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Documenting what’s left

We need an independent State conservation-promotion office

John Gibbons interviews Liam Lysaght, Director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre.

Ireland’s largely dysfunctional relationship with its natural environment was neatly summed up by former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, when he moaned that his ill-fated Celtic Tiger was being stymied “because of swans, snails and the occasional person hanging out of a tree”.

While the Ahern era was hardly a high watermark of environmental awareness and ecological literacy, one useful resource to emerge from this time was Ireland’s National Biodiversity Data Centre, which was established by the Heritage Council in 2007 and is funded by it and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The Centre was set up to collate, manage, analyse and distribute data on Ireland’s biodiversity. Headed by Dr Liam Lysaght, the Centre is based in Waterford city. “We are trying to put in place systems to track changes in the countryside”, Lysaght told Village in a recent in-depth interview. “It’s about building the evidence base to support biodiversity policy”.

It is, he adds, “quite remarkable that at the moment we don’t even know how many species of organisms we have in Ireland. We know of 31,000 (species) but it’s estimated the total is closer to 40,000, yet they remain to be discovered, so we’re trying to build knowledge on what species there are in Ireland, where they occur and how they are changing over time. That is absolutely vital to feed into policy development”.

Biodiversity and nature conservation, he notes, are seen in Irish public life as a problem rather than an opportunity. Hence the decision by Heritage Minister, Heather Humphries, at the behest of the Irish Farmers Association, earlier this year to extend the hedge-cutting season.The ban is vital in protecting habitats during nesting and breeding season.

Ireland’s hedgerows are among our few remaining semi-intact areas of biological diversity. This IFA-led and politically sanctioned incursion underlines the asymmetrical balance of power between those trying to defend Ireland’s imperilled wildlife and the well funded and politically connected lobby groups seeking to erode environmental safeguards at every turn.

Lysaght is an advocate for education and enlightenment rather than conflict. “We have to counteract this view… people love getting out into the countryside, they love being out in the natural environment”.

To coincide with the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010, the Centre pioneered an ongoing initiative called the Bio Blitz. This brings together groups of people to see how many species can be identified within a defined area. While the Bio Blitz is an imported idea, the particular spin put on it in Ireland results in four or five teams simultaneously in the field at various locations, competing against one another.

“It’s astonishing: everyone is surprised when you tell them there might be 900 different species of moths or 100 species of bees. These kinds of figures communicate very simply and effectively”.

A winning Bio Blitz site can expect to record over 1,000 species in a 24-hour period – an illustrative glimpse into the staggering complexity of the natural world in a country that is in no way thought of as a biodiversity hotspot.

Lysaght is intrigued by the paradox that while nature conservation, at least in Ireland, has negative connotations, on the other hand:

“There’s hardly a person in the country that isn’t moved by hearing a cuckoo in the wild. If you talk to those same people about the need to conserve the countryside, or do something positive for nature conservation – well, there is a disconnect there”.

The ongoing ecological catastrophe of bogmining is, in Lysaght’s view, “symptomatic as to how poor our attitudes to nature conservation are. Frankly, what we are doing to Irish peat bogs is a scandal, there’s no getting away from it. And that’s both private individuals and the State”.

Raised bogs are, he reckons, probably the rarest habitat that we have in Europe:

“Ireland is fortunate to still have some of them remaining, but only a very small percentage of our raised bogs are still intact, and frankly I don’t understand why, for the common good, we don’t just say these, for the common good, have to be protected. Full stop”.

Liam Lysaght
Liam Lysaght

While fair compensation for existing turbary rights needs to be paid, there is, he says, absolutely no reason, other than politics, that this is being allowed to continue. Contrast, he says, projects like the Abbeyleix bog, where the locals have taken ownership of a raised bog donated by Bord Na Móna. This is an oasis of diversity, especially when compared to the adjacent ‘commercial’ bogs, where, he notes, “the scale of destruction is just staggering”. Their dual role as carbon sinks makes this even more reprehensible, he adds.

Lysaght was unimpressed by Bord Na Móna’s ‘Naturally Driven’ advertising and PR campaign earlier this year:

“I think it’s disingenuous; what I would say about Bord Na Móna is there are some very good staff in the company who are trying to do a lot in terms of giving back some of the land that’s been cut away; I’d like to see more of these sites being given over to biodiversity and tourism”.

Lysaght finds it ironic that MEP and bog-cutting lobbyist Luke Ming Flanagan is also a big fan of Dutch liberalism, particularly regarding cannabis, but seems to have failed to notice that the same Dutch have spent over €100 million on peatland conservation. Amazingly, as far back as the late 1970s and early 1980s, a Dutch foundation raised the money to buy three Irish raised bogs and donated them to the Irish State for nature conservation.

The crucial role of the National Biodiversity Data Centre is gathering, computerising and making sense of reams of raw data, in an attempt to benchmark the state of Ireland’s biodiversity. Without this, how can we measure future losses or gains? Examples of this are two insect-monitoring schemes it operates. These are spread across more than 120 sites all over Ireland. “This is the kind of empirical data that are needed. You can’t – or you shouldn’t be able to – refute, factual data like these”.

Butterflies are one of the main insect groups it monitors, as these have been shown to be among the best species for monitoring the impacts of climate change:

“My impression is that the abundance, the biomass of organisms, is declining; probably since the 1970s they have declined hugely”.

Lysaght fondly recalls childhood walks in north Kerry through meadows teeming with wild creatures of every hue:

“We know there has been a phenomenal decline in the amount of hay meadows in Ireland”, he adds. “We’ve gone from fantastically rich meadow to a sterile desert across the countryside, frankly”.

An ornithologist by training, he grew up in Limerick’s inner city. While much of his work as director of the centre is technocratic by its nature, he is back in the field at every opportunity. This notably included spending a month two years ago cycling 3,200km around Ireland’s coastline, accompanied by his then 18-year old daughter as he visited dozens of wildlife sites.

“As a State, nature conservation really isn’t on the radar”, he concludes. “It’s seen in government circles as a problem, not as an opportunity”. He is frustrated at the willingness of government agencies to borrow the language of conservation (‘Origin Green’) to use as a greenwashing tool for international marketing purposes.

At the moment, all that stands between much of Ireland’s remaining threatened wildlife and habitats being wiped out by commercial or agricultural interests are small, poorly funded groups of volunteer NGOs who, Lysaght says, are doing their best, but it’s absolutely not enough:

“We need an independent State body or office of conservation, primarily tasked not with enforcement but with going out and touting the benefits of nature conservation”.

Rural Ireland betrays an uneasy relationship with the natural environment, and while acknowledging it, Lysaght is at pains to stress the success stories, such as the Burren’s farming for conservation project.

Many individual farmers, he stresses, are interested in the natural habitats that surround them. “Once it becomes political, that’s the problem”, he adds.

“Wouldn’t it be brilliant if every townland in Ireland had just one acre of non-fertilised meadow?… That’s something tangible, and there are a lot of farmers who wouldn’t mind doing that”. Despite his own efforts at putting a positive spin on nature conservation, in reality he is profoundly worried: “We’re losing so much, it’s just slipping away from us as we go about our business”.

In Ireland, nature conservation, measured in terms of goods and services, contributes an estimated €2.6bn per annum to our economy. This, Lysaght accepts with a shrug, may ultimately be the only metric that might actually catch the attention of our nature-averse politicians.

John Gibbons blogs at A video recording of this full interview is available there.