Groundwork ran work camps from 1981 until 2009 in Killarney National Park, with up to 24 volunteers each week over a 12 week period each summer. During that time, Groundwork cleared and then maintained c. 350 ha of the Oak woods in Killarney National Park. The methods were scientifically proven and successful and are described in the N.P.W.S. publication, Irish Wildlife Manual No. 33. Groundwork were able to keep areas clear by adhering to a strict programme of work based on the ecology of the plant, following up initial clearance with maintenance on a 6-8 year cycle to ensure that no rhododendron was allowed to flower in an area once initial clearance had taken place. Work plans were agreed in advance with Park Management and detailed maps and reports were created at the end of each season.
For many years, Groundwork had the full support and respect of Killarney National Park management and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. However in 2009 the partnership between the National Park and Wildlife Service and Groundwork came to an end. Understanding how and why such a successful arrangement came to an end is difficult but it seems that a disagreement arose over methodologies and priorities. One complaint is that Groundwork members believe that Management were more interested in clearing areas close to public pathways with less emphasis being placed on conserving delicate habitats. Since 2009, Groundwork have maintained an independent monitoring role and produced reports surveying the condition of the Park since their departure.
Groundwork members say that with time and effort it is ‘easy’ to clear Rhododendron, however the hardest part is keeping it clear. They say that many attempts at clearing Rhododendron both in Ireland and elsewhere have failed due to an inadequate follow up plan. Large areas of Killarney National Park were cleared by contractors over the last ten years however according to Groundwork however, these contractors didn’t have an appropriate follow up plan.
From 2009 onward Groundwork began to highlight locations where the Rhododendron was once again beginning to reestablish in areas that were previously cleared – they claim that woodlands which they had kept clear for thirty years had new infestations. Much of this activity is detailed at http://www.groundwork.ie The Groundwork reports were in contrast to claims made by Park management. The confrontational relationship between the former partners seemed to worsen but more importantly, the battle against Rhododendron was being lost.
Angered and disappointed by the deterioration of the Park, Groundwork lodged a complaint with the European Commission in 2014. The failure to protect the ancient Oak woods in Killarney National Park from becoming re-infested with Rhododendron was, in their view, a clear breach of Habitats Directive. In 2015 inspections of woodlands in Killarney National Park again found Rhododendron plants which had seeded in areas declared as having “no rhododendron seed source remaining on site”. In addition to Groundwork’s own reports, reports from NPWS and Trinity College Dublin’s Botany Department also showed a significant increase in Rhododendron re-infestation. Some reports indicate that up to €2.7 million has been spent on Rhododendron clearance over the last 10 years so lack of finance is not the only problem. However further issues were on the horizon.
Part of the Groundwork methodology was to burn all Rhododendron brash (the cut branches of the removed shrubs) in open areas once it had dried out. However NPWS saw this as unnecessary and despite repeated warnings, the brash from the work of their contractors was cut and piled in situ around and under the native trees, or stem-treated (to poison the plant) and left standing in place. Once Aprils fire hit the forest, these piles burned high and intensely resulting in the death of many trees. Park Management say that a proper analysis is needed to understand the fire and they’ve discouraged speculation into causes and blame. Stakeholders for their part have long argued that if the budget doesn’t exist to remove the brash after cutting, then the Rhododendron would be better left alive and standing in the short run. Interesting to note also that dense pockets of Rhododendron themselves are highly unlikely to burn due to the moisture content of the shrubs and the dampness that often exists underneath. (Of course no one is disputing that in the longer term full eradication is necessary.) Other commentators say that climate change also must be recognised as a factor in the increasing prevalence of burns. All of this reminds us that once an eco-system is disrupted, it becomes much more challenging to fix.
The latest on this case is that Minister Noonan has since ordered an independent review of the entire NPWS approach and hopefully that can create outcomes that improve and sustain this ecosystem for generations to come.