Game of Thrones: Winter is coming for the Dark Hedges

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The Dark HedgesImage source, Northern Ireland Tourist Board
Image caption,
The intertwined beech branches and gnarled trunks make the Dark Hedges an iconic sight

The Dark Hedges has long been a draw for day trippers.

Believed to have been planted in 1775 by the Stuart family along the entrance to their Gracehill House mansion, they were always an impressive sight.

But an appearance, as the 'Kingsroad' in Game of Thrones brought international fame.

So many cars travelled to the tunnel of beech trees on Bregagh Road near Armoy, County Antrim, that it led to a traffic ban in a bid to reduce man made damage.

But "if you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention" - the Dark Hedges are doomed.

"Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well," as Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin once wrote.

Image caption,
The Dark Hedges are estimated to date back to about 1775

At the age of 244, the beeches are now in their final years. They are, in the words of one tree expert, "old age pensioners" - another said they have less than 10 years left.

"Some wounds never truly heal, and bleed again at the slightest word," and each storm that comes seems to fell another of their number.

Hector took several, Storm Gertrude took two, Storm Doris claimed one and now even less powerful weather fronts swing their sword and pass sentence on the aging trees.

There were once about 150 but time has taken its toll and now only about half that number remain. Even some of the survivors have lost branches due to rot.

How long can the trees stand?

The expert's view: Paddy Cregg, from the Woodland Trust

"They are coming to the end of their life, normally beech trees survive around 250 years, they are probably now 240 years old," Mr Cregg said.

"Trees will normally have three phases in their lives. The first third they grow, the second third they grace the landscape whilst the final third they go into decline.

"These beech trees are now in the third phase.

Image source, PA
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Some experts believe that traffic has damaged the root system of the trees

"These trees have lived in a hostile environment with vehicles and coaches impacting on their root system.

"We are hoping that with the restrictions placed on access by traffic that we have bought a little more time for this natural phenomena."

Mr Cregg said that any prediction as to how long they have left would be a guess although the Trust has carried out some judicious pruning in the hope of encouraging fresh new shoots.

He is in favour or replanting the trees in the hope of creating a new hedge but added that the challenge is getting these established sooner rather than later.

Derek Gault, Arboriculturalist

Mr Gault said that for beech trees to live 250 to 300 years "would be extraordinary".

"Beech aren't as good as oak at producing defence compounds like tannins which counter the fungal enzymes which is why you get much older oaks," he explained.

"As for the Dark Hedges, I would expect they'll lose their character with further tree failures within 10 years sadly."

David Brown, QUB dendrochronologist (someone who dates trees)

"They are old, from a human point of view they are in their late 70s, coming up to the end of their life," Mr Brown said.

He explained the problem with the Dark Hedges is that they were planted in a line in a very exposed position and are not in the most suitable soil.

"The beech tree is not native to Ireland and is more suited to the sandy low soils of England and France."

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
Cristina Lekka and Cris Antonopoulous are among thousands of Thrones fans who visit the Dark Hedges every year

Are they dangerous?

"Trees fall," David said philosophically.

Could they be replanted or is it a case of "if I fall, don't bring me back"?

"Yes, but it would take 100 years before they began to look like the originals," Mr Brown said.

With over half still standing the trees have done well to get this far, he added.

But how long do they have left?

"50, 60, 70 years, maybe even more."

In 2004 the Department of the Environment (NI) Planning Service placed a Tree Preservation Order on The Dark Hedges.

It is intended to ensure their preservation while allowing work to be undertaken to safeguard road users.

The Dark Hedges Preservation Trust works to protect the remaining trees for as long as is possible.