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Not Seeing The Wood For The Trees
EAMONN McCANN reports on the battle to save an ancient wood in Co. Donegal.
Eamonn McCann, 22 Dec 1999
What to do to mark the Millennium? Chop down 1,000-year-old trees? That's the way the heritage industry does it in Donegal. Which may have doomed Burt Woods to the buzz-saw.
Burt Woods, about six miles north of Derry on the road to Letterkenny, is one of very few native woods left on this island. You'd think it in safe hands. It's owned by the Grianain of Aileach Interpretative Centre.
Grianain of Aileach - the Sun-Palace of the Swans - is one of the wonders of the ancient Irish world. The name refers to the great hosting of swans which descend every winter on Lough Swilly, and wheel away back to the Arctic come spring. Perhaps 3,000 years old, the circular stone structure sits sturdily intact atop a hill commanding vast sweeping views of Donegal and Derry, Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle. A grassy floor within high walls which hold out the buffeting wind provides a brilliant picnic-spot by day, a party-place by night. All you have to worry about is getting giddy from the gorgeousness all around when you're walking the battlements.
Burt Woods lies at the foot of Grianain Hill, The Interpretive Centre nestles at its edge. Housed in what was once a Church of Ireland church, it is a fashionable, medium-price restaurant, attracting a sizeable clientele from Derry. Many are unaware that the Centre has a function other than as a restaurant.
Burt Woods is small, little more than a dozen acres, and, possibly for that reason, has never been surveyed or given an official designation by the heritage service, Duchas. Last September, local people, alarmed at evidence that the woods were about to be ripped out, hired their own ecological surveyor, Ralph Sheppard of Gaia Associates. He reported that "All this woodland would merit the designation of Natural Heritage Area".
One section, he believed, had been planted in the last century on the site of an older woodland. The rest he described as "a fully native woodland (with) continuity of woodland coverage since ancient times".
He described "fine old trees" of ash, oak and beech and, on wetland, "willow, birch and alder, these festooned with mosses, liverworts and lichens. Ground flora included much Golden Saxifrage".
Sheppard had been invited to Burt by a group including Breeda O Loghlin, who, with her husband, had owned the Woods until three years ago. They were attached to her home, Burt House.
She told Hot Press: "We were approached in 1995 by two of the principals of Grianin of Aileach Interpretive Centre to sell Burt Wood . . . The principals at all points had expressed their concern that, were we ever to sell our whole property, the woodlands would be in danger of development and that by selling it to a grant-aided Heritage Centre it would be absolutely guaranteed to be preserved forever. We liked that. It made the offer attractive to us".
In a letter to the O Loghlins' solicitors in August 1995, solicitors for the Centre declared: "You would appreciate that it is our clients' intention to have the property being purchased by them reserved as a nature walk and open to the public generally and they have no difficulty with your clients in that regard."
The two sides agreed an "agricultural-use" price. The deal was completed in 1996.
Ms. O Loghlin is by no means a naive woman. But she does seem to have been overly impressed that the buyers were a Heritage Centre, and to have taken the fact that the Centre had received a #140,000 grant from the International Fund for Ireland as solid confirmation that it was essentially a non-commercial operation involved in the environmental enhancement of the area. In fact, winning a grant from the IFI simply confirmed that the Centre had been assessed by the Fund as coming within its remit - which extends to economic development as well as to conservation. There is no legal definition of "heritage centre". The assurances given in the solicitors' letter were couched in general terms and fell far short of a binding commitment. There is no reason to believe that the directors of the Centre behaved in a dishonest or dishonourable way.
What seems to have happened since is that the Centre has set about developing the Wood. In December last year, the Centre placed an advert in the local press offering "fully-serviced sites with Planning Permission" in the Woods. Callers were told that while planning permission had not, as a matter of fact, been obtained, it was not anticipated this would pose a problem.
In March this year, the Centre applied to Donegal County Council for planning permission for four houses in the Wood.
In April, local people called gardai after seeing a large digger demolish 15 yards of dry-stone wall at the edge of the Wood. Three quarters of an acre had been cleared before gardai ordered work to stop. The digger driver, genuinely "just doing his job", said that he had had instructions to "level everything to the county road".
A fortnight later, an appeal to the County Council to refuse planning permission was signed by 200 local people - a small number, but amounting to a majority of people living in the immediate vicinity.
At a noisy meeting in Burt Hall in July, representatives of the Centre refused to say how many houses in total they intended to build.
In September, it was discovered that an area within the Wood, some 50-100 yards from the road, had been cleared of small trees and saplings.
In October, the Green MEP Patricia McKenna travelled from Dublin to speak with the O Loghlins and others concerned about the future of the Wood. As a result, the affair began to attract local media attention.
In November, the Inisowen office of the EU "Leader" scheme confirmed that the Centre had been awarded "approximately #35,000" to build pathways in the Wood. The pathways are not necessarily associated with the building plans.
And there the matter rests. The Centre intends to proceed with development. Breeda O Loghlin and others remain on permanent alert. Patricia McKenna says she'll do what she can. But a betting man wouldn't back Burt Wood to be standing its leafy ground come the first Christmas of the third millennium.
Burt Woods is not the Burren. It's a relatively small patch of wooded land in an out-of-the-way area. It can hardly be argued it's unique. What's most distinctive about it is, probably, that it's home to a bird, the buzzard, so rare in Ireland as to be almost non-resident. Nice, but not enough to build a big campaign on.
Nevertheless, this isn't so much a small issue as a big issue writ small. To give up on Burt Woods entirely would be to give up a little on the environment generally. Wherever we live, we should be mindful of the fact that grant-aided developers want to gouge out an ancient wood to make a building site.
If they are let do it to Burt Woods, they'll be emboldened everywhere.
I phoned my pal Mary Reid to check the spelling of Grianain and she said: "Grianain? I've just written a poem for the Millennium about Grianain". n