Death of 5 red oaks killed by gypsy moths could have silver lining

Damaged leaves are seen as Jeremiah Haggerty, with Bartlett Tree Experts, works on cutting down a tree on Wednesday, October 18, 2017, at the home of Bill Hakkinen in Ledyard. Five red oaks at the property were cut down as they fell victim to the 2016 statewide infestations of gypsy moths. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Damaged leaves are seen as Jeremiah Haggerty, with Bartlett Tree Experts, works on cutting down a tree on Wednesday, October 18, 2017, at the home of Bill Hakkinen in Ledyard. Five red oaks at the property were cut down as they fell victim to the 2016 statewide infestations of gypsy moths. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Ledyard — Five red oak trees in the front yard of a Seabury Avenue home that fell victim to the statewide infestations of gypsy moth caterpillars are gone, but going to a good cause.

Bill Hakkinen said two of the trees in his front yard died in previous infestations of the caterpillars, whose population soared in southern New England in 2016 after a stretch of dry weather and have stripped foliage from thousands of acres of trees.

The other three sprouted leaves this spring, he said, but by summer it was clear they, too, were victims of the caterpillars' munching.

"They're just not going to survive," he said.

Without enough wet weather to help grow the fungus that has infected gypsy moth caterpillars in the past, their population skyrocketed in 2015, causing widespread defoliation of multiple species of trees.

The caterpillars made a loud chewing noise and dropped leaves and feces into Hakkinen's yard, he said.

"I know it's Mother Nature, but she should have found a better way," he said.

A town committee was tasked this winter with researching a town wide aerial spraying program to prevent against the gypsy moths. Last year's defoliation of oaks and other hardwood trees was one of the worst in recent memory, according to officials at the state Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven.

Staff at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station said this spring that rain was helping the Entomophaga maimaiga fungus naturally kill more moths than in previous years, and said widespread reports of dead and dying caterpillars could mean that the epidemic was abating.

But it's too late for Hakkinen's trees, he said. On Wednesday, workers with Bartlett Tree Experts arrived at his home and took them down, then moved the two larger ones to Ledyard's landfill and another three to the historic Up-Down Sawmill.

"They were beautiful," he lamented on Tuesday. "Everything's going to be different."

The Ledyard Historic District Commission volunteers who run the 19th-century sawmill will use the trees in their weekly free demonstrations of the water-powered machinery on Lee's Brook in Ledyard.

Hakkinen said several of his friends will then take the lumber cut by the sawmill volunteers for their personal use. The trees taken to the landfill will be available for people to chop them up for use as firewood.

Jim Sweet, a volunteer at the sawmill and a member of the historic district commission, said Tuesday that the demonstrations of the sawmill, which was restored in the late 1960s and still uses the original equipment and methods that farmers used in the 19th century, largely relies on donated trees.

People donate trees that have died from disease on their property, or property owners with a lot of acreage will chop down live trees to feed into the sawmill on Saturdays in the summer and fall. Depending on the level of water in the pond, which powers the mill, the historic district volunteers conduct the demonstrations once a week until the end of November.

"We show them what it was like," he said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

Jeremiah Haggerty, left, and Iain Snow, employees of Bartlett Tree Experts, work on clearing the driveway as they cut down trees on Wednesday, October 18, 2017, at the home of Bill Hakkinen in Ledyard. Five red oaks at the property were cut down as they fell victim to the 2016 statewide infestations of gypsy moths. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Jeremiah Haggerty, left, and Iain Snow, employees of Bartlett Tree Experts, work on clearing the driveway as they cut down trees on Wednesday, October 18, 2017, at the home of Bill Hakkinen in Ledyard. Five red oaks at the property were cut down as they fell victim to the 2016 statewide infestations of gypsy moths. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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