Below is my Comment piece in the latest issue of Biodiversity Ireland newsletter. This issue is on sale for €5 until 31 May, with all proceeds going directly to Special Olympics Ireland in support of their annual collection day. Our employer Compass Informatics will match any income from the sales. This issue can be purchased on-line by clicking here Purchase Biodiversity Ireland. The 24 page issue is crammed full of information about Ireland’s biodiversity, and purchasing it is a good cause.
People do care about biodiversity
If one were to judge only by the coverage that biodiversity receives in the mainstream media, then it would be easy to conclude that there is no support for the conservation of biological diversity in Ireland. Nature conservation provides rich pickings for a mainstream media whose primary focus is on conflict and controversy. Biodiversity loses out for seldom does the media have the patience to understand what often can be complex issues, nor does it find much value in good news stories. The one exception to this is the coverage received by the publication of the All-Ireland Pollination Plan. In contrast to other conservation issues, this has received serious media attention and there is genuine and deep interest in the plight of pollinators. The message is stark; about 30% of bees are threatened with extinction in Ireland, and unless we take concerted action, the pollination services which are so beneficial to Irish society and the economy will be lost.
But what sets this issue apart from many others is that the All-Ireland Pollination Plan presents a clear roadmap for how the plight of pollinators can be addressed. Thanks to the exceptional work of Úna FitzPatrick, Jane Stout and others, 81 easily implemented actions have been identified that can create a landscape that is more pollinator friendly. And there is something for everyone to do, no matter how much land, time or interest one has in the issue. The message I take from this is that there is an innate interest in biodiversity amongst the Irish population, but this can only be unlocked with innovative approaches to conservation.
Another initiative that has proven successful in unlocking this interest is the Data Centre’s BioBlitz event. This year BioBlitz will be a celebration of the natural heritage of islands, with five of Ireland’s special islands participating. BioBlitz has struck a chord with people as it allows everyone to participate and experience at first hand the remarkable diversity of life supported by some of Ireland’s most special places. It is a simple, yet effective, way to communicate the message that the conservation of biological diversity is important, and to demonstrate in a tangible way that natural heritage is a valuable asset.
And the value of this natural asset is being eroded continuously, as shown by the National Biodiversity Indicators. Progress has been made on only 32% of the indicators established to track the delivery of the conservation of biodiversity in Ireland. This demonstrates that Ireland is falling well short of meeting its national and international conservation targets, and that a much more concerted effort is needed to remedy this. This concerted effort will require tapping into the innate interest in conservation amongst a much broader population base.
Agreement has been reached between Fine Gael and some of the Independents on a broad policy platform to stimulate the rural economy as part of efforts to gain support for Enda Kenny’s nomination for Taoiseach when the Dáil meets next week. The main plank of this policy is a new scheme to help struggling farmers who have seen their income fall sharply in recent years. The scheme will target some of the most agriculturally disadvantaged areas, and provide payment to farmers who undertake a programme of countryside enhancement measures.
The scheme, to be called the Countryside and Rural Area Programme, will be open to all farmers with annual incomes of less than €50,000 per year or those that live in areas identified as ‘Special Areas of Concern’. Participating farmers will be able to draw down a maximum of €8,000 per year if they carry out different countryside enhancement measures. It is understood that the Scheme will cost €60 million, but economists predict that the downstream benefits will far exceed that initial outlay.
The full range of options are yet to be finalised, but it is likely to be based on the current GLAS model. It will be a three tiered system. To receive the basic payment of €5,000 per annum, participating farmers can choose from three measures; the cutting and grubbing out of hedgerows and other bits of scrub that are cluttering up the countryside; dredging drains, streams and other wetlands to improve drainage; and the burning of hillside vegetation to clean the land. In the more disadvantaged or ‘Priority Areas’ of Kerry and Roscommon, farmers will have the option of getting an additional top up payment of €2,000 if they agree to drain and get rid of any remaining raised bogs, clear their land of any wild flowers and other wildlife, and put up electric barbed wire fences to keep any birdwatchers, families with young children or city slickers from entering their land. There will be an additional €1,000 per year available for ‘gold standard’ CRAP participants who agree to put out crow bangers to scare off seagulls and operate live traps to capture pine martens and put them back into Nature Reserves. The introduction of a corncrake scaring measure in key corncrake areas is also being considered.
The CRAP will be part of a new Department of Rural Affairs, established to drive real change in rural Ireland. The Rural Development and Forestry sections of Agriculture will transfer to this new Department of Rural Affairs, as will the LEADER and Roads sections of the Department of Environment and the drainage section of OPW. It will also be given a statutory role for rural planning, merging some of the existing responsibilities of NPWS, EPA and An Bord Plenala, to deliver a more common sense approach to planning for rural Ireland. With the exception of the Greens who feel there is a better way of doing things, it is expected that this policy platform will have broad political support.
For many, birdwatching is about making lists. Lists of the birds seen on a walk, lists of the birds that visit your garden, or lists of all the birds seen over one’s lifetime. This characteristic of birdwatching is taken to its logical extent with the advent of Patchwork Challenge –500 or so birdwatchers across Britain and Ireland making lists, and competing, to see who can see the most birds in their site (or patch) in a year. The rules are quite simple; your patch can’t be more than 3 km2. You make a list of all the birds seen over the year and for each common bird seen you score a single point, less common species 2 points and 3 or more points for rarities, mega rarities, etc. The patch with the most points at the end of the year wins. Simple!
But of course it is only the very special wildlife sites that can compete at this level, so the Patchwork Challenge has another dimension. It allows participants to list all the species they find in any given year, and use this as the benchmark to reach, or exceed, in subsequent years. This ‘comparative’ score allows everyone to compete on an equal basis, irrespective of the quality of their patch. It is this that makes it so appealing (or compelling) for bird watching in a local patch.
Well I thought I would join this merry band of men (for the majority are men) and give this Patchwork Challenge a go, to see what it is all about. First task was to decide on my site. As I don’t have much time for birdwatching these days, the choice was simple. My patch would have to be either around where I live, or around where I work. As the latter was already someone else’s patch, it had to be around where I live in Bramblestown, Co. Kilkenny. This is prime agricultural land – not great raw material to work with, in birdwatching terms, that is. But looking at the map, if I was clever, I could draw the boundary to include Bramblestown Bog and Gowran Park Race Course within my patch to maximise the variety of habitats. The patch I settled on has an area of 254 ha, comprised of 121 ha of grassland, 55 ha arable, 33 ha golf course, 31 ha broadleaved woodland, 8 ha commercial forestry and 6 ha of wetland. That I could find such diversity of habitat in my local patch was my first ‘patchwork’ surprise, and this augured well for my challenge.
I have now completed my first month of the Patchwork Challenge, so how have I got on? Well, first the statistics. In January I recorded 44 species and amassed 47 points; I picked up double points for long-eared owl (seen in the headlights of my car going to work), peregrine and hooded crow. The latter is a geographic anomaly of this being a British-led initiative!
And more importantly, what do I make of it all? Certainly it has given birdwatching around my home some purpose, and adds more enjoyment to walking the dogs. And although it is just a list, it has meant that I am far more observant and questioning about bird behaviour in my patch. I was intrigued that I had difficulty, for example, in seeing snipe despite there being plenty of apparently suitable habitat. I did manage to see them, but not in the area I expected. I wondered why that was the case? I know there are tree sparrow in the area so I make a point of regularly locating and scanning the resident flock of finches and buntings looking for the ‘tick’. Still no sign of the tree sparrow, so I am curious, where might they be? Or perhaps the population in Ireland is on the decline once more? [note to self- I must check the Common Birds Survey data]. And late last year I thought yellowhammer numbers were way down on previous years, but that is not the case; it is only that they have moved to a part of the patch I rarely walk through. This has made me question, what determines small scale distributional shifts like this? And showing off stock doves was a regular party piece of mine for any visiting birder, but no sign of them so far this year. Where have the blighters gone when I need them?
And, perhaps most importantly of all, I know that if I make a full list of all the species I see on my regular walks and submit this to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Bird Track system, then I know that I am helping to build up quantitative information that can be used to track bird population change across Ireland and Britain. That is a good use of my precious birdwatching time.
All in all, this has been enjoyable, and I have been surprised at how much there is to learn on one’s doorstep, on one’s patch. Oh, and the dogs are fitter!
Here is my month’s diary:
1st JANUARY: was a wet, windy day. Took dogs for walk across Tomas Brennan’s arable fields – didn’t even make it into to double figures!
List: 1. Blackbird, 2. Robin, 3. Blue Tit, 4. Great Tit, 5. Rook, 6. Woodpigeon, 7. Dunnock, 8. Skylark.
3rd JANUARY: was drier. Visited Bramblestown Bog for a while. Delighted visit brought me to 28 species, including beautiful views of a peregrine and heard jay calling -15 teal, 2 mallard. First proper day birding in my patch and was able to add 20 species.
9th JANUARY :Cool (6 °C) and overcast. Ground still saturated. Tomas Brennan and Greg’s fields. Added only two new species, song thrush and raven. Surprised not to have seen redwing, fieldfare or snipe yet
List: 29. Song Thrush, 30. Raven.
10th JANUARY: walked the large cereal field to north of Drey’s Gate (got strange looks from neighbours when taking photograph in middle of field!) Here I located my flock of finches, buntings and thrushes. Field very wet but good numbers of birds about.
14th JANUARY to work spotted Long-eared owl in headlights of car (too easy!).
List: 36. Long-eared Owl
17th JANUARY: Dull overcast damp day. Had a few nights of frost during week, but gone now, 8 °C today. Walked south of Drey’s gate to forestry at south western side of patch. Nice patch of woodland; alder and birch around perimeter of conifers. Flock of about a dozen siskin was my highlight, and a sparrowhawk. Tracked down the linnet flock near John O’Donnells.
20th JANUARY: Didn’t need to leave for work until about 10:00hrs so took the dogs for a walk. Frost overnight so ground was white, but not too frozen. On John Farrell’s scrubby patch flushed three or four snipe. First for the year. Relieved to have them ticked off!
List: 42. Common Snipe.
22nd JANUARY: beautiful bright mild spring day. Walked across Tom Brennan’s fields in afternoon. Flock of 35 yellowhammers, and 30 or so Skylark. Saw a large flock of Golden Plover, 500 birds at least, high in the sky off to the east. Two Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the distance too.
List: 43. Golden Plover, 44. Lesser Black-backed Gull.
More than 200 years since the last Irish wolf was shot in Co. Carlow, wolves are set to make a return to Ireland. Plans are at an advanced stage to re-introduce these magnificent creatures into Ireland. The first pack of two males and five females will be released into Killarney National Park, as part of a controlled release programme that will run for 5 years and involve the translocation of 30 animals to Ireland. The project is spearheaded by the Irish Grey Wolf Re-introduction Group and NPWS, and has the support of the IFA, Failte Ireland and Kerry County Council.
Speaking at the launch of the project in Muckross House, Prof. Canis Lupus, Chair of the IGWRG and a native of Norway said ‘he was thrilled that these majestic creatures would once again roam the Irish countryside’. This is the fourth re-introduction project in Ireland, but the first involving a mammal. ‘That the project has received such widespread support is testament to the huge support there is in Ireland for wildlife and nature conservation’, Lupus added.
The project was fast-tracked when Ireland stepped in after the Scottish Highlands wolf re-introduction programme was abandoned late last year. Despite the EU already spending £3.2 million on planning and consultancy fees, continued funding of the ‘Bring Wolves Back to Britain’ campaign, one of several re-introductions programmes planned under the Re-wilding Britain initiative, was considered too risky by the European Commission now that Britain was to push ahead with it referendum on EU membership and a potential BREXIT. A spokesman for the Commission, Mr. Carnivorous explained that ‘despite having already invested heavily in this project, the Commission has a responsibility to spend its money wisely, so now was a good time to withdraw further funding’.
Killarney National Park is considered an ideal alternative site to the Scottish Highlands as it is a similar habitat, a wilderness, it rains alot and is in State ownership. Careful habitat management will be the key to the success of the project. Wolves are shy, elusive creatures that require wide open hillsides with unobstructed views to breed successfully. The recent decision to amend the Wildlife Act to extend the season for burning of upland vegetation will provide this unique habitat. Amending the bill will overcome the final obstacle to allow NPWS pitch for the lucrative EU-funded project, set to bring in at least €5 million annually in compensation payment to farmers.
The IFA is supportive of the project as it will make good use of waste land, and provide an additional source of income through compensation for lost ewes. Mr. Paddy O’Brian, Head of IFA’s Wilderness Committee said ‘this really is a win-win situation for farmers as it will help manage our uplands in a sustainable way and provide good compensation payments. Wolves will also prey on pine marten and other vermin that are over-running the country at the moment’.
Failte Ireland has welcomed the initiative as yet another tourist attraction along the Wild Atlantic Way. Mr. Dar B. O’Gill, Head of the Failte Ireland- Kerry said ‘that the Wild Atlantic Way runs through a wild, rugged landscape, so adding the wild wolf as an additional theme can only but help to re-inforce this strong brand’. It is understood that a number of ‘Wolf Viewing Areas’ are to be established where tourists can park their cars and watch wolves in the wild. ‘Clearly there will be a significant investment needed to fence off these viewing areas, for health and safety reasons, but as it is an election year, that shouldn’t be a problem’. O’Gill added that ‘Failte Ireland is also looking at the feasibility of totally enclosing these areas to ward-off marauding seagulls who are terrorising young families, many of whom find the great outdoors a scary place’.
The European Commission has said that it will very shortly make a final decision on the total amount of funding that the project is to receive. Mr. Carnivorous said ‘that the Commission was very supportive of initiatives of this kind. After decades of EU policies the West of Ireland is fecked anyway, so leaving it to the wolves is probably the best thing we can do’.
Note from the author: This is a satirical piece on attitudes to nature conservation in Ireland. Please don’t think it is factual!
Here is a copy of an article I wrote for the latest issue of Biodiversity Ireland, on why I record biodiversity.
Most days, when I am out and about, I take note of the wildlife I see and submit the details to the National Biodiversity Data Centre. In this way, I am an active biological recorder. As long as I document what species I see, when I see it, and where it was seen, then I have a valid biological record. I know that whether it is a fleeting encounter with a stoat crossing the road or a more detailed list of species for one of my favourite sites, the information I collect is valuable.
Value of one-off sightings
I know that recording one-off encounters with species like the stoat can help to build up a picture of its distribution in Ireland. The Irish stoat (Mustela ermine hibernica) is one of Ireland’s really special species, a near endemic to Ireland. Yet there is little empirical data on its distribution for it is an exceptionally challenging species to study. As part of the Atlas of Mammals in Ireland 2010-2015 project more than 1,100 sightings of Irish stoat have been submitted by people across the country, allowing us to better understand the species distribution in Ireland. And thanks to the online data portal, Biodiversity Maps, all of these observations of Ireland’s threatened and protected species are now freely available to local authorities and other land managers to improve the quality of their decision-making to assist nature conservation.
Recording common species
Periodically I also record the commoner species, for who knows what the future holds? I love seeing yellowhammer signing from telegraph poles near where I live in Kilkenny, but I know that they are rare or absent from other parts of Ireland. My father told of, in his youth, being deafened by calling corncrakes in north Kerry, a species long since gone from that region. Think of the value of having a detailed database of observations of this once common species so that we could present dramatic quantitative information on the impact that drainage and land management has had on this iconic species?
Contributing to large Atlas projects
Being an unskilled botanist, I can probably identify only about 100 of our commoner plant species. But I also record these for I know the more I record, slowly the number of species I can confidently identify increases. And every little bit helps. At the moment fieldwork is under way for the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s Atlas 2020 project, a huge project that aims to map the distribution of all plants across Britain and Ireland. Comparing the results of this Atlas with two previous atlases, published in 1962 and 2002, provide valuable data on the changing nature of Ireland’s flora, and insights into the impacts of, for example, climate change and invasive species. For large projects of this kind, recording of even the commoner plants helps to achieve baseline coverage.
Identifying Ireland’s threatened species
One advantage of submitting my data to the Data Centre is that all my records are stored in a database and I can map and query them online. I don’t have to worry about managing my own records, or making backups – all that is done for me. Looking back at my old records I notice that I observed a wall brown butterfly in my garden on 20 August, 2000. I have long since forgotten I had seen one in Kilkenny. Certainly I have not seen one since, as this is now a rare species in the county. I wonder have they become extinct in the county in the last 10 years?
Collating historic records of this kind into different date periods allows us to detect if a species range has contracted or expanded over time. Using criteria developed by the International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN) the risk of extinction faced by species can be assessed objectively. The process, known as Red Lists, has been completed for 10 taxonomic groups in Ireland and shows that on average, about 20% of species are threatened with extinction. For bees, such an important group that provide valuable pollination services, over 30% of species are threatened with extinction in Ireland. These are important, if not alarming, findings that should feed into policy to conserve biodiversity. On checking the Butterfly Red List I find that the wall brown is indeed, one of three species endangered with extinction in Ireland.
I don’t have a great deal of time for scientific survey, but to make best use of the time available to me, I have signed up to walk a butterfly transect each week as part of the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. This gives me an excuse to get into the field, and I know that by walking the identical route, in a standard way on different dates, the data I collect is used to monitor changes in butterfly populations. For I am one of 120 recorders who contribute to make the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme the largest citizen science insect monitoring scheme in Ireland. And thanks to our combined efforts the scheme can show categorically, for example, which years were good for butterflies and which were not, and over time between-year population variation can be separated from long-term population trends. And the European Grassland Butterfly Indicator has just been published by the European Environment Agency, so I have the satisfaction of knowing my sighing are contributing to policy formulation at both the national and European level.
Ecological modelling – the future of Atlas projects?
When I started recording a number of decades ago, the task was to cover as much ground as possible, recording as many species as possible. Now, with the greater power of statistical modelling, predictive models of the likelihood of encountering a given species based on partial, or incomplete data can be derived. In the very near future I am looking forward to participating in a recording scheme where distribution maps are generated by statistical modelling and my task will be to visit specific area not to derive a species list per se, but to confirm the prediction of which species should be present. It may take me some time to adjust to this new way of surveying but I will do it, as I will know that my recording effort will be far more efficient and the information generated far more valuable in the long run.
Here are some of my reflections on the year just gone, based on media coverage of nature conservation issues.
Nature conservation needs champions, and in May, with the publication of the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si, Pope Francis became that champion. Calling for a ‘…new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet’, the encyclical’s hope is to ‘… help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face’… to protect the future of our planet. The language is clear, unambiguous and hard hitting, and contains a whole host of messages that should become compulsory reading for politicians, business leaders and decision-makers. For me, the message that ‘Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation…’ is a core principle that undermines my personal conservation efforts.
In my view, public policy is driven by short-termism and way too narrowly focussed economic metrics for measuring progress. The publication in November of A Map of the Irish State, produced a graphical representation of where the funding and power lies within public administration in Ireland. The landscape is dominated by the powerful and big spending Departments of Health, Social Protection and Education and Skills. Far from the centre of power, away off to the right, on a peninsula surrounded by pale blue seas, lies the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Clearly poorly resourced, even when the Department is successful in securing funding, such as for the €250 k tender issued for monitoring of Irish bats, the predictable media stories appear about waste of money. The response from the Department to this criticism is almost apologetic. Just in the way that investment in transport is not seen as spending money on concrete or screws, or investment in pharmaceutical is not seen as spending money on tablets, investment in biodiversity should not be seen as spending money on wildlife. Instead it is spending money on a valuable national asset, the proper management of which will enrich all our lives and Ireland’s socio-economic well being. This message needs to be articulated more frequently and with more vigour.
Off-shore from the peninsula that is Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltach lies the Heritage Council. An independent advisory council on Ireland’s heritage, it celebrated its 20th anniversaryin May and was joined by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins to mark the occasion. In an inspirational talk the President set the scene, and identified many of the challenges facing the heritage sector in Ireland. It was one of the best delivered and most inspirational speeches on heritage I have ever heard [view speech]. Off the back of its 20th anniversary, the Heritage Council used the milestone to mobilise the sector around its call for enhanced fundingto strengthen the heritage infrastructure and community-based heritage initiatives of the nation. Just recently, the Minister for Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht announced a paltry increase of €500k to the Heritage Council, rather than the modest €2.5 million sought.
The Map of the Irish State is a stark, but true representation of the very significant challenges to be overcome if the conservation of biological diversity is to ‘mainstreamed’ in Ireland; one of the key objectives of the National Biodiversity Plan.
Nature conservation controversies continued to make the news in 2015, and illustrates the rather convoluted relationship that we, as a nation have with wildlife. The majestic hen harrier was the focus of much attention with a concerted effort by some groups to undermine its conservation measures. Thekilling of one of the radio-tagged hen harriers in Kerry was greeted with dismay by conservationists, and highlighted the potential consequences of irresponsible populist grandstanding by local public representatives. There was similar stories on pine marten and seagulls (sic) from other local areas during the year, but these were generally met with ridicule.
On the other hand, the golden eagle and white-tailed eagle re-introduction programmes show there is significant support for nature conservation in some quaters. In Mountshannon, for example, a local group did great work in actively protecting and promoting a breeding pair of white-tailed eagles. Sadly, the golden eagle is struggling to gain a sustainable population foothold in Ireland but the news for the white-tailed eagle is more positive, as thirteen pairs held territories and four young fledged this year. The news that red squirrel is making a strong comeback in many parts of the country is greeted with delight. The extensive and hugely positive media coverage of the publication of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020 showed there is an audience for well-presented, positive action for the conservation of nature in Ireland.
There were stories about ‘conservation’ battles, but unfortunately most issues seemed to involve a diminution of the protection measures afforded wildlife. A consultation exercise to review dates of hedgerow cutting under the Wildlife Act, pitted farmers against conservationists, with farmers seeking a reduction in the period of time when cutting is prohibited. A campaign was also mounted to amend the conditions attached to Special Protection Areas for hen harrier and pushes for changes to the management of Killarney National Park for ‘controlling’ fires and red deer numbers, while management of the Rhododendron problem continues to remain inadequate. The upshot is that the Minister has just announced that the periods for controlling hedgerow cutting and burning of vegetation under the Wildlife Act is to be curtailed on a ‘pilot basis’. Clearly, there is an issue of uncontrolled burning of hillsidevegetation as half the county was burning this spring, but how reducing controls on burning of vegetation in March will help this, is beyond me. The decision to change the dates when hedgerow cutting and burning of vegetation is permitted is a bad decision, made for the wrong reasons. On the positive side, the decision to introduce a ban on the sale woodcock was a welcomed move.
And the enchanting Sceilig Mhichíl was in the news too; a virtual galactic warfare manifested as a real life spat. I don’t know what to think about this issue. Based on the media coverage it has the appearance of a decision by our authorities to allow filming of Star Wars at all costs, paying scant regard for due environmental process. I can understand the desire to benefit from the spin-off that the association with Star Wars will bring, but is this too high a price to pay? Certainly, there is risk of losing the spirituality of the Sceilig; I hope the tangible heritage does not suffer the same fate.
The release of Ireland’s National Biodiversity Indicators, only the 5th European Country to have developed such indicators, shows that satisfactory progress has been made on only 32%. Again, not great news but at least now, we have a means of measuring progress on meeting Ireland’s international obligations on the conservation of biological diversity.
On the positive side, GLAS the new agri-environment scheme has been established, which has the target of providing payments to 50,000 farmers for environmental, including biodiversity, measures. High Nature Value farmland initiatives seem to have finally gained traction in Ireland. The well-publicised Burren LIFE project has now been joined by the equally successful Aran LIFE project, and other regionally-based schemes like the Blackstairs Farming Group are being planned. And there are many examples of excellent local initiatives where communities are delivering positive, on the ground actions for biodiversity.
Three champions of biodiversity were rightly recognised for their work this year. Kevin Flannery was awarded an honorary degree by U.C.C. in recognition of his work on documenting Ireland’s marine life. Padraig Whooley was this year’s recipient of the Distinguished Recorder Award for his work on recording of cetaceans. Matt Murphy celebrated his 80th birthday and 40 years of the Sherkin Island Marine Station that he and his wife Eileen established in 1975. Matt also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cork Environmental Forum in November. Neither events made it into the media, but they should have done, for Matt and the Sherkin Island Marine Station is a national treasure.
And it needs to be said that, throughout the year, I have been in contact with a very large number of people who are passionately interested in wildlife and nature conservation, yet this interest is rarely captured by the national media. Therefore, if my year’s reflection is a bit negative this year, I blame the media!
The long dark days of winter are a dangerous time; it gives one far too much time for thinking and pondering on the meaning of life, etc. Well this winterI got to thinking. Even if all nature conservation policy was fully implemented in Ireland in the short-term, there are still additional things that I would like to see happen. So here is a list of 10 ‘big ticket’ additional initiatives I would like to see happen in nature conservation in Ireland before I die. It could be considered my ‘Nature Conservation Bucket List’!
A State Agency for nature conservation in Ireland
It is somewhat of an anomaly that Ireland doesn’t have a state agency with responsibility for nature conservation. Ireland has the Environmental Protection Agency for environmental protection, Inland Fisheries Ireland for fisheries management, Coillte for forest management, Waterways Ireland for waterways management, and so forth, so why not an agency for nature conservation? (NPWS is part of a Government Department).
Designate sites of national, regional and local importance.
In contrast with most other European countries, Ireland lacks a network of legally protected sites of national, regional and local importance (the current network of SACs and SPAs are protecting sites of European importance). Such a network was in place until 1990 with the designation of the Areas of Scientific Interest, but has become redundant as a legal challenge found the designation process to be unconstitutional. The removal of this pillar of nature conservation policy should be rectified.
Provide additional financial incentives to promote positive land management for conservation
Nature Reserves and positive land management for conservation are a vital element in any nature conservation policy. Special financial and taxation incentives should be available for landowners and farmers who are willing to designate their land as Important Nature Areas under a medium to long term agreement, and carry out specific, target-driven management actions to achieve nature conservation objectives.
Articulate a vision for Ireland’s biodiversity in 2050
A vision for what the Irish countryside and biodiversity should look like in 2050 needs to be articulated, and a high-level blueprint presented for the structures and actions that are needed to achieve this vision. This would help conservation to have something positive to strive for, and introduce some unity of purpose within the conservation movement.
Appoint a Conservation Champion
All causes need champions, and there are few if any conservation champions operating at a sufficiently high level in Ireland to contribute to political, economic and social dialogue. As a public service, an Office for Nature Conservation should be established, and a Commissioner for Nature Conservation appointed, whose job it is to influence high level decision-making for the benefit of nature conservation.
Invest in survey, monitoring and research
Biodiversity is a science-based policy. Scientific survey and monitoring is needed to document Ireland’s biodiversity resource, to understand how it functions and to track how it is changing. Investment in survey and research should be seen as an investment in human capital through employment of high-calibre professionals who can make a valuable contribution to Irish economy and society by improving the quality of decision-making.
Properly resource the Wildlife Grant Scheme operated by the Heritage Council
The Wildlife Grant Scheme operated by the Heritage Council has delivered many local and community based initiatives, filling a very important niche in conservation management. It is targeted, well administered and promotes grass-roots, community-led initiatives in an extremely cost effective manner. The future of the scheme needs to be secured and properly resourced so that it can expand and facilitate funding of additional projects on a multi-annual basis.
Introduce a high level promotional campaign to promote Ireland’s biodiversity
The Wild Atlantic Way has been a phenomenal success in promoting tourism along the west coast of Ireland. A similar large-scale promotional drive is needed to promote Ireland’s biodiversity, its value and the benefits it brings to society. This would be a high-level, properly funded campaign with the objective of garnering public and political support for nature conservation.
Support conservation NGOs
A dynamic conservation NGO sector is good for civic society and can contribute in a meaningful and positive manner to development of public policy. Greater engagement by the environmental NGOs in public policy needs to be facilitated and encouraged, and both human and financial resources provided to assist capacity building within the sector.
Oh, and sort out the mess with the conservation of protected Raised Bogs in Ireland.
Raised Bogs are of inordinate conservation value in Ireland, and less than 1% of this once extant resource remains active. The legal protection for these last remaining active raised bogs is in place; what is needed is the political will to resolve outstanding issues and deliver proper protection for the benefit of future generations.
Here are some of the species that made the news from the year just gone.
Bermuda Petrel: In wildlife terms, this was certainly the find of the year. A Bermuda Petrel (also know as a Cahow), one of the world’s rarest birds was recorded in Irish waters for the first time in spring of this year. Niall Keogh (BirdWatch Ireland) was on board the research vessel the Celtic Voyager over the Porcupine Bank about 170 nautical miles north west of Slea Head when he made the amazing discovery of a Bermuda Petrel. This was the first sighting of this species in Irish waters, indeed for the entire North-east Atlantic. The species was thought extinct for over 300 years but was dramatically rediscovered in 1951, breeding on just four small islets off the Bermuda coast, with a tiny population of just 18 pairs. Since its rediscovery it has been the subject of a painstaking conservation programme with slow but steady success, and the world population is now estimated to be 108 breeding pairs. Seeing the Bermuda Petrel on a expedition in Irish waters was considered a million to one chance as this was the furthest sighting of the species from its breeding ground. The discovery by Niall Keogh, and confirmed by Ryan Wilson-Parr, made the birding news across the world, and made every birdwatcher in Ireland extremely envious of Niall’s discovery.
Asian Clam: The invasive Asian Clam made the headlines in September when its discovery led to the closure of a stretch of the River Shannon to angling. Large populations of this highly invasive species were found along the hot water discharge from the ESB electricity generating station on the River Shannon at Lanesborough, Co. Longford. Inland Fisheries Ireland took the unprecedented step to close the river to angling as a rapid response measure in an attempt to stop its accidental spread on fishing equipment such as nets, rods, boats and clothing. The Asian Clam was first discovered in Ireland from the River Barrow at St. Mullin’s in 2010, and has since been found on the River Nore and at five sites on the River Shannon.
Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee: there was great excitement when in June when a species of bumblebee not seen in Ireland for 88 years was rediscovered. The discovery of the Southern cuckoo bumblebee, thought extinct in Ireland, was made by Eddie Hill, a Gardener at St. Enda’s Park in Rathfarnham, Dublin. Eddie had begun monitoring of bee populations as part of the Data Centre’s Irish Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme and was astonished to make such a discovery in his first year.
Lion’s Mane Jellyfish: Lion’s mane Jelly made the news in August, with reports that 17 were removed from Sandycove Beach. These large bell-shaped jellyfish have long tentacles which can cause severe stings to bathers. As a result, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council erected warning signs at three beaches in South Dublin, Killiney, Sandycove and Seapoint, alerting bathers to the presence of jellyfish. This story followed hard on the heels of an earlier story of reports of Portuguese man o’ war, which strictly speaking isn’t a jellyfish, and barrel jellyfish being washed up on our shores. But according to jellyfish expert, Tom Doyle, there were no verified sightings of Portuguese man o’ war in Ireland in 2014, so the reports were in error. Being the silly season with regard to news, the jellyfish caused a bit of a media flurry at the time.
White-tailed Sea Eagle: Raptors were in the news quite a bit in 2014, mostly for all the wrong reasons. But there was a real feel good factor around the success of the White-tailed Sea Eagles breeding for the second year running at Mountshannon, Co. Tipperary. The local community has taken to the new residents, and a special viewing and information point was opened to cater for visitors to view these magnificent birds. The Mountshannon pairs was one of 14 breeding pairs established in Ireland in 2014, an increase of four on last year. Seven pairs laid eggs in 2014, with one chick at Mountshannon being the only fledged chick. The White-tailed Sea Eagle re-introduction programme began in 2007 in Killarney National Park and 100 birds released. The programme has suffered some setbacks, in particular with the mindless poisoning of at least 12 the birds. Thanks to the dedication of the Golden Eagle Trust, National Parks and Wildlife and the many volunteers, the White-tailed Sea Eagle project might just be on the cusp to great success.
Pygmy Shrew: The Pygmy Shrew, one of the world’s smallest mammals, hit the news in June with claims that it is disappearing from parts of Ireland because of the impact of the newly arrived invasive Greater White-toothed Shrew. A team of researchers led by Allan McDevitt in UCD showed the Greater White-toothed Shrew was rapidly colonising the midlands of Ireland at an alarming rate of over 5km per year. Where they occur, they are likely to outcompete their smaller relation, and possibly leading to the local extinction of our native Pygmy Shrew. For a mammal that has lived in Ireland for thousands of years, this is a real shame.
Japanese Kelp: September came the news that the invasive species Japanese Kelp, was discovered for the first time in the Republic of Ireland. Already known to occur at Carrickfergus Marina in Belfast Lough since 2012, it was confirmed to have spread to Carlingford Lough in the Republic of Ireland in September. Japanese Kelp is native to Japan, Korea and China, but has since spread to New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Europe. Within Europe it occurs in the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Italy. It is considered one of the worst 100 invasive species in the world. Japanese kelp is the latest in a large number of non-native and invasive species that have colonised our shores.
Waved fork-moss: In June, the Minister for Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, T.D. issued a press release announcing the discovery of a species of moss previously presumed extinct in Ireland. The rare moss Waved fork-moss was discovered in Clara Bog Nature Reserve by Dr. George Smith who stumbled upon it while preparing for a workshop at the site. The moss which is a specialist of raised bog habitat was thought extinct because of the large amount of raised bog destroyed in Ireland in the last century. Clara Bog Nature Reserve protects a 450ha raised bog, one of the best examples of this habitat in the world. Instead of cutting peat from these extra-ordinarily rare habitats, we should be cherishing them.
Seagulls: well what can I say? The impact of ‘seagulls’ was raised in the Seanad by Ned O’Sullivan, who wanted Dublin ‘…to introduce policies to limit seagull numbers and abate their noise levels and more aggressive behaviours’. Why? Because apparently inhabitants of Dublin were being kept awake ‘by seagulls screeching throughout the night. They are fighting, bickering and are raucous. They have caused sleep deprivation’. He also claims that ‘..youngsters have been attacked in parks and had their lunches snatched.’ Thus ensued a great deal of media coverage on the topic of seagulls, much of which it must be said ridiculed the concerns of the Senator.
Hen harrier: The hen harrier has been in the news on and off during the year, mostly for all the wrong reasons. Early in the year it was the threat to hen harriers from large scale wind farm development, then it moved to the issue of afforestation. Hen harriers and afforestation restrictions has become a hot political issue as farmers are ‘…not being properly compensated’ for the ‘restriction’ on their farming activities within Special Protection Areas (SPAs), according to the Irish Farmers Association. A new farming group, Irish Farmers with Designated Land, has been lobbying hard to have the restrictions on new afforestation within SPA weakened, as they claim the €7,500 per year payment proposed under the new GLAS+ scheme is inadequate ‘compensation’ for their ‘losses’. Their efforts seem to be paying off as Ireland South MEP Sean Kelly is now championing their cause, and Minister for State at the Department of Agriculture, Tom Hayes is in favour of allowing further afforestation within SPAs designated for hen harrier conservation. The controversy over hen harriers and afforestation has caused an impasse over designation of 90,000ha for SPAs, an impasse which the EU Commission claims needs to be resolved before Ireland’s Rural Development Plan can be finalised. Earlier this month, BirdWatch Ireland and the Irish Raptor Study Group issued a statement calling for the end of vilification of the Hen Harrier. It also claimed that the allowing further afforestation in SPAs would be ‘…an environmental disaster and have a devastating effect on the national hen harrier population’. No doubt, this issue will remain in the news for 2015.
I never thought that I would pay much attention to roads. They are, after all, what I try to get away from in my efforts to experience nature up close. Yet as I travel around Ireland experiencing the diverse landscapes of the country, I realise that roads themselves are very much part of the landscape. So here are some roads which show well the changing character of the Irish landscape.
Hidden away between the small villages of Kilmaganny and Hugginstown, at Aghaviller in Kilkenny, is a wonderful local woodland amenity. Castlemorris Wood forms part of the 2,000ha of woodland owned and managed by Coillte in the locality. It once formed the estate of Castlemorris House, one of the largest houses in the country, but was razed to the ground in 1978. All that remains now are some remnants of the stable yard and a curious assemblage of trees.
The woodland probably doesn’t support anything very exciting in terms of rare species (but I don’t actually know that for a fact), yet that is not to diminish its biodiversity value. The woodland has a nice mixture of deciduous and coniferous woodland. But the woodland does have the appearance of not being aggressively managed for its commercial value (which is a good thing!); the scrubby undergrowth and plenty of dead wood giving it a ‘natural’ appearance in places. The network of woodland paths and narrow tracks that weave their way through the estate provide a very pleasant walk and are well used by locals. A 7 km loop walk around the wood is one of the routes promoted as part of the the Trail Kilkenny initiative.
But the naturalness of the wood is deceptive for much of the estate is planted with beech, a species which is not native in the true sense of the word, as it was introduced to Ireland sometime in the last 1,000 years. There are mixed opinions on the biodiversity value of the ‘non-native’ beech, but for me this is an entirely esoteric debate for it is now naturalised over much of the country. And the patches of woodland that remain in Kilkenny add important diversity to the farmed landscape dominated by intensively managed grassland and cereal fields.
Castlemorris Woods looks really beautiful with the autumnal colours. It has been a particularly good beech mast year, with mast carpeting the woodland floor. Currently the mast is being devoured by woodpigeon, but will become increasingly more important for finches as the winter progresses. Perhaps it will attract in brambling, the winter relative of the chaffinch that arrives to Ireland from Scandanavia and Siberia each year. The woods also have many majestic sweet chestnut trees, and these too have produced a bountiful harvest this year.
Now is the time to explore the many different species of fungi that grow in abundance on the woodland floor, and sprout from rotting timber. Even up to the end of October, shieldbugs, butterflies and hoverflies were to be seen basking in the late autumn sunshine.
But the woods hold something of interest at all times of the year. For me, the chance of seeing a red squirrel is always an attraction as there is still a healthy population here. But the mammal population of Castlemorris Wood is changing. Recent years has seen the arrival of the beautifully elusive pine marten, a species which fortunately is expanding its range greatly in Ireland. It is thought that this expansion is due to the increased forest cover in Ireland, but be that as it may, it can now be seen in farmland away well away from woodland. And the pine marten expansion has coincided with the contraction in range of the invasive grey squirrel who seems to be moving out of areas when pine marten arrive. As pine marten like to eat grey squirrels, it is understandable that grey squirrels tend to find their environment less desirable with their new neighbours. But the theory is that red squirrels can live in harmony with pine martens as they are lighter and, by moving to the extremities of branches, can keep out of reach of the pine marten. Hence, it seems that the advance of the pine marten has benefited the red squirrel, to the detriment of its larger and brasher American relation. And pine marten droppings (or scats) can be seen in places at Castlemorris Woods, so the prospects for our native red squirrel looks quite good here.
And in the undergrowth things are changing too. Another non-native mammal, the bank vole, was first recorded near Listowel, Co. Kerry in 1964 and is expanding its range in a north-easterly direction. It now is found over almost half the country and has made it as far as Kilkenny city. Castlemorris Wood has been colonised by the bank vole in recent years and it is known that wood mice are being replaced by the bank vole where they invade. What impact this replacement is having on the ecology, however, is still unknown.
Castlemorris Wood is a wonderful local amenity and there are always people out walking and enjoying the site, no matter the weather. Coillte manages woodland sites like Castlemorris Wood all across the country and it is easy to take these local amenities for granted. It is only when amenities like this are threatened that their real value is appreciated. A short time ago there was a very real possibility that Ireland’s forest resource was to be priviatised and the open forest policy adopted by Coillte would have been placed in jeopardy. Fortunately this did not come to pass, and hopefully it never will. Sites like Castlemorris Wood are valuable natural assets, and Coillte does a good job at managing them on our behalf. Long may it continue.