Conservation measures to protect our environment and its wildlife have in many cases proven to be ineffective, with species still declining, writes Gordon Deegan
THE spend by the State on protecting snails, frogs, corncrakes, and freshwater pearl mussels can sometimes raise eyebrows among a disbelieving public.
Against the background of almost weekly stories of trauma for patients waiting on trollies in hospital A&E departments and the unending homeless crisis, a combined spend of almost €1m in 2015 on only two protected birds, the hen harrier and the corncrake, may appear hard to justify.
However, the Department of Arts and Heritage has pointed out on a number of occasions that there is a legal obligation under EU law to spend the money on conservation measures, warning that if the money isn’t spent Ireland would have a much larger spend on fines imposed.
An Taisce’s natural environmental officer, Fintan Kelly, makes the argument that not enough money is provided for conservation of these protected species claiming that “due to political wrangling the money available for conservation has been spread too thinly”.
He claims: “The conservation measures themselves have consistently been watered down to such an extent that by the time it comes to implementation they cannot deliver meaningfully.”
The farming lobby is also not happy with aspects of the Government’s plan for conserving protected species.
IFA SAC project team chairman, Tom Turley, said IFA’s view has consistently been that the implementation process for designations does not protect landowners. The process of consultation has also fallen far short of what is required.
He said: “IFA has called for a proper consultation with an effective appeals system. The main concern of the IFA centres around the restrictions imposed and the lack of a proper compensation mechanism. Management plans have not been put in place. As a result, farmers and landowners have seen their incomes affected by designations with a devaluation of their land.”
Mr Turley added: “IFA has called on Minister Heather Humphreys to initiate discussions on a new process of consultation, appeals and a proper compensation mechanism. Areas that are currently designated should be examined as to whether they should remain designated.”
However, Mr Kelly pointed out: “Many of Ireland’s most threatened habitats and species are of poor and declining conservation status. In 2013 a report by the National Parks and Wildlife Service revealed that only 9% of the 58 habitats that were assessed were found to be in ‘favourable’ conservation status, 50% as ‘inadequate’ and 41% as ‘bad’.”
He stated: “Some of our most threatened species such as vertigo (snails), freshwater pearl mussel and hen harrier continue to decline at an alarming rate.” Even once common species may not exist as breeding species in Ireland in the near future.
There have been significant declines in their long-term breeding distribution: Corncrake (92% down), curlew (89%), whinchat (77%), grey partridge (74%), woodcock (68%), lapwing (56%), red grouse (52%), and redshank (50%).
He said: “There is no evidence that there will be any major decline in pressures over the next decade. Pollution and the intensification of the agricultural and forestry sectors are threats for species moving forward. Climate change will also bring its own challenges.”
Mr Kelly claimed: “Agri-environment schemes in Ireland have in the main failed to halt biodiversity loss. This is despite vast sums of taxpayers’ money being invested.
“For example €2.18bn has been given to farmers in Ireland under CAP environmental schemes between 1994 and 2006, these schemes, have failed to deliver sufficient protection for Ireland’s biodiversity. This situation makes a mockery of Ireland’s current branding of our food and drink sector as ‘green’ and sustainable under Bord Bia’s Origin Green marketing campaign.”
Mr Kelly said documentation which An Taisce got access to via Freedom of information requests reveal the NPWS agrees.
He pointed out: “In the documentation the NPWS expresses understandable frustration that its past submissions to the Department of Agriculture ‘have not particularly influenced the selection of measures for Natura lands’, despite the fact that the NPWS is the responsible body with direct expertise.”
Mr Kelly said that the farmers in hen harrier designated sites have been crying out for support for years.
“It would have benefited these hill farming communities and Ireland’s hen harrier population which is undergoing a collapse in its breeding population within these protected sites due to inadequate habitat management and due to pressures such as inappropriate forestry and windfarm development.”
Mr Kelly claimed that there “is inadequate enforcement of environmental law in Ireland”. He said: “The NPWS are critically underfunded and have seen their budget repeatedly slashed. For example, in December 2010 it was announced that the NPWS’s budget was to be cut by a huge 56%.
“As a nation we need to wake up to the current environmental crisis we are living through.”
Farmers get €641k for hen harrier preservation
A select group of farmers received €641,000 from the State in 2015 for implementing measures aimed at conserving the protected hen harrier bird on their lands.
In total, since the scheme commenced, farmers have enjoyed a €13.6m pay-out. However, the payout in 2015 was significantly down on the €1.86m paid out in 2014.
The Department of Arts and Heritage regards the EU-protected hen harrier as “one of Ireland’s and Europe’s most spectacular yet rarest and most threatened birds of prey”.
In response to a freedom of information request, the department said it has spent a total of €729,000 on all measures conserving the bird in 2015.
A breakdown of the costs show that along with the €641,439 paid to farmers an additional €63,439 was spent on a national hen harrier survey along with a further €20,000 spent on scientific report.
According to the department figures, the highest amount received by any participating farmer was a Tipperary farmer who received €14,594; followed by farmers in Tipperary and Limerick who all received figures in excess of €12,500.
The highest proportion of farmers in the scheme are based on the Midwest, with 96 in Limerick and 86 in Clare. The breakdown shows that there are 60 farmers based in Kerry, 53 in Cork and 32 in Galway and Tipperary.
However, one of those farmers in the scheme and member of Clare County Council, Pat Hayes (FF) said that only now is the designation of lands hitting home with the devaluation of the lands in question: “The designation is having a terrible impact on land values and I believe that there should be a more long-term compensation scheme put in place.”
The largest concentration of hen harriers is in the Stacks to Mullaghareirk Mountains, West Limerick Hills, and Mount Eagle SPA where 29 pairs are located with the next highest amount located in the Slieve Aughty mountains in northeast Clare-south Galway.
The hen harrier habitat mapping work that will inform part of the State’s threat response plan for the conservation of hen harrier.
The department has stated previously that without the traditional type of hill farming in hen harrier areas being supported, “it would be expected that the hen harrier population would decline and possibly become extinct”.
It further stated: “The hen harrier is a magnificent bird of prey and a beautiful part of Ireland’s natural heritage. The Hen Harrier Farm Plan Scheme run by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht — National Parks and Wildlife Service — has been important in helping maintain and enhance habitat for this rare and vulnerable native Irish bird in areas that have experienced significant losses in habitat and where this species faces extinction.”
The department said the scheme has supported farmers to stay on the land.
The general trend in the absence of such a scheme has been land abandonment and rural depopulation, and without this scheme it is likely more high nature value farmland and habitat would have been lost.
The department said that “in the NPWS Farm Plan Scheme payments have been made since 2008.
The farmer is paid for works done, e.g. the creation of hedgerows, improvement of hedgerows, design of scrub habitat, management of rushy/tussocky fields, change in stocking rate, controlled burning, creation of small mammal habitat, etc.”
€2.6m Burren scheme is hailed a success
A model scheme that has paid Burren farmers more than €2.69m over the past six years to create the conditions to grow rare and wild flowers to prosper has had a phenomenal impact.
Pointing the way forward for future interest heritage schemes reliant on farmers for their success, over the past five years, farmers participating in the BurrenLife Programme have received €5.79m in payments for their role in the improved environmental health of the Burren.
Figures provided by BurrenLife show that €2.69m of those payments were for ‘the management of species-rich grassland’ where the Burren’s famous flowers grow.
Director of the scheme, Brendan Dunford — who last year gave Prince Charles a tour of a Burren farm — said the goal of the programme is that every farmer in the Burren who wants to be included will be included.
The most recent programme involved 160 farmers participating covering 45% of the protected areas in the Burren and Mr Dunford said that it is the programme’s ambition to include 100% of protected areas such as special areas of conservation (SAC).
Mr Dunford said that the programme has had “a phenomenal impact” on the Burren landscape “and the environmental health of the Burren is increasing year by year”.
He said: “The BurrenLife will leave a fantastic legacy and it proven to be a very good value for money model — and we believe is the best model around.” The programme is jointly funded between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Arts and Heritage.
Mr Dunford said: “The programme has a lot of support at national and European level.”
He said that people can see for themselves the increasing environmental health in every Burren field under the programme. The success of the programme has now resulted in the creation of a new six-year programme entitled the Burren programme and it is envisaged 500 farmers will be included in the scheme by 2020.
€2m to preserve ‘iconic’ corncrake
The State has spent €2m over the past four years in its battle to save the corncrake from national extinction.
However, divisional manager with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), Denis Strong, points out that a large proportion of the monies in the scheme is paid to farmers.
Last year (2015), the State spent €338,032 in the latest round of its corncrake battle — the bird is going tough times with numbers down 20% to 183 calling males.
Mr Strong pointed out that of the €338,032 spent, €177,675 was paid to farmers: “The money goes directly back into rural Ireland and to the farmers.”
The spend of €338,032 in 2015 followed a spend of €362,111 in 2014, €597,779 in 2013, and €722,237 in 2012.
Speaking on the 2015 spend, Mr Strong said: “The scheme offers good value for money to the taxpayer. The amount spent is a very, small, small contribution on an iconic species that has been here for so long.”
He added: “It is important that we maintain that and protect what we have from a biodiversity point of view. Also, as a member of the EU, we also have a legal obligation to protect and enhance species such as the corncrake.”
The protection measures are in place as mechanised farming decimated the Irish population of the corncrake which was once widespread across the country. The bird migrates here each summer from Africa to breed before returning to the warmer climate for the winter.
The numbers of the bird increased in 2013 and in 2014 to record levels of 230 calling males before last year’s census that found no sign of any corncrakes in the Shannon Callows. The bird has also disappeared from Co Sligo, North Mayo mainland and Achill Island, and Connemara since last year.
The largest concentration of corncrake in the country are the islands of Donegal where 86 calling males were detected during the summer, including 43 detected on Inishbofin and Inishdooey. The 2015 figures show that 55 corncrake males were detected in west Connacht, including 34 on the Mullet peninsula. The bird is now confined to Co Donegal, Co Mayo, and islands off Connemara.
The corncrake is an Annex I species on the EU Birds Directive, requiring that the highest conservation measures be put in place.
€500k contracts to save pearl mussel
The State has entered contracts worth more than €500,000 in a bid to conserve “our panda” — the critically endangered freshwater pearl mussel.
Figures provided by the Department of Arts and Heritage in response to a freedom of information request show that the department entered six contracts worth a total of €512,000 with a number of the contracts stretching through to 2017 and 2019.
The department confirmed that €38,176 was spent last year (2015) on freshwater pearl monitoring with a further €19,804 being spent on a separate study.
The most lucrative contract was won by Richard O’Callaghan, who is providing ongoing scientific support relating to the department’s projects concerning freshwater pearl mussel species.
The mussel has existed virtually unchanged for around 50m years and has survived in Ireland in large numbers and high densities across many rivers, and has existed in some lakes for in excess of 10,000 years.
The mussel can live to 120 years; is present in 150 rivers around the country and is not edible.
Authority on the mussel here, Evelyn Moorkens, says: “They are a very special species. The mussel is both a keystone species — if you lose it, you will lose a whole series of species and it is an umbrella species in that it offers protection to everything else around it.”
Ms Moorkens previously described the mussel as “our tiger, our panda”. The information shows that Ms Moorkens has scooped three of the six contracts with a combined value of €252,000. The work involves her providing, in one case, surveillance on 21 pearl mussel sites between 2014 and 2017 and in another, monitoring of pearl mussel sites in Co Kerry from 2014 to 2019 as part of an EU Life project.
Ninety percent of all freshwater pearl mussels — which can actually produce valuable pearls — are known to have died out across Europe during the 20th century.
The figures show that Philip Farrelly & Co Ltd was the other pearl mussel expert to scoop a large contract after he secured a €94,770 contract for a Fresh Water Pearl Mussel Farm Planning Protocol.
In July of last year, the presence of 7,000 pearl mussels on the Doonbeg river helped US billionaire and Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump, blow plans for a giant windfarm near his Irish golf resort at Doonbeg off course.
€250k on endangered toad is money well spent, says expert
Department spending €48,000 per year for five years on native species
The State is spending €250,000 over five years in a bid to restore Ireland’s only native toad, the natterjack, to its former glory.
The endangered natterjack is confined to a small area in Kerry and one site in Wexford.
Currently, the State is committed to spending €48,000 per annum to a small group of farmers and landowners who manage new breeding sites for the natterjack in Co Kerry.
Last year, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht confirmed that it was seeking tenders from parties in respect of a monitoring project for the natterjack until 2018.
The natterjack is protected under the EU Habitats Directive that requires member states to carry out a series of strict protective measures to ensure that the species has a favourable conservation status.
Expert on the natterjack, Prof Mark Emmerson of Queen’s University said that the spend on the natterjack toad study “is money well spent”. He said: “There is a legal requirement on states in the EU to improve the status of natterjack toads.”
Prof Emmerson said that if the money is not spent and the population of the natterjack declines, Ireland risks facing legal action and potential fines from the EU. The academic said that the chirruping of the natterjack can be heard from more than 1km away, while the mating calls of the male can be heard from great distances.
Adult natterjacks are 60mm–70mm long and are distinguished from the common toad by a yellow line down the middle of the back. They can live up to 15 years, feeding on insects.
The current population of natterjack toads is estimated to be around 9,000 adults and it is the only toad species found in Ireland. Prof Emmerson said Kerry provides a great refuge for the toad.
A spokesman for the Depatment of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht stated: “Considerable efforts have been made in recent years to start restoring the toad to its historic range. This has involved the construction of approximately 100 new breeding sites for the species around Castlemaine Harbour and at Castlegregory in Co Kerry.
He said: “The ponds are dug and managed by 48 local landowners under five-year agreements with the department.
“The cost to the department of this scheme in each of the last two years has been €48,000. It is hoped to continue this scheme to the end of the current five-year agreements, subject to exchequer funds being made available.”
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