Woman charged with causing criminal damage by sawing down Coillte trees says 'ancient law' gives her right to forage and manage the land 

Woman charged with causing criminal damage by sawing down Coillte trees says 'ancient law' gives her right to forage and manage the land 
Sionad Jones at Cork Court Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

A 61-year-old grandmother on trial for causing criminal damage by sawing down Coillte trees in West Cork and stealing the wood said she cut Sitka Spruce trees because they were destroying biodiversity and acidifying the water.

Sioned Jones said she was one of earth’s protectors, managing part of the forest because of her love for Ireland’s native trees and believed she had the backing of the European Union, the United Nations and ancient law.

Sionad Jones, 61, of Maughnaclea, Kealkil, Bantry, County Cork, pleaded not guilty to charges of causing criminal damage to spruce trees belonging to Coillte and dishonestly appropriating wood. The charges specified that 250 trees were felled and 250 more were ringbarked.

Donal Murphy of Coillte said he went to the forest on December 4 2018 following a report of chainsaw activity in the area. He said that he counted 250 trees having been cut down and 250 more that had been ringbarked. He explained that this entailed cutting out a piece of bark about an inch deep all around the tree which would cause the tree to die in time.

Garda Fintan Coffey arrived in the area at 11 am that morning. He said Sionad Jones got out of a green Toyota Starlet on the lane and her clothes were covered with sawdust. He said there was a chainsaw in her car. Later at her house he said there was a significant amount of wood.

Garda Coffey cautioned the defendant and questioned her at the scene. He said that she was worried that the vast mono-culture of spruce trees was bad for the environment and causing acidification of the water.

He said that she knew the trees belonged to Coillte. The guard testified that she said after caution that, “She knew they did not belong to her and it was against the law.” 

This alleged admission was denied.

The 61-year-old woman from Wales described herself as a grandmother and said she had been living in West Cork for 32 years. She said that when she arrived in Maughnaclea it was a beautiful valley where she foraged with her child for nuts, berries, firewood, turf, mushrooms and so forth. She described a richly biodiverse landscape that included orchids, bilberries, insects, birds, lizards and frogs.

She became distressed when Coillte planted what she described as a hundred acres of an American tree, Sitka Spruce, which she said grew to create a dark forest floor which killed off the biodiverse environment.

“I was shocked, I was outraged, I was appalled,” she told her barrister, Peter O’Flynn, in front of Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin and a jury of eight women and four men at Cork Circuit Criminal Court.

She claimed she had a right to subsist off the local environment under ancient law and that this allowed her to forage.

“I started cutting a few spruce trees to let light into the bilberry bushes. First I was cutting to keep biodiversity alive. As the clearing got bigger we needed broadleaf trees. I was inspired to plant trees. The valley in which I live was denuded,” Sionad Jones testified.

She said the water in the well for her house was being acidified by the spruce trees and causing her copper tank to corrode quickly and that her replanting of broadleaf trees was alkalising the soil.

The defendant claimed Coillte were failing to plant a certain percentage of broadleaf trees required by EU regulations and a UN convention on biodiversity in 2002/2003 of which Ireland was signatory, she said. Mr Murphy from Coillte said that depending on the area, broadleaf trees were being planted as well.

Before the end of her direct evidence, Ms Jones referred to the natural planting of trees and said that she had watched a Jay with an acorn and that this bird could fly for a mile with the acorn in his beak. Judge Ó Donnabháin told the defendant’s barrister, “Unless you are going to call the bird, let’s get on with it.” 

The defendant said, “This is more than about me. This is not me defending myself against these allegations. This is about the native trees of Ireland becoming scarce and vulnerable. They need new land to regenerate.

“Coillte is state-funded from taxpayers’ money and EU money. They manage seven percent of the area of Ireland. What are they doing planting all this spruce for profit and it is no good for the environment." 

Like the conscientious objectors of wartime she said she was one of earth’s protectors, protecting biodiversity.

“It is not just for me. I am concerned about the environment we are leaving for future generations, for the tress, for the insects, for the birds, for the flowers. I am a conscientious protector. I am not a criminal. I am acting to protect the ecology and for the broadleaf trees of Ireland to have a place to live,” she said.

Brendan Kelly prosecution barrister asked if she admitted the forest belonged to Coillte. She said Coillte managed it on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture who held it on behalf of the people of Ireland.

“You cut down and ringbarked the trees,” Mr Kelly said and Sionad Jones replied, “Yes, it was part of my management of it. I have been doing that continuously for 20 years on that site. I took up the management of the site as a concerned citizen as I am duty-bound to do.” 

Mr Kelly said, “So every citizen has a right to go in and cut down trees?” 

She replied, “I feel I have a right under ancient law, EU law and UN regulations to have a healthy life and live off the land… I took over the management of it to ensure there would be nuts and berries for myself and future generations.” 

She said she never told Garda Coffey that she knew she was acting against the law but said that what Coillte were planting was against the law. 

Mr Kelly BL said, “You are scurrying with a bizarre defence?”

She replied, “It is not a bizarre defence. It is a legitimate defence.” 

A protest, organised by Extinction Rebellion, took place outside the courthouse this morning. 

The trial continues tomorrow. 

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