Invader threat to Killarney from rhododendron

Rhododendron is a threat to Ireland’s first national park, writes Donal Hickey
Invader threat to Killarney from rhododendron

Anyone who cares to look can see obvious threats to Ireland’s first national park from the invasive species, rhododendron. In the wake of a recent call by the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) on Unesco to suspend the status of Killarney National Park as a biosphere reserve, citing issues about the management of woodlands and an expanding deer population, I decided to take a closer look.

The group, Just Forests, seems correct in its claim that rhodo infestation in the 10,000-hectare park is out of control. At the weekend, I walked through several areas in the park.

Around Torc, the rhodo is flourishing, as it is along the Kenmare road, while it is returning to areas in Dinis from which it had been painstakingly cleared. Warnings have been given over the years that this prolific pest is threatening the ancient oak and yew woods of Killarney. It can be seen growing next to these magnificent trees. The plant’s thick canopy of leaves spreads out and prevents other plants from growing.

Any diminution of the standing of the park would have to be taken seriously, both ecologically and economically. But, apart from concerns by environmentalists, the reaction locally to the IWT call has been muted. Normally strident political and business voices have not been heard. Are they hoping the issue will disappear?

Over the years, the National Park and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and Groundwork volunteers have worked to remove the plant. According to Groundwork, 40% of the oakwoods were cleared and kept clear by its members between 1981 and 2005. Groundwork, however, ceased its work, in 2009, after its methods were no longer deemed acceptable by the NPWS. The NPWS wanted to only use herbicides to deal with the rhododendron, according to Groundwork. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has already stated that around 3,000 hectares are affected.

Clearly, this huge problem needs to be tackled with a new sense of urgency and Groundwork needs to be brought back.

Killarney National Park includes the world-famous lakes which also need constant vigilance and protection. The park is a centrepiece of the national and local tourism industry; a priceless asset which generates huge amounts of money for the exchequer.

We’re told the NPWS is not getting enough resources from the government to run the park and deal with invasive species, deer control and other matters. But, as local environmentalist Kevin Tarrant said: “Shortage of money is not the issue. It’s a question of priorities. As long as there’s €80m to be wasted on consultants for Irish Water, €300m wasted on tribunals and hundreds of millions written off by NAMA, money is not a problem.”

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