THE famous ‘Dark Hedges’ at Bregagh Road near Armoy have been given further protection as the passing of a new planning bill means larger fines if they are damaged in inappropriate circumstances.

The passing of a new Planning Bill through the Northern Ireland Assembly last week signalled a brighter outlook for Northern Ireland’s natural heritage, says conservation charity, the Woodland Trust.

The new legislation gives welcome recognition to the country’s precious and veteran trees like the ‘Dark Hedges’ - which are bound by a Tree Preservation Order - by more than trebling the current fine for the destruction of a protected tree from £30,000 to £100,000, the Trust said.

For over a decade, the Woodland Trust has been calling for changes to planning legislation, in particular the Tree Preservation Order (TPO) system.

Patrick Cregg, the Woodland Trust’s director, said: “Tree Preservation Orders are intended to protect individual trees or groups of trees from damage or destruction. Unfortunately, the system isn’t as effective as it should be, and we’ve been lobbying for change for years. We’re delighted that our main asks have finally been taken onboard.

“The new legislation, and the shift of power from Planning Service to local councils, will strengthen the current TPO system.

“We’ll see, for example, a welcome and significant increase in the maximum fine for breaching a TPO. In addition, members of the public will have easy access to local records, allowing them to check if a tree is in fact protected.” The Woodland Trust welcomes the following amendments:

* “An increase in the maximum fine for breach of a Tree Preservation Order from £30,000 to £100,000.

* “Each local council will have a duty to compile a database of all trees designated with TPOs. This information will be accessible to members of the public.

* “Currently trees with TPO status which are deemed ‘dead’, ‘dying’ or have become ‘dangerous’ can, with consent, be lawfully felled. The decision to remove the ‘dying’ clause means heightened protection for our precious ancient trees. This is noteworthy as species such as oak can spend hundreds of years in graceful decline.

* “The designation ‘Conservation Area’ will be widened to include areas of special historic interest. In the past, this designation applied to buildings only.”

Mr Cregg concluded: “The Woodland Trust receives calls each week from anxious members of the public, expressing concerns over trees under threat. We’re confident that today’s news will put our significant trees on a more secure footing. It’s good news for people, for wildlife and for the future of our natural environment.”

Images of the ‘Dark Hedges’ increasingly feature in newspapers and in official tourism literature.

Tourists regularly visit the Dark Hedges to take photographs even though there are no official sign posts to direct them.

In the absence of the signs, tourist information officials in Ballymoney say many calls they receive are for directions to the ‘Dark Hedges’.