There have been strong calls to designate scenic Belleek Woods on the banks of the River Moy in Ballina a wildlife sanctuary after a number of young herons were killed this week during tree felling by Coillte.
Locals reacted angrily when the tree top nests of the tranquil wading birds, which have become a much loved sight along the riverbanks, were inadvertently disturbed and a number of chicks were found dead on the forest floor in the days that followed.
One chick was rescued and is now in the care of the Ballymote Bird Sanctuary in Roscommon.
Tony Clarke, Coillte area manager in the west, said they were completely unaware there were nesting herons in their work area last weekend. He explained a long-term plan is in place to transition Belleek Woods, which is a popular local beauty spot for families, walkers and joggers, from a commercial forest to a recreational forest.
The plan spans 30 years and involves gradually replacing the existing forest crop with a native species forest. As part of this process, Coillte must thin out mature crop trees and underplant with native species. This was the work that was licensed and under way in a section of the woods when the nests were destroyed.
“Of course if the nests had have been observed we would have avoided them,” said Mr Clarke. “These birds are difficult to see because they nest at the very top of the trees. One of our chief wildlife concerns was the red squirrels which the Belleek Woods Enhancement Committee reintroduced to the forest. Unfortuntately, we weren’t aware of the herons.”
Tree felling operations were immediately halted when the matter was brought to Coillte’s attention and the situation is now under review.
Councillor Peter Clarke was contacted by concerned locals as they learned about the nests being destroyed.
“People were very upset when they came across these birds,” he said. “The trees should have been checked. It was a mistake and hopefully Coillte will learn from this.”
At a meeting of Ballina Town Council on Wednesday night he described Belleek Woods as “one of the best amenities in the west of Ireland”.
Cllr Gerry Ginty proposed the woods be designated a nature sanctuary and that motion was seconded by Cllr Mark Winters.
This week, Ballina town councillors also approved a grant of €5,000 for the Belleek Forest Enhancement Committee and praised them for their work on nature conservation and development of the woods into a much loved local attraction.