Our Castle Gardens are a natural treasure - but for how much longer?

WE are all occasionally guilty of taking things for granted, but when it comes to something as vitally important as the Castle Gardens you will miss them when they’re gone.

For all the years I have lived in Antrim I have always enjoyed the iconic beauty of the grounds, and savoured its recreational features, gardens, walks and structures.

No-one can doubt the great work that has been put in by the local authorities to develop the gardens, Clotworthy House, the path network and the public art works.

Huge amounts, in both time and money, have been invested to restore them to their former glory - and the droves of visitors prove it was well spent.

I am, however, concerned above all else about the biggest asset of the Castle grounds which gives it its character and greatest value - its woodland trees.

I am concerned we are losing these trees and the character of this area will change for the worse as time goes on unless something happens. And the clock is ticking now.

Given the close urban environment you have to consider the many societal benefits this woodland brings.

There is, of course, the cleaning of air particulates. Those avenues of mature trees also lock up the carbon from the air and store it in their roots, shoots and leaves. That’s vital with the impending global warming emergency.

There are simpler benefits too. They provide visitors with a broader appreciation of nature - and there is no doubt that a stroll through the historic parkland can alleviate stress and aid mental well-being.

The trees also reduce traffic noise and contribute to biodiversity by providing vital habitat for animals and birds.

I can’t help thinking that is an impressive list of cost free services.

The towering long lived trees of oak, ash, lime, beech and chestnut jostle for position with English Yew, Irish Sycamore, young walnut, tulip trees, Douglas Fir, silver fir and lime hedges.

Together they give the area the truly wonderful smells and sounds of a partial magical wildness right next to the urban buzz of Antrim town centre.

This is indeed capitalised on by the woodland art features and Roald Dahl quotes sweetly fixed to certain trees and discovered as you walk along the woodland paths.

The trees in the Castle Grounds seem to have been there for a lifetime and no doubt, for a few human lifetimes.

The problem is that trees also have a natural life cycle and as that transcends human life spans, it seems like they last forever.

Unfortunately they do not.

And I have noticed some aspects of the woodlands that concern me.

Firstly, I have observed that some of the very mature trees have succumbed or are succumbing to natural old age and decay with pathogenic rotting fungi attacking the seemingly unassailable trunks and limbs.

You can see extensive fungal brackets, or Meripilus, around the roots of a mature beech near the bottom of the long canal.

This fungus and others on the stem, known as Ganoderma, are significant natural decay pathogens of live wood.

Sadly it means that this particular tree’s vigil is almost over. It’s only a matter of time before it will have to be removed, reduced in height or if left, possibly fall over.

Whilst these effects are part and parcel of a natural cycle, what is worryingly absent are the necessary replacements for these fading giants.

Next time you are there, take a look around the path network and you will see a conspicuous absence of any young tree regeneration.

A natural or well managed woodland has a spread of ages just like a normal human population where numbers of people of a given age reduce as we get older.

If a new population is not coming up behind then when the old trees go - as inevitably they will - then all you have is open space.

That would certainly be a stark contrast to what we all enjoy at present.

Pleasingly I have noticed some new trees planted in shelters in small numbers near the main entrance and near the circular pond.

There also seems to be some naturally regenerated trees on rougher ground were human access maybe difficult.

But in my opinion there is still not enough.

I have also noticed the symptoms of recently arrived foreign pathogens like ash dieback, also known as Chalara.

This causes the crowns of some mature ash trees to decay and defoliate. You can see some examples just at the top of the long canal.

Alas, these trees will probably be lost within ten years.

I stress again that time is of the essence of we want to see this natural treasure preserved for future generations.

The grim truth is that unless urgent steps are taken and with purpose within a long term woodland management plan, the principle beauty of the Castle Grounds will most likely disappear over the next few decades.

Even trees planted today will still take 30 years or more to bestow the aesthetic effects currently enjoyed by us as we wander around the wonderful path network.

So we need to get started now if this is to be available to our children and grandchildren walking here in 50 years or beyond.

I don’t know what the long term tree regeneration plans for the Castle Grounds are, but I think there should be a start along this path now.

Tree management involves a long term commitment and an investment in someone else’s future, something that doesn’t lend itself well to everyday political short term priorities.

I have always loved a version of an old American Indian proverb which is particularly apt:

‘Blessed are those who plant trees under whose shade they will never sit’.

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