By Conor BARRINS
Newtownmountkennedy, Ireland (AFP) Dec 12, 2015
Fed up with roaming gangs stealing their Christmas trees, farmers and police in Ireland have turned to smartphones and helicopter patrols to ensure they can keep delivering festive cheer to customers.
In mountainous County Wicklow, south of Dublin, growers faced a crisis four years ago, with up to 2,000 trees a year being stolen, costing them up to 100,000 euros ($110,000) in lost revenue.
"One of the growers around here was tied up and robbed at gunpoint so a few of the local growers went to the local police to do something," said Christy Kavanagh, a Christmas tree farmer in the small town of Newtownmountkennedy.
What emerged from that meeting became known as "Operation Hurdle", an annual campaign led by Irish police, or An Garda Siochana, to target tree thieves.
Officers encouraged growers to increase security on their farms, stepped up patrols and checkpoints and enlisted a police helicopter, complete with infra-red technology.
"It's a cash business and once trees are removed from the scene, it's very difficult to trace them back," Superintendent Paul Hogan of Wicklow Garda told AFP.
"The whole object of the exercise is crime prevention, to prevent the theft in the first place."
- 14 years to grow a tree -
Down on Kavanagh's farm, he instructs a pair of men as they load netted trees onto a truck, stacked almost three metres high, before they drive down the hill towards the motorway -- and customers in Dublin.
There are 100,000 trees growing on the farm at any one time, mostly Noble Fir, which sell for between 40 and 70 euros and can take up to 14 years before they are ready for harvest.
"If someone steals something you're producing for 14 years after all the effort and expense, it's not very pleasant," Kavanagh said.
That is why the 53-year-old has installed security cameras, higher fences and solar-powered motion detection cameras that send images to his smartphone if there is any sign of a rustling among the firs.
Dermot Page, chairman of the Irish Christmas Tree Growers' Association, said 550,000 trees will be sold this year, including 200,000 which will be exported to Europe, particularly Britain, France and Germany.
The value of the industry to Ireland's economy is estimated at 21 million euros per year.
Page, a farmer in County Wicklow himself, has increased security around his 80 acres of trees, including hiring private security teams and installing more cameras, plus trip wires which trigger alarms.
- Operation Bambi -
It is not just Christmas tree thieves who are attracting police attention.
Operation Hurdle is now tied in with a new national campaign targeting marauding criminal gangs in rural areas, known as Operation Thor, and another push to curb the illegal poaching of deer -- dubbed Operation Bambi.
"Some of these individuals would also be involved in other crimes in the area, such as theft of holly and poaching of deer, because there's lots of wild deer in the Wicklow area," Superintendent Hogan explained.
"These people are opportunistic, they're not fussy about what they steal."
The crackdown does seem to be delivering results.
The number of stolen trees has dropped to a "few minor incidents" this year, according to Hogan.
Page said: "So far this year I haven't heard of any significant theft at all.
"The presence of all this is hopefully keeping people away."
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