Scale, cost and complexity of issue not realized at a National Scale, says Rhododendron Conference.

The first National Conference on the invasive species Rhododendron ponticum, was held in the Brehon Hotel, Killarney last Friday.

Hosted by South Kerry Development Partnership’s Kerry UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Officer the conference brought together speakers with a wealth of experience both academic and practical to share knowledge on appropriate treatment methods and planning for Rhododendron ponticum management.

The daylong event was well attended in person with a number of others watching at home via the Facebook live feed. Delegates from as far away as Donegal and Connemara were in attendance highlighting the pervasiveness of this issue across the country, a plant toxic to livestock and grazers, and detrimental to all wildlife including bees, birds and insect populations.

The conference was opened with an address from Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform Malcolm Noonan, who highlighted the forthcoming National Invasive Species Plan and said that with the upcoming UN Decade of Eco-system Restoration “the ambition of communities throughout the country is being matched by Government in terms of resourcing and support.”

This was picked up on later by Dr. Therese Higgins who likened the spreading Rhododendron ponticum to a type of invisible pollution. Dr. Higgins highlighted 33% percent of Irish soils (National Biodiversity Data Centre) could support Rhododendron ponticum growth if the issue is not addressed with devastating consequences for our native habitats including woodlands, peatlands and wet and dry heath. These habitats are vital for Ireland to managing climate change while supporting human wellbeing and reducing biodiversity loss.

Patricia Deane from the MacGillycuddy Reeks European Innovation Partnership (EIP) Project spoke on how the project has been operating; the need for and effectiveness of a locally led approach for rhododendron management on a large scale with farmers. She highlighted how embedding the appropriate skills within our Rural Communities is critical to ensure there is a return to local economy, a strong social emphasis alongside actions to protect the environment and habitats. This can work towards addressing other pressing concerns in Rural Ireland such as land succession. These are concerns that are relevant not just within Kerry but throughout Ireland.

The vital role of volunteers in providing people power to face the scale of the problem was supported by Seamus Hassett, Regional Manager for NPWS. Speaking on the long history in Killarney National Park of working with volunteer groups local, national and international he applauded the work of the Killarney Mountain Meitheal and the support they have offered staff in the Park on tackling Rhododendron ponticum. With a new Management Plan in process for Killarney National Park and increased funding from their Department there is hope that one day we will talk in the past tense about Rhododendron ponticum in Killarney.

Of bigger concern on the day and highlighted by impassioned speakers from the audience is the unchecked spread of Rhododendron ponticum throughout the wider countryside. The use of Rhododendron ponticum in private gardens and as hedging was noted as a seed source allowing encroachment onto adjacent farmed land. The absence of any framework or funding support for individual landowners in managing this issue was also made apparent. Given the scale of infestation throughout Ireland, the cost of implementing a management strategy and the requirement for several phases of treatment over subsequent years to ensure eradication - a National approach is required.

Flor McCarthy, a participant farmer in the MacGillycuddy Reeks EIP stated that without the support from the project and their trained collective working group he would have been unable individually to manage the Rhododendron ponticum on his own land. Due to the physical nature of the work, the time needed for the phased treatment required and significant cost of treatment is being beyond what an individual farmer is capable of achieving with extensive support. This was echoed in the Q and A session from other farmers in attendance calling for support from the Department of Agriculture to tackle widespread invasive species such as Rhododendron ponticum.

The Master of Ceremony for the day was Radio Kerry presenter and journalist Aisling O’ Brien who in closing the conference shared her hope that the energy and enthusiasm for addressing the issue felt in the room on the day would transfer to action and support for this work across Ireland in the coming months and years.

Outcomes from the conference:

  • A national response required to support implementation of Rhododendron ponticum management and to raise awareness within the wider community of the devastation this species is causing, to all wildlife, livestock and habitats.
  • Incentives needed for private landowners to adequately manage Rhododendron ponticum in their gardens and landscaped areas to remove the seed source encroaching on adjacent lands.
  • Urgent significant support needed from the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine for farmers who need to manage Rhododendron ponticum and other invasives on their land.
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