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Killarney National Park 'significantly and rapidly deteriorating' due to rhododendron

The invasive plant is at the centre of a row between a voluntary body and a government department.

imgp4950 Rhododendron in Killarney National Park Source: Groundwork/Picasa

THE NATIONAL PARKS and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (DCHG) have denied failing to protect the oak woods in Killarney National Park from becoming re-infested with rhododendron ponticum – an invasive plant species.

Groundwork, a voluntary environmental organisation dedicated to preserving Ireland’s natural habitats, has made a formal complaint to the European Commission about the issue.

The DCHG disagrees with Groundwork’s claims, with a spokesperson saying the department was “not aware” Groundwork was going to lodge a complaint.

“Groundwork has complained to the EU in respect of rhododendron in the past. However, upon consideration of the steps that the department has put in place, the EU Commission decided not to pursue these complaints,” the spokesperson said.

Groundwork ran initiatives that removed rhododendron from Killarney National Park from 1981 to 2009, with the support of the Irish Wildlife Trust and the NPWS.

During that time, Groundwork said it cleared approximately 40% of the oak woods of rhododendron with “scientifically proven” methods, at an annual cost of close to €20,000. The group said the woods have since “reverted to uncleared status”, representing a breach of Article 6(2) of the EU Habitats Directive.

‘Significant threat’ 

In a statement, Groundwork said: “Rhododendron ponticum poses a significant threat to native Irish woodlands by preventing regeneration and displacing native flora.

As a result of NPWS mismanagement, the most biologically rich areas of the Killarney oak woods are now significantly and rapidly deteriorating, and no management plans have been implemented to address the problem.

Groundwork Chairperson Trevor Halpin said: “Unfortunately, inaction by the DCHG and the NPWS has allowed previously cleared woodlands to become re-infested with rhododendron. We call on the DCHG and NPWS to once again allow science to guide rhododendron management in Killarney.”

c.1.2m high Rhododendron in Killarney National Park Source: Groundwork/Picasa

The DCHG disagrees, with a spokesperson telling TheJournal.ie: “The department does not agree with Groundwork’s assertions … On the contrary, the department has for many years pursued a very vigorous multi-faceted approach to the control of rhododendron in Killarney National Park with considerable success.

“The strategy and programmes forming our approach are based upon sound science and are subject to monitoring, periodic review and adaptation. The department is committed to continuing this work with ongoing monitoring and review importantly ensuring it is informed by scientific basis.”

The spokesperson said the department spent nearly €300,000, a significant portion of its national budget, on the eradication of rhododendron in the park in 2017. They added that “a number of specialist staff – including one person specifically dedicated full-time to its rhododendron management programme” advises and reports on rhododendron management in the park.

“In the past, approximately 3,000 of the over 10,000 hectares in Killarney National Park were, to some extent, affected. The department remains of the opinion that the existing management programme has made significant inroads into the problem with approximately 2,000 of the 3,000 hectares, involving some 40 different sites, under effective control,” they said.

Bring in the army 

In February 2017, Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae told the Dáil the rhododendron situation was so bad in the park that the army needed to step in.

“The rhododendrons are taking over completely, despite efforts to cut them … The rhododendron situation has gotten so bad in Killarney National Park, minister, that nothing short of calling in the army would put it right,” he said.

Several plants c.0.6m high Rhododendron in Killarney National Park Source: Groundwork/Picasa

The department’s spokesperson said the ongoing programme of work in relation to rhododendron management in the park has four main elements:

  • the initial clearance and follow-up maintenance work by contractors
  • ongoing maintenance work by volunteers and students
  • a rhododendron eradication management contract
  • ongoing work by NPWS staff including coordination, research and monitoring

Groundwork has also claimed that the most recently published Killarney National Park Management Plan (2005-2009), was “never fully implemented and its rhododendron management objectives were ignored”. The organisation said it has been raising concerns about the issue for over a decade and claimed that the NPWS has refused its offers of assistance in the park since 2010.

The department has denied this, with the spokesperson stating it “has not at any point refused the help of Groundwork”.

“Indeed officials have been in contact with Groundwork as late as December 2017 to arrange a meeting. In the past, the department offered to meet with Groundwork on several occasions however Groundwork would not participate in a meeting,” the spokesperson added.

Read: ‘The rhododendrons are taking over’: Healy-Rae says army should be sent to Killarney National Park

Read: Not just the rhododendrons: What’s being done about invasive plant species in Ireland?

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Órla Ryan

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