GARDAI are using a helicopter above the Wicklow hills to catch people making off with Christmas trees.
Almost ¤60,000 of trees were stolen from the county by organised gangs in the run-up to Christmas last year, leading to the garda bringing out the Air Support Unit this year.
Operation Hurdle is designed to disrupt the type of criminals who last year tied up one Christmas tree grower and stole a large amount of money from his home.
The twin-engine Eurocopter EC 135T2 helicopter's powerful infra red systems, which can pick up body heat even in heavily forested areas, its Nitesun searchlight, and video cameras, combined with the helicopter's speed and agility, give gardai a keen edge in the fight against roaming criminals.
The Garda helicopter is one of two operated by the GASU and its equipment includes state-of-the-art thermal image cameras mounted on gyro stabilised platforms.
The French-built choppers are flown by Air Corps pilots and carry Garda observers.
Garda Superintendent Paul Hogan and Christmas tree farmers met in October and outlined plans to tackle an increase in thefts of Christmas trees.
Supt Hogan said: "Checkpoints and patrols have been carried out in the upland areas of Wicklow by Garda units.
"The Garda helicopter has conducted air patrols in these areas in conjunction with local units, as many locations are remote and difficult to access.
"They have the facility to to use their infra red and the Nitesun equipment to monitor large areas for for illegal activity."
One report claimed that up to 500 trees were stolen in November, but Mr Hogan said this figure is excessive.
"A number of these trees have been recovered and as of yet nobody has been apprehended in connection with this crime."
He was pleased by the level of co-operation being shown by local residents and Christmas tree farmers.
"The reaction from local residents has been positive as they feel safe due to the increased level of Garda activity.
"The reaction from the Christmas tree farmers has also been very positive as the operation to date has been successful," he added.
The Irish Christmas Tree Growers Association says many of its members are on "high alert" and have employed security guards and set up CCTV.