200-year-old oaks at centre of campaign felled 'under the cover of darkness'
CONTRACTORS moved in "under the cover of darkness" to cut down more than two dozen Irish Oak trees on the bank of a tributary of the Newry River.
Activists had campaigned for months against the felling of the 200-year-old trees, which the Department for Infrastructure insisted had to be done for necessary flood alleviation work to be carried out.
But those arguing against said much of the alleviation work was already done and that no-one has clearly stated why they had to be cut down for the construction and operation of a flood wall.
Campaigner Eamon Burke said his "legs went weak" when he took the call early on Wednesday telling him workers were on site and had started cutting.
He and others rushed to the scene to protest but there was little they could do. Police were called at 9am following reports of a protest at the site close to the Greenbank Industrial Estate on the road out to Warrenpoint.
SDLP MLA Justin McNulty, a supporter of the campaign involving among others Colum Sands, of the Rostrevor singing, songwriting family, said there was a "deep sense of betrayal" at developments.
Claiming contractors moved in "under the cover of darkness" he said:
“These trees have been here longer than any of us, and they should be here long after all of us are gone,” said Mr McNulty, an engineer by trade who insisted an alternative could have been found.
“There is a deep sense of betrayal amongst the campaigners who have been fighting to protect our local environment. I’m personally devastated for Eamonn Burke, who has been the voice of the trees and who has put his heart and soul into protecting these oaks."
In a letter to campaigners, Mr O'Dowd said a full review was carried out and there was no alternative to two options - retain the trees and have no flood protection or remove them.
He wrote read: “I can confirm that my Department has already undertaken a re-assessment of all potential options to provide flood protection at this location to try to avoid any tree removal. The review concluded that unfortunately there were no alternative measures that would provide the required standard of protection.
"All other options have been exhausted and the longer the scheme is delayed the more chance there is of another serious flooding incident.”
The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment but in a previous statement said: "“We work in partnership with landowners and others on compensatory planting, if it is necessary to remove trees to facilitate the construction of flood defences.
“For all of our schemes, we endeavour to replace all of the trees we remove, with native species where possible."