, it can grow in dense thickets, replace native plants, damage old oak and yew woodlands and prevent the growth of new trees and vegetation.

And, it can also be a danger to people, as was recently highlighted by the trauma of two walkers who were trapped for five hours in thick rhododendron in the Knockmealdown Mountains, in Co Waterford.

Large tracts of Killarney National Park, including ancient oak woods, have been heavily infested with this robust plant. According to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), a management programme has made ‘’significant inroads’’ into the problem and large areas of previously heavily infested areas are now clear.

It is estimated that, formerly, around 3,000 of the 10,000 hectares in Killarney National Park were to some extent affected. Now, Arts and Heritage Minister Jimmy Deenihan says 2,000 of those hectares, involving 40 different sites, are under effective control.

He has allocated a further €100,000 to the park for continuation of this work and to create conditions to protect native species, especially the woodlands.

The ultimate plan, of course, is to totally eradicate the rhodo — a matter of more hope than confidence.

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