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Last Updated: Friday, 23 December 2005, 13:27 GMT
Prickly issue over holly hunters
Holly
Holly grows in the wild in NI but there is still a shortage
Halls across Northern Ireland are having to remain undecked this Christmas because of a holly shortage.

As with everything else at this time of year, hordes of festive opportunists have been finding out that there's money to be made in the prickly plant.

Ronan Gorman of the Countryside Alliance said part of the shortage was down to the fact that people have been cutting and selling it themselves.

"There are quite a few people who cruise the countryside, chainsaw in hand, to cut bushes down to the stump," he said.

"If you go around the street corners of Belfast today, a few small branches of holly will sell for anything from 2.50 to as much as 5.

Berried holly
There is no doubt that berried holly is now an economic commodity
Ronan Gorman
Countryside Alliance
"There must be several hundred pounds worth of holly in a plant."

A cold snap in October meant birds fed more hungrily on the berries than usual, but a more long-term reason is that the way land is used has been changing in recent years.

"I think changes in the management of our countryside in the last 20 to 30 years have undoubtedly led to the scarcity of different number of plants, holly included," Mr Gorman said.

"It is very unusual to see berried holly in the wild. Not only because of loss of habitat, there is no doubt that berried holly is now an economic commodity."

Large areas of the province are rural, and holly does grow in the wild.

Although ordinary holly has not been a problem for market traders to find, berried holly is so scarce that some of them have been importing from as far afield as Holland, Belgium or Denmark.

Solution

It might be too late for this Christmas, but Mr Gorman may have an ecological and economical long-term solution to the problem.

He suggests that if you plant a male and a female holly tree in your garden, you can get two nice plants, your own free supply of berried holly and a source of food for birds in winter.

The tradition of using plants like holly, ivy and mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is thought to date back to the Romans, who thought evergreens brought good luck.

Holly is often thought to have religious significance, as the berries are said to represent Christ's blood.

But this was probably a meaning imposed on it by the early Christian church. Pagans believe that holly is good for warding off witches.

The early church had greater trouble christianising ivy which was always strongly associated with the Roman god of good parties, Bacchus.

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