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Conservation Politics

Reviewing the history and likely future of the National Parks and Wildlife Service as Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan announces a major review

By Tony Lowes

It was 1997 when Michael D Higgins brought to life the Habitats Directive and created Dúchas, a Heritage Service that befitted Ireland’s new responsibilities. The Government vociferously promoted the Dúchas “branding” and marketed it as finally bringing the rags and tatters of our ‘reluctant jurisdiction’ closer to an acceptable European level of expertise.

If anything, it worked too well.

As Michael Viney recorded in the Irish Times five years later, “Dúchas had become hostage to the reckless populism of the IFA leadership in a guerrilla war over the future of farming policy. The IFA seized on such measures as those proposed for protection of the scarce hen harrier in the uplands of north Co Kerry and west Co Limerick with meetings ending in blatant threats to shoot the harriers and send their corpses to Dúchas…”.

Successor Minister, Síle de Valera, was quick to backslide on our President’s vision, buying Ireland a 10-year derogation from the end of turf cutting on our protected (and vanishing) raised bogs in 1999, a decision that only delayed the bitter rancour – and expense – that was to come.

A classic battle over designated sites was undoubtedly the five days in the High Court in 2000 over the proposed golf course on the Doughmore/Doonbeg sand dune system – now Trump’s International Golf Links and Hotel – which saw the NPWS expert, Tom Curtis, reduce the protected area to two small dunes as these were the only protected, species-rich “grey dunes”. They were to be fenced off, allowing the course to proceed. He did so under immense pressure, with locals desperate for the
employment, the last chance at a €2m grant from the EU channelled by the canny Shannon Development Agency. A summer home that stood in the way of the course mysteriously burnt down. Curtis fell out with fellow expert Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington, who challenged his scientific views in the High Court. The Heritage Council under the indubitable Freda Roundtree bravely produced a publication arguing for the dunes’ protection.

But in the end even the concerns of the EU Environment Commissioner melted away. The High Court extended the protection for a snail – but the course went ahead. The pressure and the bitterness left a shadow over Curtis’ retirement, a fine scientist who had served the State well and who was in fact responsible for Ireland designating more sand dune systems than the entire UK.

The tradition of Robert Lloyd Praeger

The great irony of Dúchas/NPWS is that its scientific staff are the best, dedicated to their work. They come from the tradition of Robert Lloyd Praeger, founder of An Taisce, stereotypically waist-deep in a bog in his three-piece tweed suit. They are long termers – their lives devoted to the science, often happier in the field – unlike the civil servants who come and go to administer the service.

And unlike many other Member States who are shy of providing the Commission with reports on their state of their environment, the research done by the National Parks and Wildlife Service is some of the finest anywhere.

In particular, the work done by Fernandez on raised bogs has in astonishing multi-volume multi-annual detail meticulously mapped and recorded our vanishing designated bogs – the very information that the Commission has used in its infringement complaints against Ireland though these have become much less common recently. The Article 17 Reports on the Habitats and Species submitted every 7 years are amongst the most comprehensive and detailed in Europe, however bleak a picture they present. (Sadly, the same cannot be said of archaeology.)

Martin Cullen’s two-year stint as Minister for the Environment (2002 to 2004) not only broke up the Department, but brought new procedures to curtail Its contribution on planning and development which had upset powerful interests – not least the roads, where protestors at sites like Carrickmines Castle and the Glen of Downs caught the public’s fancy but did nothing to halt the destruction. From then on, any objection from the NPWS had to be approved by the Minister himself, creating a vetting process that made submitting an NPWS objection within the planning time frame practically impossible.

The challenge to the job of reforming our nature protection services must address the structure and design of the Agency. Ireland, like other Member States, had the choice of a centralised or devolved administration. It choose the latter course.

It is clear case-law now that decisions on land-use must be based on the best available scientific opinion. This means the top administrative people must be competent scientifically

This means that every player in the field – say the Minister for Agriculture through his Forest Service – could do what he wanted. While a forestry application notification to NPWS was required, there was no requirement for them to comment, much less prevent even the most blatant ongoing destruction. Ciaran O’Keeffe, the NPWS Principal Officer in charge of ‘Scientific Support’, told a shocked journalist – Paddy Woodworth – that he could not intervene on his own – he had to be instructed to do so by the administrative side of the NPWS, answerable to the Minister.

It is clear case-law now that decisions on land-use must be based on the best available scientific opinion. That means the top administrative people must be competent scientifically. This, evidently, is not the case in the NPWS. And to be fair, their view is that it should not fall only on them to be the kicking boy, pointing out that agencies like the Forest Service must themselves have a sufficient level of ecologist’s expertise to ensure that they do not damage our biodiversity.

Growing destruction

Viewed from this lens, it is easier to see why then there is such growing destruction even within areas owned by State, like Killarney National Park. Here, the visionary ‘Groundwork’ voluntary programme eliminated – and kept eliminated by patrols every six years for more than 35 years – large areas of the park from the invasive rhododendron ponticum which is strangling the regrowth of the trees – until Parks Management ignored their own Plan and threw out the volunteers in 2005, allowing every now regenerating bloom’s 5,000 seeds to reinfest the woodlands.

Noonan himself knows this well, as he worked with Friends of the Earth and volunteered for Groundwork in the 1980s. A detailed article by Paddy Woodworth exposing the irrational ending of the project in the Irish Times in 2019 [Rhododendron: An ecological disaster in Killarney National Park] led to a loud denial by the NPWS in a letter to the Irish Times, apparently signed by Principal Officer O’Keeffe. An outraged O’Keeffe – who knew full well that the decision to stop Groundwork was wrong – sounded off in an email to colleagues released under FoI, stating that he specifically “did not give permission for my name to be used on this letter”.

Killarney National Park’s management is not only brutish and unscientific, failing even to prevent trespass from marauding sheep and ill- managed deer that gobble up the oak saplings as they appear, but is increasingly unable to resist the demand of the town’s hoteliers. The town is one of Ireland’s biggest tourist honey-pots, and the industry has for many years been intent on completing the ‘Lough Lean Loop’ – an ‘extension’ of the recently opened Tomies Wood carpark and trail that would connect up both
sides. Splitting the project into discrete sections to avoid proper assessment, the proposed walkers’ route would cut through an area of the Park so remote that it was not even mapped until satellites did so in the 1980s.

At the core of the argument – and the wilderness – is Glaisín na Marbh Valley and its lough. One of the few places that have been continuously forested since the last ice age, it is one of Europe’s last remaining fragments of temperate rain forest.

Here Killarney-based botanist Dr Rory Hodd has discovered a small population of the tiny fern Stenogrammitis Myosuroides which has never before been recorded outside the mountainous cloud forests in Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, more than 4,000 miles across the Atlantic, making it Europe’s rarest fern. The lough is host to the last of five flocks of white-fronted geese in the south west – geese known to take flight from human disturbance as far away as 800 metres. Ironically, protecting such remote areas from visitors need not involve any element of prohibition. It is simply a matter of merely refraining from making paths, particularly where no path has hitherto existed.

Growing complaints

Noonan has dealt with and followed up on representations to his Department, while at least one letter responding to request for help from Eamon Ryan was met with a superior dismissal which it transpired neither the Minister nor his adviser were even aware. And the other Green player, Pippa Hackett, has just exposed herself to the Commission with a glowing letter of self-praise for Irish forestry which one official compared to a ‘Eurovision entry’. Given the current level of complaints and appeals – more than 600 – that have brought the forestry industry in Ireland virtually to a halt the letter is – well – embarrassing.

And the complaints are piling up. Drone footage that Parks and Wildlife refuses to release shows that 22 of our protected bogs are still being mechanically mined, in spite of compensation payment of €1,500 per annum, index-linked for 15 years to 2,600 homes. €37 million has paid, and a further 1,215 deliveries-worth of turf have been mined at a cost to the public in compensation of just over €2.45 million. Since November 2019 Ireland has been paying €15,000 a day in fines for its failure to properly assess the Derrybrien Windfarm that led to the disastrous bog slide in 2004.

Failte Ireland, Tidy Towns Committees, Local Authorities, and County Councillors unite behind Greenways and Blueways where even the most basic of environmental values are at risk. Driven by the public’s voracious appetite for ‘nature’, endangered habitats and species previously protected are falling fast. Residents stopped clear-felling by Coillte Teo under the pretence of ‘Blueway safety’ in a special area of conservation along river Suir Blueway in Kilsheelan, Co. Tipperary just before Christmas. [See feature photo]. The High Court has stopped work on the Kerry Greenway with Peter Sweetman and landowners in seperate challenges to be heard in the High Court March the 9th.

In Longford, the only part of the 5km proposed Greenway that does not follow existing pathways is at the Ballykenny-Fisherstown Bog where the Greenway is to “loop around an area of former raised bog’ via a 1.3k 3 metre-wide path which is to be first excavated (‘material will be removed where necessary’) and then filled with imported stone with loss of almost 4,000 square metres of bog” – the equivalent of 15 tennis courts. Residents value the white fronted geese that are again returning every year, but according to the NPWS records they have not been seen since 1991. This is one of Ireland’s finest raised bogs, designated to great acclaim by the late Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and David Bellamy in 1994, and it’s just about to endure one of those thousand cuts.

Tomies Wood, Killarney: new carpark and intensified trail

Concertina of successive Governments

The National Parks and Wildlife Service has been the concertina of successive governments – becoming robust or contracting according to the political will of the government of the day. In 2020, NPWS’s funding was 70 per cent down on what it had been before the financial crisis in 2008. “I increased its funding by 80 per cent in Budget 2021, but there is much more to do’, the new Minister at State says.

The funding is vital as Ireland is being once again dragged before the European Court. The Commission alleges that we have not established the necessary conservation measures for a single one of 423 supposed “Special Areas of Conservation”, many of which lack even Conservation Objectives on which to base any measures. Conservation Objectives detail the conditions that must be maintained as Trump found to his cost when he tried to build a sea wall to protect his eroding Doonbeg golf

Strung by a bitter 2013 row in the parking lot when NPWS prevented workmen from bringing the 2-ton limestone rocks they had assembled onto the beach – with subsequent threatening letters from Trump’s Men demanding compensation if further damages occurred – the determined NPWS scientists took their revenge by drafting rigorous Conservation Objectives for this site. They (rightly in view of modern scientific opinion) included a condition that forbade any structures that would impede the movement of the sand. On this basis, An Bord Pleanála was obliged to refuse the repeated attempts to gain permission for ‘Trumps Irish Wall’.

The last ten breeding choughs on remote Dursey Island off the west cork coast are not so lucky. They face mass tourism – a plate-glass star-wars ‘interpretative centre’ and a project to replace the current cable car – 6 person per journey taking 20 minutes – with one capable of 200 people each way per hour. Compulsory Orders have been completed for 16 passing bays on the 6 km road in from the Wild Atlantic Way already, although the project remains before An Bord Pleanála.

The island is a Special Protection Area designated for the choughs. The majority of the walkers head for the last abandoned village, some 4k from the cable car landing, near which the remaining choughs congregate and breed at the height of the tourist season. Yet the NPWS failed to do a chough survey in 2012 because of a lack of funding – and most critically, has not provided the sites Conservation Objectives which would protect the last of the choughs, leaving them exposed to Failte Ireland and Cork County Council.

Noonan is right in acknowledging that “there is much more to do”. Unless the design of the NPWS places science first and gives real power to the qualified staff, the next Article 17 Report on our habitats and species will be even more devastating.

Tony Lowes is a Director of Friends of the Irish Environment