growing concern | 

Christmas tree-stealing gangs chopped down after major garda operation

Things got so bad that one grower was even held at gunpoint in 2011 and around €100,000 worth of trees were stolen in Wicklow alone the same year

Christmas tree farmer, Christy Kavanagh, at his farm in Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow

Christy Kavanagh praised learning Operation Hurdle

Alan SherrySunday World

THE large-scale theft of Christmas trees was once a growing industry but has been chopped down over the past 10 years due to a special garda operation targeting the gangs behind it.

Decades ago, tree growers had to contend with what they describe as rogues and nuisances – out to bag a single tree for the wife on the way home from the pub.

Some would tag a tree they wanted during the day and come back at night to chop it down and drive off with it in their car.

Detection methods for gardai at the time would consist of stopping cars carrying trees and ask the driver if they had a receipt.

By the time the 21st Century had come around, rogues taking a tree home to the wife developed into a sophisticated crime offshoot where gangs were stealing thousands of euro worth of trees at a time and selling them.

Things got so bad that one grower was even held at gunpoint in 2011 and around €100,000 worth of trees were stolen in Wicklow alone the same year.

As a result, gardai launched Operation Hurdle which involved increased patrols, CCTV, checkpoints, armed officers and the Garda helicopter.

The operation has continued ever since and award-winning tree grower Christy Kavanagh of Kavanagh’s Christmas Trees in Newtownmountkennedy in Wicklow said the thieves have effectively given up.

“It’s a huge success. The guards in our area, the local guards including Garda John Whelan know what’s going on in the area. They’re on the road day and night. With the modern garda cars they’re able to record who is in the area with their modern technology [Automatic Number Plate Recognition].”

He said he believes because of the garda operation a new generation of criminals have not carried on the tradition of stealing trees.

“I’d nearly go with being bold and say I think the crooks are gone too lazy to take Christmas trees. They’re not like the lads who were around 10 or 20 years ago. They’re gone soft.”

He said he hasn’t heard of any growers who have had trees stolen in the last few years.

“That’s all phased out. Maybe the boys who were involved in that 10 or 20 years ago have retired and the next generation have mobile phones in their hands.”

Christy said it had become a massive problem before Operation Hurdle was launched.

Christy Kavanagh praised learning Operation Hurdle

Due to the growing problem of thefts at the time Christy and his team installed dozens of cameras around the farm which they can check on their phones if they are triggered. He also erected motion sensors and eight-foot high barbed wire fences to deter the thieves.

Those measures coupled with Operation Hurdle have effectively ended the thefts for now.

“It was a massive problem but the guards took ownership of it and went to a lot of effort and stamped it out. All us Christmas tree growers are very grateful to the guards for the all effort that they made.

“It got organised. Especially when trees were netted someone could have a jeep and trailer and throw 200 trees on it and get €50 a piece for them retail which would be €10,000. It was organised and there was a lot of money in it.”

Meanwhile, Christy also said that there is an increase in people buying real tress. “There are huge amount of young people buying real trees and water stands.

“The amount of new people we would get at Leopardstown racecourse this year compared to last year. There was a lot of young couples coming in. They were saying they had previously got plastic trees but this year was the first year they were going to get a real tree. That’s very positive. Our sales are up.

“The trouble with the artificial tree is it comes in from China and it ends up in landfill. People are much more conscious of the environment and sustainability.”

Christy said the work doesn’t stop after Christmas.

“As soon as we get the last tree sold we’ll be back into pruning. We trade up to Christmas Eve and then trade after Christmas for people like Russian Orthodox people who only put up their tree at the end of December.

“I’m surprised the amount of people in this country who are looking for a tree after Christmas. It’s great for us as well. It brings in a few bob as well.”

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