A GRANDMOTHER who described herself as an "Earth Protector" said she cut down or killed 500 Sitka Spruce trees in a Coillte forest to protect insects, wild flowers, fungi, berry-bearing plants, native trees and her local community.
Sioned Jones (61) said she conducted her campaign of spruce removal at the sprawling west Cork forest, owned by Coillte since 1995, to promote native broad-leaf Irish trees - and planted such trees herself in clearings she had restored in the woodland from spruce.
The revelation came as Ms Jones of Maughanaclea, Kealkill, Bantry, Co Cork denied charges of criminal damage and dishonest appropriation before Cork Circuit Criminal Court.
Her trial began as more than 25 supporters staged a colourful demonstration outside the Angelsea Street courthouse to demonstrate their solidarity with Ms Jones over environmental protection.
Judge Sean O'Donnabhain and a jury of eight women and four men heard that Ms Jones denied the two charges.
She was charged with criminal damage at Maughanaclea between November 1 2018 and December 4 2018 involving the felling of 250 spruce trees and the ring-barking of a further 250 trees.
The charge was brought contrary to the Criminal Damage Act, 1991.
Ms Jones was also charged with dishonestly appropriating felled spruce wood between November 1 2018 and December 4 2018 to the value of Euro 500 contrary to the Criminal Justice, Theft & Fraud Offences Act, 2001.
Coillte official Donal Murphy said he was made aware two years ago of chain-saw activity in a Coillte-owned forest outside Kealkill.
He went to the forest involved and met Garda Fintan Coffey at the scene.
Garda Coffey said, a short time later, he saw a green Toyota Starlet car approaching from the forest and, when it stopped, Ms Jones got out.
The garda said her clothing was covered in saw dust and a chain saw was later spotted in her car.
Garda Coffey said Ms Jones confirmed at the scene that she had been felling spruce in the forest.
In a subsequent Garda interview, she said she had been acting to protect her local environment and to promote bio-diversity.
Mr Murphy said damage to a total of Euro 3,000 was done to spruce trees at the site.
In evidence, Ms Jones described herself as "an Earth Protector."
A native of Wales, she moved to Ireland in 1987 and lived in a small cottage outside Kealkill.
She claimed the local landscape and environment had been transformed over the past 32 years with Coillte's planting of thousands of acres of Sitka Spruce forests, a non-native species.
"I was shocked, outraged and appalled," she said.
Ms Jones said that such intensive monoculture was very bad for the environment and ran contrary to European and world guidelines for the promotion of biodiversity.
She said that, since 1995, she had been cutting spruce trees in the Kealkill forest to protect meadow-style mountain clearings full of native species.
Ms Jones said she had also planted almost 100 native Irish trees herself in the Kealkill forest including oak, birch, roan and hazel.
Some of these were grown in her own cottage nursery from acorns and seedlings.
The court heard she had also attempted to purchase the valley site involved from Coillte.
"I think thousands of acres of spruce is an environmental crime," she said.
Ms Jones said that, as the American-indigenous trees mature, they knit together and block out all the light to the forest floor - wiping out herbs, berry-bearing plants, mushrooms, insects and wild flowers.
She explained that, since her arrival in Ireland, she had foraged from the local land for berries, nuts, mushrooms, wild flowers and firewood.
"But all of my resources were being squeezed out. It was my right under ancient law to forage from the countryside...to live a healthy and sustainable life and live off the land."
Ms Jones said the vast spruce forest was also threatening the local environment - with spruce needles gradually making the soil and water more acidic.
In contrast, she said a mix of native trees help maintain a proper balance of nature and waterways.
The grandmother said she was also very worried about possible pesticide run-off entering the groundwater and thereby her water well.
However, Coillte insisted it was a mature 'free grown forest' with no use of chemicals.
Ms Jones explained her property was at the bottom of the forest - and she was worried about what runoff was going into her water well.
"I am concerned about the type of environment we are leaving for future generations," she said.
"I am a conscientious protector. We are here to protect the earth from danger and to work for biodiversity."
"I am not a criminal. I was acting to protect the ecology and the environment."
"This is not about me - this is about the native trees of Ireland."
"I am duty bound - citizens have a duty of care to protect eco-systems and to protect bio-diversity for future generations. Duty bound."
Ms Jones said she had not intended to upset anyone at Coillte - and merely wanted to protect the local environment for all local residents and future generations.
She insisted she wanted Coillte to plant more native tree species.
"I apologise if I have caused upset to (any) Coillte employees. But this was not take-take. I have done this with the best intentions."
Judge O'Donnabhain adjourned the trial for legal argument. The case will resume Friday.