Opinion: An ecological menace that's out of control at a park near you

Into the wild: Rhododendrons grow wild at the foot of Benbulben in Sligo.
Into the wild: Rhododendrons grow wild at the foot of Benbulben in Sligo.
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

History offers plenty of examples of subjects that we once regarded as blessings being subsequently revealed as curses.

A few that spring to mind are tobacco, DDT and thalidomide. After attending an event in Abbeyleix Bog to launch National Biodiversity Week, I would add rhododendron to that list.

Abbeyleix Bog is a fantastic amenity on our doorstep. Passing under the new wooden archway from the adjoining hotel carpark onto the path of an old railway line which runs through the bog is like stepping into a wardrobe and through to the fantasy world of Narnia.

The mixed habitat is teeming with plant and animal life, big and small. On every visit, there is something different to be experienced (this time, we heard the cuckoo); the morning is different to the evening, when it's raining to when it's sunny.

The hotel receptionist said they get several phonecalls every day about the bog, and I know of people who regularly travel from the surrounding counties to experience the continuous change.

The 500 acres is owned, and was formerly worked, by Bord na Mona but in 2010 the company handed the bog over to the local community to manage it for 50 years, with the primary focus on conservation.

The launch was chaired by well-known environmental commentator Éanna Ní Lamhna, who said that a question she is still regularly asked is, "what is biodiversity all about anyway?"

Her perpetual, typically direct, reply is: "It's not hard to understand - biology is living things, and diversity is variety."

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A walk on the bog followed where we saw an example of a blessing turned curse, not just on this site but increasingly all our native woods and acidic lands: the spread of Rhododendron ponticum.

Rhododendron came to Ireland some time in the 18th century, brought in by the gentry for decorative purposes and to provide hunting cover.

Native to Portugal and Spain as well as the Black Sea region, it thrived in our wet climate and acidic soils.

The first time I saw 'rhodo' was on a school tour to Killarney, and I can remember thinking it impossibly glamorous and extravagant.

However, from an ecological point of view, it has several bad habits.

Growing up to three metres, its dense vegetation prevents the growth of any plants below it.

Its leaves, flowers and nectar are unpalatable or poisonous to insects and mammals. It resists frost, and after a fire, bursts back into life.

A single plant can produce a million seeds.

However, it does not flower until about its 10th year. So there is a window of opportunity before it takes off.

It's long past this point in Killarney, where about one-third of the National Park's 10,000 hectares has a rhododendron problem, and hundreds of thousands of euro are being spent every year in an effort to contain it.

Since 2014, a voluntary group named Groundwork has been running rhodo-bashing work camps in Abbeyleix.

From 1981, when it was set up, Groundwork worked the National Parks and Wildlife Service in fighting the rhododendron in Killarney. But their association ended in 2009 when the group declined to work with the service's prescribed programme.

So while experts may disagree about how best to tackle the problem, the one certainty is that the tide is a long way from turning.

The battle is not unwinnable, if the will is there.

Michael Healy-Rae was lambasted when he suggested bringing in the army.

But our national parks and native woods are a precious resource.

More money may be part of the solution but maybe what's also needed are more inventive and inspirational approaches.

The longer ample action is delayed, the more it will cost, in every sense.

Indo Farming