Operation Hurdle: Gardai draft in air corps to target Christmas tree thieves
Regular air patrols in the run-up to Christmas will also enable gardai to keep an eye on any suspicious activity
A seasonal garda operation to target Christmas tree raiders is now "in full swing", as Irish growers predict a bumper harvest of festive firs.
Operation Hurdle, which is now in its sixth year, will see an increased garda presence between now and Christmas in Co. Wicklow, which has the highest concentration of Christmas tree farms in the country.
Regular air patrols in the run-up to Christmas will also enable gardai to keep an eye on any suspicious activity around the more remote plantations across the county.
Supt. Paul Hogan, who set up the initiative back in 2012 after a delegation of concerned farmers approached him following a spate of thefts, said the threat growers used to face from criminal gangs has since reduced dramatically.
He said: "We've only just officially launched this year's Operation Hurdle, but we've been running it for the past few weeks.
"Our focus is primarily on prevention, because the criminals and gangs out there know we're keeping a very close eye on things. The Christmas tree farms are our main focus since we set it up at the instigation of the growers, but we're also looking out for poachers and that kind of activity, which tends to increase towards Christmas.
"We also have the help of the air corps unit, which can cover large tracts of land and quickly spot anything suspicious."
Supt. Hogan, who's based at Wicklow town garda station, set up Operation Hurdle after a group of farmers approached him for help, following an incident in 2011 when a grower in Roundwood was tied up and robbed.
Up to then criminal gangs had successfully plundered many farms across the county, stealing over 2,000 festive firs a year and costing growers as much as €100,000.
But an increased garda presence, plus investment from the growers themselves in security measures - such as employing security guards and setting up CCTV cameras and motion detectors around their plantations - has helped them win the war on Christmas tree crime.
Grower Christy Kavanagh, who expects to supply around 10,000 trees in total from his isolated farm in Newtownmountkennedy, Co. Wicklow, to both the Irish and export market this year, described Operation Hurdle as "a wonderful success".
He said: "There has hardly been any theft at all since it was set up and it has a ripple effect across the communities around here, because levels of poaching are kept right down and older people and those who live on their own feel a lot safer at night, because there's a bigger garda presence around.
Christy, who's a multi-award winning grower and vice-president of the Irish Christmas Trees Growers Association, also said many Irish farmers can look forward to a bumper harvest following a "very good growing season".
The total value of the Christmas tree market to the Irish economy is estimated to be about €21million.
The Nordmann Fir accounts for 75pc of trees grown in this country, with another 15 per cent made up by the Noble Fir and the remaining 10 per cent by several other varieties.
Denmark is the largest producer of Christmas trees in Europe, but the high-quality crop produced in this country have made Ireland the biggest exporter of festive first to the UK, with strong demand also from France, Germany, Belgium and Holland.
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