Storm casualties: Ireland’s lost trees

High winds in early 2014, coupled with root structures weakened by heavy rain, brought down some of our oldest trees

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

As I type these words, I’m listening to the far-off, sawdust-laden buzz of a chainsaw as it slices up the splintered remains of a mature beech that crashed to the ground last week; a sad end for a tree that stood watch over a small country road for well over a century, and whose branches I’ve walked beneath since I was a child. Even more sad is the fact that this is just one of countless mature trees to fall in recent months as a result of those fierce storms.

The biggest and best-known victim was, of course, Birr Castle’s 200-year-old, mighty grey poplar, which stood 140 feet tall, measured 21-feet in girth, and was Ireland’s nominee for the European Tree of the Year 2014 competition.

Its untimely demise was affectionately described by champion tree-hunter and author Aubrey Fennell as “the loss of an dearly loved old friend”. But it’s not the only special Irish tree whose loss we should grieve for. In the OPW-managed botanic gardens of Kilmacurragh in Co Wicklow, a venerable 40-feet-tall specimen of Rhododendron falconeri, grown from seed sent by the Victorian botanist William Hooker in 1850 to Sir Frederick Moore (the then-Director of the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin) also succumbed. “It was our giant”, says Kilmacurragh’s head gardener Seamus O’ Brien sadly, adding that the garden has lost a total of five champion trees over the past few months. These include a specimen of Eucalyptus pulverulenta, “110-years-old and 110-feet tall’, which also started life as a seedling in the National Botanic Gardens, and a Patagonian cypress, the biggest of its kind in Ireland or England.

Other gardeners around the country tell similar tales of devastation. In the 19th-century sub-tropical Kells Bay gardens in Co Kerry, a giant 50-60-feet-tall eucalyptus that grew inside its walled garden was decapitated by swirling winds, while three huge oaks and another three giant fir trees also crashed to the ground. Owner Billy Alexander describes the gales as “almost tornado-like. I’ve never seen that sort of ferocity before.”

In Co Waterford, in the historic gardens of Tourin House, the owners lost a mighty specimen of Sitka spruce, while in Derrynane, Garinish and Fota, three of the OPW-managed gardens in the south, where the winds reached their most fierce, a total of 15 mature specimen trees were lost. Eucalyptus. Sweet chestnut. Beech. Evergreen oak. Silver fir. Japanese hemlock. And on the sad list of casualties goes …

What makes the loss more painful is not just the maturity of these fallen trees and their importance to the surrounding historical landscape, but the fact that they had been expertly cared for. So why did they fall?

The killer punch, explains Matthew Jebb, Director of the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, was the combination of saturated soils and gale-force winds, as well as their often exceptional size.“The terrible irony is that the bigger the tree, the more risk it encounters and the greater the likelihood that it will be levelled.”

Interestingly, many of the tallest victims were also non-natives, whose exceptional heights sometimes far exceeded those normally reached in their native habitat and were instead a result of the rich soil and mild climate enjoyed in their adopted Irish homeland.

As to whether the recent storms and those strange swirling winds are the result of climate change, opinion is divided. Some gardeners, including Seamus O’ Brien and Billy Alexander, think they are. “Reluctantly, yes, I do”, says Alexander. “We’re experiencing weather extremes of the sort of severity and frequency that we didn’t in the past.”

Seamus O’ Brien agrees. “There’s been a lot of talk about climate change, but I think we’re now seeing evidence of it.” Others, while not disputing the evidence for climate change, also point to meteorological precedent. “I’m not sure how much you can specifically blame particular weather events, such as the recent series of storms, on climate change. While the world is definitely warmer, with knock-on effects in terms of higher rainfall, history tells us that we’ve had similar storms in the past, with similar devastating consequences”, says Matthew Jebb.

All are agreed, however, that climate change poses a very real threat to Ireland’s trees. Devastating plant diseases such as phytophthora, for example, are increasingly flourishing in wet or waterlogged soils, with catastrophic consequences for particularly vulnerable species. Other diseases, once foreign to our shores, are beginning to take hold, while those same saturated soils, their structure damaged by the effects of heavy winter rains, are making trees’ root systems ever more vulnerable to the de-stabilising effects of violent gales.

So what can we, as gardeners, do to protect them? Start by regularly examining trees for any signs of stress or disease. Dead wood, die-back or wilting of the crown, cracks/cavities/crossing branches, broken limbs or compression forks in the trunk that might leave it vulnerable to decay, damaged root systems and patches of dead or dying bark are some of the things to look out for. Large fungal fruiting bodies growing from the tree are another, as are any ‘weeping’ wounds.

If you suspect you’ve discovered signs of disease or something that suggests that the tree is structurally compromised, contact a qualified tree surgeon (see panel for details), or send a photo of the diseased/damaged tree to the Tree Council of Ireland, which will help with a diagnosis. Whatever you do, don’t attempt tree surgery yourself, especially in the case of hanging, storm-damaged boughs; such trees are called widow-makers for a good reason’.

As for ivy, despite its undoubted value to garden wildlife, this climbing evergreen is another major cause of the decline of mature trees, by overloading the crown (especially with deciduous trees), shutting out light and potentially concealing any early signs of disease. So kill it by carefully slicing through the stems at ground level, while making sure not to damage the bark of the host tree.

Vulnerable trees will also benefit hugely from a sturdy shelterbelt of wind-tolerant trees and shrubs, as diverse a mix as possible but with the emphasis on native species (see panel, right).

Grow these along your garden perimeter, planting most densely in areas most vulnerable to the prevailing winds. Pay attention, too, to garden drainage.

All of these strategies will help to protect and preserve trees, but many, including Mary Keenan, former director of the Tree Council of Ireland, argue that we also need to follow the example of the UK, where every local council has its own tree-officer, whose job it is to monitor the health of valuable landscape trees. Local communities, she suggests, could also play an important role in tree preservation.

Whatever happens, the loss of so many of the country’s historic trees in recent months only underscores how important it is that we keep planting lots of them. But plant them wisely. Someone, someday, far into the future, will thank you for it.

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