Investigation: Large section of woodland beside Lough Derg cleared and burned

Published by Niall Sargent on

February 15th, 2018

Fourteen acres of woodland bordering the protected Lough Derg area has been cleared and burned since late January with the full knowledge of Tipperary County Council and the Forest Service.

The woodland site near Carrowbane, Co Tipperary consists mainly of willows, ash, alder and wet grassland and sits adjacent to the Lough Derg Special Protection Area (SPA).

Under the Forestry Act 2014, it is an offense to fell or otherwise remove one or more trees without a licence. The removed trees do not fall under any category of “exempt trees” as specified under the Act.

Based on an analysis of drone footage and aerial photography of the site seen by The Green News, it is believed that almost three acres of removed trees fell within the SPA.

The site in question was laid out with concrete roads, footpaths, and a tennis court over 35 years ago for the development of a holiday village complex.

The then-owner, however, tragically drowned in the lough and the project was never completed. The site has since regenerated into a wilderness area as woodland from the SPA spread and covered most of the site.

This changed on Tuesday, 23 January 2018, however, when concerned locals reported that a trailer with a JCB and dumpster was brought to the site.

One of the trees taken down at the site

One of the trees taken down at the site

Removal and Burning of Woodland

The removal of trees commenced the following day, with the locals – who asked not to be named for fear of retribution – taking photos of the works and informing Tipperary County Council.

According to the Senior Executive Officer from the Council’s environment section, Marion O’Neill, the case was assessed by the Council’s planning, fire services, and environment departments.

“Staff from the Environment and Planning sections visited and inspected the site and all agreed that no further action is required by Tipperary County Council,” she told The Green News.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) was also contacted on 24 January 2018, with a conservation ranger sent to investigate the site on 25 January 2018.

In a statement to The Green News, the Department of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht, under which the NPWS sits, confirmed that an NPWS official carried out a site visit on 25 January 2018.

From an analysis of aerial footage, it appears that the cutting (area outlined in red) encroached on 2.8 acres in the SPA

The NPWS official subsequently met with the landowner on 1 February 2018, informing them that certain works should not take place within the Lough Derg SPA and that the felling of trees within an SPA requires permission from the Minister for Heritage.

“A letter from the Department has been issued to the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in relation to the matter and a reply is awaited,” the statement continues.

The Green News was also provided with photos of a note left on a vehicle at the site signed by an NPWS official during the site visit on 25 January 2018.

The note advises the contractor undertaking the work that the felling of woodland requires a license from the Forest Service, and that the activity had been reported to the body.

Despite the incident being reported to the Forest Service on 25 January 2018, the felling of trees continued into early February.

Footage of Burning Trees

Workers on the site began to burn large piles of trees on 7 February 2018, as seen in drone footage recorded by ecologist Dr William O’Connor.

Dr O’Connor, who runs Ecofact Environmental Consultants, told The Green News that from his aerial analysis, it is clear that some of the cleared woodland was within the SPA boundary as laid out on the NPWS’ Map Viewer.

Dr O’Connor said that the works will have resulted in “habitat loss” within the SPA, as well as “indirect impacts” on the SPA as a result of “noise, disturbance, and potential water quality impacts”.

“There is a risk that non-native invasive species could also have been brought into or dispersed at this site if there was not a biosecurity plan,” he warned.

He added that the woodland is of “significant local ecological importance” as it was continuous with the SPA lakeshore habitats.

The lough is protected under the EU Birds Directive due to its conservation value for several species, including the Cormorant, Tufted Duck, and Goldeneye.

The SPA also supports a nationally important breeding colony of Common Tern, a threatened species due to the deterioration of its habitat and disturbances at breeding sites.

“It is likely that Otters, Pine Martens, Badgers, Hares and Red Squirrel used this area,” Dr O’Connor said, adding that it is also likely to have been an important foraging area for bats.

“This is also likely to have been an important habitat for birds and is continuous with the ‘Wetland and Waterbirds [A999]’ Habitat which the SPA is designated for. These works would have required Appropriate Assessment and an Ecological Assessment,” Dr O’Connor said.

Section 11 of the Forestry Act requires the Minister for Heritage to ensure that an appropriate assessment is carried out where necessary pursuant to the Habitats Directive.

The burning of trees continued until Friday, 9 February 2017 when a Garda from the local Nenagh station directed the site contractor to extinguish the burning of vegetation.

When contacted on Friday, the landowner did not inform The Green News of the plans for the land. They said, however, that they contacted the Gardaí, fire services, and Council prior to work commencing on 24 January 2018.

The landowner said that they were informed by all three bodies that they were clear to remove the trees. The landowner also alleges that a Forest Service official told them that a felling license was not required.

One of the trees taken down at the site

Forest Service Reaction

In a statement, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, under which the Forest Service sits, confirmed that an authorised department official met with the landowner at the site on 2 February 2018.

The Department did not respond to specific questions as to the nature of the discussion, simply stating that the “uprooting and clearance of trees” at the site is currently being investigated.

Under the Forestry Act 2014, an authorised officer has the power to require that “lands and anything at it or on it” are left undisturbed for the duration of any “search, examination, investigation, inspection or inquiry”.

When asked by The Green News why the Forest Service did not order works on the site to be halted following the visit on 2 February 2018, the department did not provide an answer.

“As the matter is currently being investigated by the Department, it is not appropriate to comment further,” the Department said in a follow-up statement sent on Monday, 12 February 2018.

It was reported by locals that all vehicles and equipment were removed from the site the following morning, with large stacks of felled trees left on site.

Smoke from site which various locals allege was from burning tyres, 9 February 2018

Tyre Burning

On the morning of Friday, 9 February 2018, several locals reported that tyres had been brought onto the site on a trailer at around 10.30AM, with dark plumes of smoke soon seen coming from the site.

Photos provided to The Green News last Friday appear to show a vehicle with a trailer containing tyres on the site and clouds of dark smoke coming from the same area.

The incident was reported to Nenagh Garda station, who dispatched a Garda to inspect the site. According to a Garda report, there were no signs of any tyre burning.

The incident was also reported to the Council, who dispatched an enforcement officer to visit the site on the Friday afternoon.

According to the Council’s Marion O Neill, there was no evidence to support the burning of tyres or transportation of tyres to the site.

Photo of vehicle and trailer containing tyres on the site, 9 February 2018

Ms O’Neill added that the senior enforcement official spoke with the site contractor, who told the official that between 20 and 30 tyres were discovered “from historical dumping on the site”.

The contractor placed the tyres on his trailer and removed them and “emphasised that no tyres were burned”, according to Ms O’Neill.

There is no clear view of any tyres on the cleared site from an analysis of the drone footage shot by Dr O’Connor on 7 February 2018.

A senior Council enforcement official also visited the site on the afternoon of Monday, 12 February 2018, finding “no evidence of burned tyres at the site”, Ms O’Neill added.

“The conclusion is that the complaints concerning burning tyres is [sic] unfounded and that the Environment Section intends to close the complaints on the system,” she concluded.

The alleged tyre burning was also reported to the EPA, with a case file opened on the incident, however, it is not known if the EPA had investigated the site at the time of reporting.

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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