THE future of the Dark Hedges — one of Northern Ireland’s most photographed tourist attractions — has been safeguarded after a deal was struck to hand over ownership of the world-renowned trees to a preservation group.
The natural archway of intertwining beech trees at Stranocum near Ballymoney is renowned across the world and attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year.
The ghostly avenue is also a popular choice as a backdrop for wedding pictures and caught the attention of the makers of global television epic Game Of Thrones, who filmed a scene at the Dark Hedges for the show’s second series.
The famous trees, which date back more than 200 years, have up until now been owned by three local farmers.
But it has been revealed that in the coming weeks The Dark Hedges Preservation Fund will take full control of the treeline and has secured tens of thousands of pounds which will be invested in preserving them for future generations.
The avenue of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century. It was intended as a compelling landscape feature to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to their home, Gracehill House, which was situated nearby.
A picture of the Dark Hedges won a Countryfile Photographic Competition last year, and features in its 2012 calendar. Taken by local man Bob McCallion, the award-winning shot entitled Guard Of Honour beat more than 55,000 entries sent in to the BBC1 programme.
However there was outrage last year when wire fencing was erected alongside the trees on the Bregagh Road. Resident Robert Patton described the fencing — which is still in place — as a “desecration” of the famous site. It is understood once control of the trees is handed over to The Dark Hedges Preservation Fund the fencing will be removed.
North Antrim DUP MLA Mervyn Storey is a member of the preservation group. He praised the current landowners for their co-operation in brokering a deal.
“I was disappointed in the way statutory agencies were saying, ‘they’re lovely, but it’s not up to us’,” he told the Times.
“These trees are part of our natural heritage and this was the only way I saw of trying to put together some package to preserve the trees, because the farmers could just have cut them down if they wished.
“There was a preservation order on some of the trees which makes it more difficult for them to be cut down, but it was vital something was put in place that would secure the future of the Dark Hedges.”
Mr Storey said once the land deal is complete, funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, believed to be in the region of £50,000, will be released to the preservation group.
“I don’t think there is another treeline like them anywhere in the UK,” the MLA said. “They are unique and exceptional.”