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 anniversary in 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 funding to 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. The killing 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 hillside vegetation 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.
This year also saw a test case for the operation of the Imperative Reasons for Overriding Public Interest clause of the Habitats Directive in relation to extension of Galway Docks by the Galway Harbour Company. And at the European Union level, a ‘fitness check’ of the EU Nature Directives was initiated, which potentially could have profound negative consequences for statutory protection of nature in Ireland, should it lead to changes to the legislation.
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!