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Ballina petition calls for new owners for Belleek Woods


CONTROVERSY Some locals are unhappy with recent tree felling in Belleek but Coillte has defended its actions.

Edwin McGreal

Over 1,700 people have signed a petition calling for Belleek Woods in Ballina to be handed over to Mayo County Council or the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).
 The petition was sparked by recent tree felling at the picturesque site, used as a recreational area by many locals in the north Mayo capital. The site is currently owned by State-owned commercial forestry company Coillte .
However, Coillte has defended the move, and claims it undertook the cutting with full public consultation and with the co-operation of the local Belleek Enhancement Group.
The man who set-up the petition argues that the practice of clear-cutting is not the best way to carry out such work.  Coillte’s commercial imperatives are an issue, he contends.
“A lot of people in Ballina are understandably annoyed about the large-scale tree cutting in the woods, and trying to paint these people as ill-informed is wrong. Advice from the UK Forestry Commission points out that a more-gradual approach to replacing older forestry trees with native trees is better for wildlife,” said local resident Cian Ginty.
“The idea that commercial clear-cutting was the only way to plant in native trees is wrong. Clear-cutting is not best practice, especially not for wildlife and in an area so important to the residents of the area and for tourism. It is a practice mainly reserved for commercial forestry,” he added.
“It is better practice to carry out thinning and replanting in a more gradual way. But this could be more costly for Coillte, the current owners of the woods, who are obliged to be commercially focused – in not just tree cutting but also in trying to charge groups hundreds of euro to use the woods for events,” he said.

Health and safety
In a statement sent to The Mayo News, Coillte stood over its actions, citing health and safety grounds.
“We are convinced a gradual felling or continuous cover forestry was not appropriate for health and safety reasons due to the significant age of the trees that were in such close proximity to the public walkways.
“This approach was agreed unanimously, after assessment by our expert foresters and in full consultation with the Belleek Enhancement Group and the wider Belleek community.  Coillte remains committed to the responsible management of the Belleek Forest and we will continue to update the public as we move forward together,” they stated.
Mr Ginty disputes the health and safety argument.
“The idea that the cutting was done for safety reasons holds little water. If safety was the issue and clear-cutting was the solution then they would strip the woods of far, far more trees than have been cut,” he argued.
Mr Ginty wants to see ownership of the woods transferred  from Coiltte to Mayo County Council, in partnershsip with the NPWS, as happened with the grounds of Moorehall House, near Carnacon, earlier this year. He also argues an alternative would be the woods being owned and run by the NPWS, as occurs at Wild Nephin.
In an earlier statement on the issue Coillte outlined the process it undertook with the tree felling at Belleek. It said that woods in six acres of its commercial forestry in Belleek ‘are considered over-mature and a possible threat to the public’s safety’.
The company met with the Belleek Enhancement Committee in August to discuss its initial plans. As a result of discussions, the area identified for felling was reduced from six acres to three acres, stated Coillte.
A public meeting took place on September 20 in Ballina, and the project was advertised in The Western People.
Coillte commenced the clear-felling on November 27, completing the work on November 30.
“We understand and acknowledge members of the community care greatly about the forest. This project will help to create a new non-commercial forest that will serve future generations well,” the company stated.
“The short-term impact and inconvenience must be weighed against the longer-term benefit of the forest to the area, and the community. We will continue to work closely with the local representatives during this restoration phase. We will update the public regularly over the coming months as the land transitions from a commercial to a recreational space.”