Six trees from the Northern Ireland road known as the Dark Hedges are to be cut down because branches risk falling on Game of Thrones tourists and other visitors.
Contractors sealed off Bregagh Road in Armoy, County Antrim on Monday to prepare the felling of at least six ancient beeches deemed a risk to public safety.
“This decision has not been made lightly and whilst the amenity value afforded by the corridor of trees is acknowledged, the safety of road users is paramount,” the region’s department of infrastructure said in a statement.
The beeches were planted around 1775 to give a sweeping entrance to the Gracehill House estate, making them about 250 years old. The typical life expectancy of such trees is 150 to 200 years.
A survey in June found that 11 of 86 trees that line the route were in poor condition and required urgent attention. In addition to the six that will be cut down, leaving stumps, four will receive remedial work and the condition of another tree will be assessed.
The tangle of branches was made famous by the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones, which used it as a stand in for Kingsroad. Northern Ireland has used the site and other locations from the show to entice fans from around the world, with coach tours running from Dublin and Belfast airports. The County Down town of Banbridge offers a studio tour.
Fans of the show and members of the public drive, walk and pose for pictures along the Dark Hedges route.
The work is expected to take four days and the remaining trees are to be monitored, the department of infrastructure said. “The department will continue to engage with landowners and other stakeholders regarding their implementation of a suitable management strategy to protect the future of the other 75 trees.”
Bregagh Road, which is on private land that forms part of a hotel and golf resort, will be closed to traffic and pedestrians during the work.
Bob McCallion from the Save the Dark Hedges campaign group welcomed the intervention as an overdue prioritisation of safety over tourism and said failure to remove dead branches since 2016 had increased the risk of accidents.
“Branches and limbs are coming down on the road even in calm weather,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “The risk factor is very high considering the concentration of visitors gathering underneath the trees.”
McCallion appealed to authorities to remove dead wood from the remaining trees. “The Dark Hedges will then hopefully emerge as a safe place to visit for both locals and tourists.”
Mervyn Storey, a councillor for Ballymoney and chair of the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust, said it was sad to lose six trees but that the work would balance safety and the Dark Hedges’ aesthetic appeal. “Combined with better traffic management this should allow the site to be loved and appreciated for many more years.”
Dominic Harrison, a director of the company Timbertec that has been contracted to do the work, said the birches had been an important part of Armoy since long before Game of Thrones. “It is such a rare sight to see a whole avenue of ancient trees reach their full maturity,” he said. “The key for the future is planting to replace what has been lost.”