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Killarney Meitheal tackling “an ecological disaster right on our doorstep”

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It is well-known by now that our National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is facing a significant ecological threat posed by the invasive shrub Rhododendron.

The non-native species, was introduced to Killarney for decorative purposes in the 19th century but it is now wreaking havoc. Peter O’ Toole, a retired park ranger has spent over 40 years researching and dealing with the impacts of the plant. 

I visited The Blue Pool last week to catch up with Peter and some of the other Killarney Meitheal volunteers to learn a bit more about the problem. Peter describes the issue as “an ecological disaster right on our doorstep”, but how many of us locals really understand the issue at play, or what is at stake if left untouched.

Background 

“Rhododendron ponticum is a large evergreen shrub that was introduced into the British Isles from Iberia during the 18th century.  Rhododendron ponticum is one of more than 900 types of rhododendron. Most of these are native to Asia but they are also very common across the Ibearen Penensuila (Spain & Portugal) which is where our species originated from”, Peter explains.

He believes that the particular shrub we have here in Killarney is a hybridised version of the Ibearian species and a North American species called Rhododendron Catawbiense. He has affectionally named it “Frankenstein Rhododendron” due to its problematic nature. 

From afar, the plant can actually be quiet easy on the eye. The thick evergreen shrub grows meters tall and has thick dark green leaves. In the Summer you will notice the large clusters of purple or pink flowers illuminating the foots of the mountains and woodlands. 

So why are we trying to get rid of it?

“The plant has a thick foliage which blocks the sunlight from hitting the woodland floor. The big dark green leaves allow for only 2% of sunlight to penetrate to the ground. This means that nothing below it can survive. It has the potential to wipe out bird life, insects and small mammals if left to spread. It also prevents the regeneration of our native oak trees. The plant grows so wild that it doesn’t allow room for anything else to grow. With no room for other flora and fauna to prosper, the park's biodiversity is threatened” - Peter explains.

The species we have here in Killarney is extremely durable. Unlike species that are growing in other countries, frost, fire and drought can help limit the plants growth but in the Killarney National park and with this particular species, none of these methods work. Peter told me he spent many years researching the best way to kill the plant and the only success they have had is through a Stem Injection. 

Sounds simple right?

Well it’s not. There are a number laborious steps and precautions the group must take during the process and when all of the invasive species is removed , there is still more work to be done to maintain the woodlands.

“We begin by cutting back the strong Rhododendron.  We then give each plant a stem injection which kills it at the root. It can take between 10-12 months before the plant is ready to be cleared. Clearing the plant involves cutting and pulling the plants out of the ground. Each area of woodland must then be fenced off to keep the deer population out, giving the woodland the best chance of naturally regenerating. It can take up to 15 years before new life is visible in the cleared areas”.

Despite ongoing efforts, controlling rhododendron infestation remains a challenging task due to the shrub's rapid growth and resilience. The vastness of the park and the remoteness of some areas makes the manual labour even more Challenging. Peter believes that over two-thirds of the mature Rhododendron has now been cut back, but it could be another 20-30 years before they clear the rest.

Volunteer led group

Killarney Meithal was first established by former Fine Gael Minister Jimmy Deenihan in 2014 and since then, the environmental volunteer group has exceeded all expectations of what can be achieved with a small group of custodians who care deeply about their local environment. The group are well supported by the NPWS and the Trustees of Muckross House who provide food, equipment and training to the volunteers.

I landed down to the Blue Pool at  about 11am last Tuesday, just as the team were taking a break. There was a great atmosphere around the fire pit where volunteers enjoyed a hot cup of tea, a sausage role and a bit of banter. I landed down in a shirt, jeans and a lovely clean pair white runners,  the gang were not long letting me know I wasn’t best dressed for the occasion (all in good fun). 

I wasn’t surprised to bump into a former teacher of mine Michael Gleeson. The former councillor and town mayor was always passionate about the environment and has been volunteering his time for a couple of years now. He explained to me that the group currently meets twice a week, from 9am - 12.30pm on Tuesdays and Sundays. There are about 90 members in total and they usually get between 20-40 people turning out each morning. 

“It is a great way to get out in the fresh air and give back. We are so lucky to have this amazing amenity on our doorstep and we shouldn’t take it for granted. We are always looking for new volunteers to come and help out and I would encourage anyone that can, to get involved” Michael explained

Michael had somewhere he needed to be later that morning so he headed off shortly after our chat. The volunteers explained that this is what was nice about volunteering with Killarney Meitheal. 

“If you can’t make it on any given morning, or if you have to shoot off early there is no issue. There is no big commitment or pressure to attend. If you can chip in on the days that suit, the help is always appreciated. If you are passionate about the environment or if you are just looking to give back to the community, we would recommend getting involved”.

The group recently welcomed Men’s Shed volunteers from neighbouring counties and plans are also in motion to join forces with TY students from local secondary schools .

Peter explained to me that their work in The Blue Pool is almost complete but he has little time for reflection, the fight will go on with the group soon to begin tackling 40 acres in Abbey Wood which is overrun with 70-80 year old Rhododendron.

If you are interested in getting involved you can contact the group via their Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/KillarneyMountainMeitheal/

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30 years of Innisfallen Island MassThe annual special concelebrated Mass on Innisfallen Island takes place next week.

Next Friday (June 21), members of the public are invited to attend the Mass taking place at 6.30pm. Now in its 30th year, the Mass was originally an idea by […]

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Next Friday (June 21), members of the public are invited to attend the Mass taking place at 6.30pm.

Now in its 30th year, the Mass was originally an idea by Geoffrey O’Donoghue who sadly died four years after it began.

“There was an Augustinian Monastery on Innisfallen Island and the people, including priests and monks and they say Brian Boro, went out there to study. The lake, Lough Lein is called ‘The Lake of Learning’,” said his wife Mary who carries on the tradition in his memory.

“My husband Geoffrey was a descendent of the O’Donoghues and he wanted to have Mass on the island. The O’Donoghues built Ross Castle and owned the lands and the lake surrounding it which was later donated by John McShane to the people of Killarney. He [Geoffrey] asked one of the friars and one day he got a call from the OPW that there would be a plaque unveiled to John McShane and they asked if the Mass could coincide with it. It was attended by Sr Pauline, John McShane’s daughter.”

She added that all the public are welcome to attend. Boats, which will have a nominal fee to cover their costs, will be carrying passengers out from 4pm onwards.

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Photo of “hidden gem” wins Camera Club’s latest competition

A photograph of one of Killarney’s hidden beauty spots was deemed the winner of Killarney Camera Club’s most recent competition. Th standard was high throughout all categories but in the […]

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A photograph of one of Killarney’s hidden beauty spots was deemed the winner of Killarney Camera Club’s most recent competition.

Th standard was high throughout all categories but in the Novice category, Iryna Halaieva’s photograph of O’Sullivan’s Cascade was deemed the winner.

“A waterfall is my favourite waterbody and long exposure is my favourite photographic technique,” she said. “I do my best to have as many waterfalls as possible in my photo collection. I heard a lot about O’Sullivan’s Cascade and wanted to visit that hidden gem of Kerry. So, shortly before our club competition I went with a friend to Tomies Wood to photograph it. It was a dream come true for me.”

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