Christmas tree growers have received two festive surprises this year – an almost complete end to organised theft and an environmental shift in consumer behaviour from fake, plastic imports to the real thing.
Gardaí who have mounted regular checkpoints across Co Wicklow as well as air patrols under Operation Hurdle have said not a single criminal operation has been uncovered, while no growers have reported missing trees or suspicious activity.
It marks a shift from opportunistic criminal activity which peaked around 2008 when crime gangs would steal felled trees and sell them at pop-up markets.
“I’m sure there’s the odd local lad hopping a ditch and sawing one down . . . but we haven’t had the sort of semi-organised stuff that was happening here before,” said Wicklow Supt Declan McCarthy who has been helping to run Operation Hurdle, now in its 10th year.
Despite the fall-off in thefts, the “cost-neutral” operation continues as a disincentive for would-be thieves – gardaí on other routine checkpoints are instructed to check anyone hauling trees for invoices. At least six checkpoints are set up every day.
The air support unit, armed with GPS co-ordinates, scans upland farms around Rathdrum, Glendalough and Roundwood for signs of suspicious activity.
In the past, gangs would either enter land at night and cut down the trees or simply haul away those already felled and neatly stacked on pallets.
However, according to Supt McCarthy, and much like car stereos of old, it is a form of opportunistic theft in slow decline.
“You can’t be sure [it’s gone for good]. It’s like a friend of mine says: honest when well watched. As long as we’re paying attention to it it’s not going to receive the criminal attention that it otherwise might.”
That ongoing attention is of comfort to local growers and their communities too. Christy Kavanagh, who runs a 100-acre farm in Newtownmountkennedy, and who has been the victim of theft in the past, said he has not heard complaints from other growers this season.
In fact he said growers’ focus s has turned to more positive developments this year – a noticeable increase in sales which he attributes to growing environmental awareness and a global pandemic.
Citing sales increases across the industry of between 5 and 10 per cent, his farm alone expects to shift about 10,000 units this Christmas.
“People see our products [as sustainable] rather than the plastic ones,” he said. “We have had a win-win this year; I think with Covid people would not be away this year. People are looking for stands because they have never had a real tree before.”