Close up of tree following tree works in 2017 Photo: Maureen O'Sullivan

Long Read: Experts, NGOs and citizens raise alarm over tree care in Tralee

April 13th, 2018

Kerry County Council spent thousands on urban tree care in Tralee in 2017 area despite warnings from experts, NGOs, and concerned citizens that the works were of poor quality.

Invoices released to The Green News under Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) regulations show that the Council has paid out at least €50,000 since 2015.

However, tree care experts who have seen images of works carried out in 2017 have told The Green News that they are not in line with proper tree care practice.

Experts also warn that the techniques used may cause structural damage to the trees,  potentially create health and safety issues and cost the Council more money in years to come.

Concerned Citizen Raises Alarm

Initial concerns over tree care were raised in early 2017 by Maureen O’Sullivan, a former resident returning to Tralee, who has since continued to document tree cutting in the town.

Ms O’Sullivan, who has done extensive research in tree protection while living overseas, told The Green News that she was “shocked” to see the “severe damage” caused to trees.

On several occasions over the past year, Ms O’Sullivan has raised her concerns with the Council that this type of tree-cutting can cause damage to trees and put them at a greater risk of further limb loss or falling over in a storm.

In an email sent on 17 February 2017 seen by The Green News, Ms O’Sullivan told the Council that trees were “subjected to levels of removal at 70 per cent to 80 per cent removal of leaf-bearing branches”.

According to best international practice, only the minimum amount should be removed, and only for reasons such as decay or interference with a structure or traffic.

Even in such circumstances, no more than 25 per cent of the foliage should be removed in a growing season, and adjusted downwards based on the age, species, and tree.

According to Ms O’Sullivan, however, most of the trees did not have branches near lights or traffic, adding that the “damaging results” could increase safety risk rather than reducing it.

Ms O’Sullivan also relayed concerns about the “carelessness and poor quality” of the work, providing photos of topping, unclean cuts, stub cuts and flush cuts.

She explained that such cuts prevent trees from healing and put them “at risk for decay and insect infestation

In particular, she questioned why trees were being cut when they are known to purify the air, reduce greenhouse gases and improve health and respiratory conditions.

“Trees are one of the best ways to enhance neighborhoods and can often turn plain areas into ones of beauty when a tree is planted, cared for and allowed to maintain the beautiful shape given to it by nature,” she said.s

“In light of the many benefits they provide, as well as their role in reducing climate change, it was shocking to see rows of butchered trees subjected to levels of decimation that are against established tree care guidelines.”

Council Response

In a reply on 27 February 2017, the Council informed Ms O’Sullivan that tree work “has been suspended for a while” and that the points she raised would be discussed with the contractors.

In a further email on 1 March, 2017, Ms O’Sullivan was told that no further work would be carried out in the Tralee area until September 2017 except where safety was an issue.

The issue was also raised by Just Forests in March 2017. The former conservation charity, which shut down last September, accused the Council of “eco-vandalism” after documenting poor tree care practice in Tralee between late 2016 and February 2017.

“It is akin to someone going to their local beautician for a manicure and coming out with all their nails removed right down to the cuticles with blunt instruments and the resulting open wounds left unattended,” said Tom Roche, the former coordinator of Just Forests.

The Council received further warnings from the NGOs Crann and An Taisce, both of whom are members of the Tree Council of Ireland.

A letter from An Taisce to the Council on 15 March 2017 reads:  “The method and level to which this has been done in this case seems not merely unnecessary, but moreover has the potential to inflict irreversible damage on the trees.”

“We would urge you… to halt the damage that is being done and to ensure that the proper care is being taken to manage the trees in an appropriate way,” the letter continues.

However, according to an email sent to the Council by Ms O’Sullivan in late March, additional tree-cutting took place on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day in Cloonbeg Terrace.

Trees in St. Joseph's Estate Tralee following tree works in 2017 Photo: Maureen O'Sullivan

Trees in St. Joseph’s Estate Tralee following tree works in 2017 Photo: Maureen O’Sullivan

Another local, who wished not to be named, also reported the complete felling of a grove of evergreen trees behind the Terrace.

“There were a lovely bunch of trees there and only a few left now,” the resident said. “[Kerry County Council] should be accountable when they cut down any tree.”

Ms O’Sullivan was told by the Council that the trees were a “hazard” with dead wood and ivy that needed to be removed immediately.

However, she said that with the exception of one tree, the remaining 20 or so trees did not appear to present any hazard and had no ivy or dead wood.  Instead, healthy spring buds were removed, she said.

“They were moderately young trees with small branches and in good, although somewhat compromised health as a result of severe de-limbing done some years ago,” she added.

Ms O’Sullivan followed up with the Council several times during the spring of 2017, until receiving a short reply stating that “no tree pruning is taking place at present and none is likely until the autumn”.

Close up of tree following tree works in 2017 Photo: Maureen O'Sullivan

Close up of a tree following tree work carried out in the Tralee area in 2017 Photo: Maureen O’Sullivan

She sent a further email on 23 May, 2017 and most recently in March 2018 requesting that the Council provides a detailed response to the issues raised. She has yet to receive a detailed reply.

An AIE request sent to the Council last June revealed that no records existed on any plans for action based on the concerns relayed by Ms O’Sullivan.

“It is a little incredible that no internal documentation exists whatsoever on the issues that I raised and no documentation regarding the follow-up they did,” Ms O’Sullivan said.

“It certainly does not reflect well on the way that the Council is managing this important environmental resource,” she added.

Invoices released to The Green News following an AIE appeal to the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information show that further works were carried out in 2017 at a cost of almost €20,000.

Photos provided by Ms O’Sullivan and another concerned citizen confirm that tree cutting took place in December 2017, as well as what Ms O’Sullivan describes as “stub cutting and excessive limb removal” from trees in Cloonbeg Terrace in February 2018. None of the trees were in the way of traffic or lights, she added.

Kerry County Council did not reply to several requests from The Green News for comment.

Trees in St. Joseph's Estate Tralee following tree works in 2017 Photo: Maureen O'Sullivan

Trees in Michael O’Flynn Terrace following tree works in 2017 Photo: Maureen O’Sullivan

Questionable Tree Care Practices

In its reply to Ms O’Sullivan’s AIE request in June 2017, the Council said that it did not accept that any of the trees suffered irreparable damage as a result of the work carried out.

However, after examining the photos provided by Ms O’Sullivan, several tree care experts told The Green News that the works were of poor quality.

The experts identified topping, poor stub cuts, unclean cuts, and flush cuts made too close to the trunk, which opens up the potential for insect infestation and decay.

Bernard Carey, who runs the Mountshannon Arboretum in Co Clare, said that you would have to be blind “not to see that there’s something wrong with those trees”.

Mr Carey, who holds a degree in forestry and is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), was involved in a recent study to measure the ecosystem services provided by urban trees in Mountshannon.

The village holds the largest recorded oak in Ireland, the Bé Binn champion oak, which alone can accumulate over 17,000 kg of carbon within it.

Although Kerry County Council told Ms O’Sullivan that 2,800 trees were purchased and planted between January 2015, and 2017, Mr Carey said that many will struggle to reach the status of Bé Binn based on the photos that he has seen.

Close up of a tree following tree work carried out in the Tralee area in 2017 Photo: Maureen O’Sullivan

He warned that poor pruning, such as that noted in numerous photos, can render years of growth useless and “in a half an hour a tree can be destroyed”.

Certified arboriculturalist Rob Blackburn also told The Green News that the works in Tralee may lead to a range of long-term health and safety issues.

He said that, while the tree may appear healthy, such techniques can cause “a big pocket” of internal decay that can “rot down the stump” and all new growth off of it.

Branches will grow back weaker, he added, meaning that they won’t attach correctly to the trunk and may rot over time.

“So, all the new growth is actually attached into decaying timber. So as it grows it’s going to fail,” Mr Blackburn warned.

He said that many of the cuts in the photos have a “huge surface area for spores to land on”, opening up the chance of trees getting fungal infections.

He warned that these techniques can also lead to wider structural decay in the main stem and could affect the root system, increasing the risk of the entire tree coming down.

Contractor Qualifications

Following an AIE request, the Council supplied The Green News with a list of qualifications held by the contractors carrying out the work in the Tralee area which includes training certificates for tree-cutting, the operation of chainsaws, climbing and rigging.

The qualifications, however, do not include any arboriculture degrees, ISA-certified arborist certifications, or other arborist certifications.

Mr Blackburn said that the qualifications are “not professional qualifications” for tree care and that the person instructing staff should have a professional arborist qualification.

An arborist is qualified and specially trained to provide expert advice and management in all aspects of tree care.

A tree surgeon is qualified to carry out work such as pruning and tree felling and the removal of dangerous trees or trees in confined spaces.

The contractors did not reply to requests for comment from The Green News.

Close up of a tree following tree work carried out in the Tralee area in 2017 Photo: Maureen O’Sullivan

Nationwide Problem

Mr Carey says that this is an issue “right across the country” with companies or individuals acting as tree surgeons despite having “no qualification in tree care”.

He said that local authorities generally only look for proof of insurance and certification for use of chainsaws, chippers and stump grinders.

According to the President of the Tree Council of Ireland, Joe McConville, the Council is also “aware” of poor pruning of street trees around the country.

He told The Green News that local authorities should engage professionals who are qualified to advise on the management of their tree stock.

He warned that “ill-informed and poor pruning” can cause damage to trees “structural integrity and sustained growth”.

“For these reasons, it is important that work is specified and undertaken by qualified and competent personnel,” Mr McConville said, urging local authorities across the country to produce a tree strategy and management plan for urban trees.

The Tree Council of Ireland is also supporting a new initiative to develop an Arborist apprentice scheme so that qualified staffs are available for carrying out pruning works to street trees.

About the Author

Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London

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