What lies beneath: protected habitats under pressure – Irish Independent, July 15 2018

Ireland is famed worldwide for its rugged and seemingly untouched landscape.

Amid images of rainforest destruction, bleached coral reefs and plastic seas elsewhere, our country appears to outshine others as a natural haven. Yet, what’s below the surface isn’t always quite as idyllic. Do some digging and it becomes clear that we too have many habitats that are being pushed to their limits.

Evidence of this comes in a recent study published in Science, which highlights that one-third of protected land worldwide is “under intense human pressure”. From an Irish perspective, the researchers note that 81pc of the country’s protected land is subject to such strain, which includes pressure from urban centres, intensive agriculture, pasture lands, human population density, night-time lights, roads, railways and navigable waterways.

This corresponds with figures in the most recent report on ‘The Status of EU Protected Habitats and Species in Ireland’ (known as the Article 17 Report) compiled by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in 2013. It showed that 91pc of the country’s EU protected habitats were in poor condition, with 50pc categorised as ‘inadequate’ and 41pc labelled ‘bad’. The next report is due out next year.

While there’s evident disparity between the figures, likely a result of the different measuring tools used, the stark conclusion formed by both is the same.

LAW OF THE LAND

To understand how we got here, it’s important to note the several categories of protected habitats in Ireland. The most significant at a European and national level are the Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). SACs, which cover approximately 13,500 sq km of the country, are areas selected and designated under the EU Habitats Directive to protect unique habitats and species. They include raised and blanket bogs, sand dunes, heaths and woodlands, to name a few. SPAs, which comprise of over 570,000 hectares of marine and terrestrial habitats, were designated under the EU Birds Directive for the protection of endangered species of wild birds. At a national level, and subject to less regulations, are the National Heritage Areas (NHA) and predominantly state-owned Nature Reserves and National Parks.

There are several reasons why our protected habitats have been degraded despite such stringent legislative framework, according to Conor Linehan, head of environmental and planning law with William Fry.

“The Birds Directive came about in 1979 and the Habitats Directive in 1992, but we really only started to take them seriously around 1997,” he explains.

“That 20-year period in which we have been giving effect to the requirements of these laws – and it has taken a long time to get to grips with them – has coincided more or less with a period where there has been a drive to upgrade waste infrastructure, roads infrastructure, energy infrastructure and agriculture.”

The boost in tourism and Ireland’s widely dispersed population are other factors, according to Linehan.

A lack of resources for conservation is an additional reason why these areas are more protected by name than by nature, says senior ecologist at the National Biodiversity Data Centre, Dr Tomás Murray.

“If the laws were fully implemented, everything would be fine,” he explains. “At present, approximately 16.8pc of our landscape is designated for nature conservation. Under the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, that must be 17pc by 2020 so, on paper, we’re pretty close to the international target. Implementation for legislation on those lands is needed but the resources to support conservation objectives for these areas just isn’t there.”

When looking at these figures, it’s also important to note that not all degradation on protected land arises from local activity, says professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin, Yvonne Buckley.

UNDER PRESSURE

The main pressures to habitats are ecologically-unsuitable grazing levels, freshwater pollution, drainage and cutting of peatlands and wetlands, invasive species, forestry and recreational pressures. The habitats of most pressing concern are species-rich grasslands and bogs.

“In the range of peatland habitats and species-rich grasslands, agriculture intensification is a particular pressure,” says advocacy officer with An Taisce, Ian Lumley.

“Land reclamation, drainage, removal of habitats and replanting of those areas with monoculture rye grass for cattle grazing, this all puts increased pressure on these habitats.”

Lumley adds that these factors, coupled with the wider use of chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides are linked to a decline in butterfly, bee and ground-nesting bird species. To resolve these issues, he says, it’s vital that the conflict between governmental plans for environmental protection and agricultural intensification is addressed and that more “area-based strategies” are introduced.

“On one hand you have a plan to protect biodiversity and habitats, on the other you have the cattle herd increasing” he says, noting that the rise is due to current targets for agricultural intensification.

Murray says that while farming can lead to habitat degradation, it can also be the solution to it, provided that farmers are supported. He says there’s a need for “effective agri-environment schemes” which support small-scale farmers to farm sustainably while at the same time, provide incentives for those who farm intensively to leave land to nature.

“In many places east of the Shannon, we have rich agricultural systems that cover large areas of our landscape. It always will be more profitable for farmers there to farm than not farm, so in this case, it isn’t about more sustainable agricultural practices, we need to pay them not to farm. It is this land sharing versus land sparing debate.” Indeed, agriculture is not the only driver of habitat decline. In fact, completely abandoning agricultural land can have negative consequences, notes Buckley from TCD.

“The Burren is the best example where, if traditional ways of farming are dropped because it’s no longer economically-viable, you will get an invasion of hazel into very diverse wildflower meadows. If you have wall-to-wall hazel, it’s not great for biodiversity.”

While our raised and blanket bogs – assessed as ‘bad’ and ‘declining’ in the previous Article 17 report – have been affected by agriculture, and-use, peat-extraction has been a key driver in their decline.

“Some of our peat bogs are very precious in terms of biodiversity so we should be protecting them. But there’s often conflict between people who want to use them for fuel and those who look at conserving them. Conflict can lead to delays in management and even lack of management,” says Buckley.

Meanwhile, the forestry industry and our growing list off invasive species such as Japanese knotweed are also doing damage to our habitats.When it comes to the status of marine habitats, the waters are a little murky. Under the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework directive, Ireland has committed to establishing a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) across 10pc of our seas and coastlines by 2020 but to date, only 2.3pc has been designated, one of the lowest percentages in the EU. In light of this, a motion calling on the Government to act on these agreements was recently introduced and subsequently passed in the Seanad.”Ireland is emerging as being particularly behind on marine protection. Because we haven’t designated protected marine areas yet, we don’t have reporting on areas showing how well or badly we are faring,” says Lumley from An Taisce.

MAKING PROGRESS

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom for our habitats.

Buckley notes some positive sustainable agriculture initiatives, such as the BurrenLIFE and AranLIFE projects, which fund sustainable agricultural management of the priority habitats in The Burren and Aran Islands respectively.

She adds that citizen science initiatives, including bee and butterfly monitoring schemes launched by the National Biodiversity Data Centre, have proven beneficial as they help to increase the public’s appreciation of the natural world.

Additionally, there has been some movement in the area of bog protection and restoration. Lodge Bog in Kildare is one example of a good news story.

“Lodge Bog was given to the Irish Peat Conservation Council in the early 2000s by Bord na Móna. It had been drained but not cut over yet,” says natural environment officer with An Taisce, Elaine McGoff. “Since then, they have blocked all the grounds, used corrugated plastic and put in drains which allowed the water to rise again.

“Because they acted on it as quickly as possible, there are areas of actively growing bog now.”

Now designated as a nature reserve, Lodge Bog has a rich diversity of wildlife with over 388 plants, birds and animals calling it home, including the iconic and endangered curlew.

The Abbeyleix Bog Project is another one of a selection of projects helping with bog protection and recovery, notes McGoff. Another notable step up came in 2015, when €5.4m in EU funding was granted for the restoration of Active Raised Bog in Ireland’s SAC network. This work will continue until 2020.

On another note, Linehan from William Fry says that recent years have seen an improved understanding of our requirements under the Habitats and Birds Directive by planning bodies,.

FORWARD THINKING

It’s clear that human activity in many forms is behind much of the decline of our protected habitats. Rather than abandoning these activities altogether, Buckley from TCD says creating a diverse landscape that melds pockets of these activities with untouched habitats is the way forward. Another way of helping our habitats is by introducing public payments for ecosystem services.

“These areas provide people with clean water, water filtration, beauty, clean air, and health benefits,” she says. “If we want those benefits, we do need to pay for them, either through taxes or direct payments.”

Directly engaging the public in nature is another step forward that we can make, says Murray from the National Biodiversity Data Centre, who says that environmental education should not just be focused on those of school age.

“There has to be a much broader education resource that can get people outside to teach people about Irish wildlife and encourage them to become interested.”

Engagement will also lead people to consider environmental issues when voting, continues Murray, who says that overall, nature conservation is not a priority for the Irish voting public. Finally, he suggests expanding or adding to our existing nature reserves.

Along with the aforementioned government actions, Lumley also suggests some practical actions that can be taken by members of the public. These include joining local conservation groups and Tidy Towns initiatives, making your garden wildlife-friendly by reducing chemical usage and moving towards a more plant-based diet.

However, more resources for environmental protection are what’s truly needed.

“All of this is futile unless we take the protection of nature seriously and we resource that protection more effectively, both legally and financially, as well as equally,” says Lumley.

Murray agrees, saying that our environmental problems are not due to lack of knowledge, but a lack of resources.

“For me, there’s little you can do without resources for conservation in Ireland,” echoes Buckley.

‘No one is leading farmers on this’

With the right knowledge and ­resources, Donal Sheehan believes farmers can serve as friends of the environment.

Driven by his passion for nature, the Cork-based dairy farmer has incorporated various measures such as bird feeders, rainwater harvesting systems and pollinator corridors into his farming practice.

Sheehan notes that a lack of both knowledge and financial incentives can serve as barriers to some farmers who want to move to more sustainable practices.

“There is a huge appetite from farmers. They want to do it, but there’s no one leading them,” says Sheehan, who is based in Castlelyons.

One way he hopes to tackle this issue is through locally-led projects. Sheehan is currently the project manager of the BRIDE (Biodiversity Regeneration In a Dairying Environment) project in the Bride Valley in east Cork.

This project – which was selected by the Department of Agriculture and the EU under the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) funding programme – rewards farmers who protect important wildlife habitats on their farmland, such as hedgerows, bogs, woodland and ponds.

Over a five-year period, the wildlife on these farms will be assessed and farmers will be rewarded on a unique results-based payment system, i.e. one that sees higher payments for higher wildlife gains.

The project, which is one of our first to focus on intensive farmland, was designed by local farmers for local farmers.

“This is for habitats, species and people in the Bride valley. If farmers can focus on their own immediate area, you will get better buy-in from others as it’s local and people will feel the effects locally,” he says, adding that much of the farmland by the Bride riverbank is an SAC (Special Area of Conservation).

“This is one way we can solve the many environmental issues.”

(First published in the Irish Independent Review on July 15 2018. Available online at: https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/what-lies-beneath-protected-habitats-under-pressure-37112290.html)

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High temperatures send bats swooping in – Irish Examiner, July 2 2018

Bats are harmless and benevolent. Amy Lewis presents a beginner’s guide to spotting these wonderful creatures in Ireland.

As darkness descends on another long summer’s day and we tug our curtains shut, a group of unique creatures are just beginning to emerge in every county across Ireland.

They can eat up to 3,000 insects in one night, have been found to defy some of the usual processes of ageing and have echolocation so finely tuned that they can navigate around a single strand of hair.

While they might sound like something from a sci-fi novel, they’re actually something we are all familiar with: Bats. Ireland is currently home to nine resident species of bat and summer is the ideal time to witness them in action.

“In summer, bats are not long out of hibernation, while it’s also reproduction season. This makes it peak foraging time for them,” says Megan Power, PhD research fellow at the Laboratory of Molecular Evolution and Mammalian Phylogenetics in UCD.

“The weather we’ve been having is ideal for them too. If the weather is good, insect populations will be high.”

Our most common bats are the common and soprano pipistrelles and the Leisler’s bat, also known as the Irish bat as Ireland is a stronghold for the species. Regardless of your location, Paul Scott of Dublin Bat Group and Bat Conservation Ireland says bats are easily found.

“The best place to spot them is somewhere with water and not too much street lighting, so perhaps by canals or in public parks. To see larger numbers, large lakes or canals are best,” says Paul, who adds that anywhere with trees or waterbodies attracts them due to the availability of insects. “The time to look for them is just after sunset.”

When it comes to choosing between rural and city living, bats aren’t fussy. In Dublin, places such as Phoenix Park, and the banks of the Dodder and Tolka rivers are popular bat-spotting sites, while Paul has even witnessed them flying above O’Connell St.

“You find them in strangest of places. They’re not at all bothered with people.”

Bat populations in Ireland can generally be described as stable, according to Dr Tina Aughney of Bat Conservation Ireland, adding that we must be cautious when saying this.

“Bats are very slow reproducing animals and only have one baby per year. You need to get about 25 years worth of data to see what is happening with them before you can really say something about their populations.”

To help in the conservation of Irish bats, Bat Conservation Ireland currently manages four main monitoring schemes: The car-based bat monitoring surveys, the brown long-eared bat roost monitoring scheme, lesser horseshoe bat roost monitoring and the all-Ireland Daubenton’s bat waterways survey. They place a great emphasis on citizen science and offer free training to members of the public who wish to get involved. The waterways survey, which takes place each August, is their most popular.

“We have up to 200 people participating each year. Along with learning to spot various species of bat, it’s great for seeing other wildlife such as badgers foxes and owls,” says Tina.

Volunteers can participate in one of the many two-hour training courses nationwide in July. The survey itself sees every team monitoring ten spots along a one kilometre stretch of waterway, each one for four minutes each. Bat Conservation Ireland will loan bat detectors — devices that pick up ultrasound and convert it to an audible sound — to anyone taking part.

People can also take smaller steps in their locality to help in bat conservation, by erecting a bat box, planting night-scented plants and reducing the amount of light in their garden and community. Additionally, they can take part in a bat walk held by one of the many local bat groups nationwide. Paul currently leads the Dublin Bat Group walks.

“Although it’s a night-time activity, you would be surprised at the number of kids there. Kids will be there until 11pm. because they’re fascinated by bats. When you start to tell anyone the facts, they become fascinated too.”

Paul tries to kick off the walks by dispelling some of the myths about bats. They are more closely related to humans and primates than rodents. Contrary to common belief, bats aren’t blind and they don’t get caught in people’s hair or spread rabies.

“Everyone is afraid of things that creep around in the dark,” he says. “For a long time, people didn’t know much about bats because they’re harder to study so people generated myths around them.”

The true facts about bats are as astounding as the myths. Earlier this year, a team of UCD researchers discovered one reason why certain species of bats have extraordinarily long lifespans relative to their small size. By focusing on telomeres — structures at the end of chromosomes that usually shorten with age and lead to cell breakdown — they found that some species of bat retain long telomeres throughout their lives. Through her research, which is funded through an Irish Research Council Scholarship, Megan is building on these previous findings.

“I’m trying to discover whether bats are regulating their telomeres during stressful life events,” she explains, adding that some bats have been found to live to 41 years of age.

While bats may help scientists to unlock some of the secrets about ageing, they also play other useful roles. “They are a bio-indicator meaning they are good indicators of how healthy our environment is,” says Paul. “Bats are an extremely vital part of our ecosystem,” adds Megan. “They help maintain and regulate insects. They provide key ecosystem services worldwide through the pollination of plants and crops.”

“I always encourage people to have a look at the many species of bat and the different things they do. I may be biased but I think they’re beautiful.”

More information can be found on the Bat Conservation Ireland Facebook page or website.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on July 2 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/high-temperatures-send-bats-swooping-in-852307.html)

Is it okay to remove Cowbird eggs from host nests? – Audubon.org, June 6 2018

It can be tempting to interfere with these brood parasites. But there are many reasons—legal and behavioral—to leave them alone.

No parent appreciates another meddling in their child-rearing efforts. Unfortunately for many songbirds in North America, meddling is the Brown-headed Cowbird’s modus operandi.

The species is our best-known brood parasite—organisms (like some birds, insects, and fish) that rely on others to raise their young. In birds, this typically describes a species that lays its eggs in a host’s nest and lets that other parent do the chick-raising, often to the detriment of the host’s own offspring. Cowbird chicks don’t directly harm their nestmates (by pushing them out of the nest, for instance, like some cuckoo species), but tend to grow faster and outcompete them for resources.

Due to a perceived sense of injustice, cowbirds are often vilified by humans, who occasionally take matters into their own hands by removing cowbird eggs from nests. These are usually well-intentioned attempts to “save” the chicks of other species—but is it a good idea to allow people’s drive to nurture interfere with nature?

The short answer: no. “The best solution is to leave cowbirds eggs alone,” says Steve Rothstein, Emeritus Professor of Zoology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has researched the effects of cowbird parasitism on endangered species. “It’s a natural process and we shouldn’t attach human values about killing or being sneaky to the natural world.”

The reasons are multifold, and encompass both the law and unintended consequences.

U.S. law already says that people should not interfere with cowbird eggs. As a native species, the Brown-headed Cowbird is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and taking eggs is illegal without a permit. While permits for cowbird control have been granted, it’s only done when they’re considered a threat to endangered birds. For example, in Michigan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service traps an average of 4,000 cowbirds every year to protect endangered Kirtland’s Warblers.

The law is only one reason to leave eggs untouched, Rothstein says; interference can have unintended effects. That’s because “most birds in North America don’t have egg-recognition abilities”—often not even for their own eggs. However, parents do keep track of the total mass of eggs in their nest. “Many seem to assume the cowbird egg is part of their clutch and will have a nest-desertion response if we remove a certain proportion of eggs,” Rothstein, who has examined this behavior in his research, says. They may even desert the entire area and find a new nesting spot.

“This response is universal among birds, as they have the option to re-nest,” he continues. “However, if it’s late in the breeding season, the bird might not have time to.”

Worse, egg removal can result in retribution by cowbird parents. A 2007 study, led by avian ecologist Jeffrey Hoover with the Illinois Natural History Survey, was the first to document what’s known as “mafia behavior.” In the experiment, scientists observed the effects of removing Brown-headed Cowbird eggs from parasitized warbler nests. In 56 percent of cases, cowbird mothers returned and ransacked the nest, destroying most or all eggs. Comparatively, six percent of nests were destroyed when humans didn’t interfere.

While no additional research has confirmed this behavior in Brown-headed Cowbirds, it highlights “a potential further complication to removing cowbird eggs,” says Matthew Louder, who studies cowbird brood parasitism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For Louder, the only instances where cowbird egg removal is justifiable is when it’s legally conducted to help one of three endangered species: Golden-cheeked Warblers, Black-capped Vireos, and Kirtland’s Warblers.

“Cowbirds aren’t the main reason for their decline, and probably not even a great contributing factor. The only factor in the decline of these species is humans,” he says. “Now numbers are so low that any other problems [such as brood parasitism] would push them over the edge.” If cowbird control is permitted, Louder says it must be done alongside habitat restoration measures.

Rothstein agrees that cowbird control and habitat improvement must go together. “Cowbirds have been in North America for a million years,” he says. “If a species needs help, it’s because we have damaged their habitat. Any species that would go extinct just because of cowbirds and not human interference would have gone extinct long ago.”

All this evidence points to a single conclusion: Cowbird eggs should be left alone. It can be disturbing to observe what looks like “cheating” at the expense of less common species—but it’s just nature’s way, even if it’s ugly. Sarah Winnicki, an avian ecologist at Kansas State University, has found a way to adjust her own perspective on the species to avoid moralizing their behavior.

“I try to convince people about how amazing [cowbirds’] evolutionary story is,” she says. “How did they learn to find nests, to lay eggs, and to re-find them later? How do they learn to time their reproduction to their hosts? As an ornithologist, this is incredible to me.”

(First published on Audubon.org on June 6 2018. Available online at: https://www.audubon.org/news/is-it-okay-remove-cowbird-eggs-host-nests)

Swimming against a plastic tide -Village Magazine, May 2018

Along Ireland’s coastline, you’ll encounter long sandy stretches and wild seas crashing against craggy coastlines. Yet, if we care to look under the surface – literally – it’s clear our seas and coastal habitats are not quite as pristine as would appear.

The global issue of plastic pollution has recently come to the fore, amplified by David Attenborough’s series Blue Planet II. According to a study by the US National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis Working Group, roughly eight million tonnes of plastic enter the world’s oceans from land, annually; a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted that there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.

Ireland apparently became one of the best EU performers for plastic recycling, though most of it has been treated in China where it is difficult to track, and which has now stopped taking European waste. We’re also the EU’s top producer of plastic waste, producing 61 kg per person annually. When not disposed of responsibly, this plastic can cause significant environmental destruction.

While difficult to form statistics on the quantity of plastics in Irish seas, the founder of Coastwatch Europe Karin Dubsky says we have an inkling on the extent of the problem.

“Through coastal surveys, we can see improvements in certain areas, for example there’s less pollution from oil and sewage. However, other problems seem to be persistent. Plastic drinks bottles continue to be the most widely distributed item found on Irish coasts`’, explains Dubsky. “The amount of coastal cleaning has increased but the baseline number of plastic bottles we find remains greater than in countries that have a deposit return scheme. Without this, we rely on telling people not to throw bottles and on cleaning up after those who do”.

Indeed, over 8,800 plastic drinks bottles were counted across 535 sections of Irish coastline in the thirtieth annual Coast- watch survey in 2017 – along with 4,867 cans, 988 plastic bags and over 1,100 tyres – some of which had formerly been used for peeler-crab traps. Inevitably, much of this waste will be swept in and out with the tides if not collected.

Plastic pollution isn’t solely a result of littering. Coastal landfill sites are falling victim to erosion, resulting in leakages of hazardous waste into the sea.

“At the old landfill site in Bray for example, the sea has been causing approximately 1.5 metres of erosion annually. We need these sites to be very secure to prevent this from happening”, says Dubsky. She adds that while a decision has now been made to appoint consultants to place rock armour at the Bray site, it would be more appropriate to remove the ‘band of waste’ altogether.

“It’s mind-blowing how slow it is for action to be taken”. Waste also ends up in our oceans as individuals take coastal erosion management into their own hands.

“We have no national erosion management policy so people decide to do their own thing. They put all kinds of litter in front of their homes but because the area is at risk from erosion, the sea takes it away”, says Dubsky.

Lack of policy surrounding the environmental impacts of new materials and products is having a detrimental effect. “We need a proper screening process so clever ideas don’t go to the market without being screened to ensure they aren’t going to create another litter problem”, she suggests. “Pontoons are one example. The cheapest way to make pontoons is using polystyrene with a concrete surface. During Storm Emma, polystyrene was released from pontoons in Holyhead following a breakage. From April 14 onwards, it has been arriving on our shores”.

Discarded fishing gear, known as ghost fishing gear, is also an environmental concern. According to a recent report from World Animal Protection, it kills over 136,000 seals, sea lions and whales every year, in addition to millions of birds, turtles and fish. An estimated 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are left in oceans annually.

In the coming months, the Ghostfishing foundation will collaborate with local divers and stakeholders to remove discarded fishing gear off Irish coasts. Nic Slocum from Whale Watch West Cork is involved with the project.

“We decided it was important to first find out the extent of the problem”, explains Slocum. “We went to a number of dive companies and they told us that the extent of ghostfishing is not that great along the south coast here. Ghost-fishing is a greater problem further offshore on much deeper wrecks”.

As diving to such depths is challenging and requires specialist skills, the project is currently slightly delayed as organisers assess how they can run it in the safest and most effective manner.

For now, Slocum continues to take part in clean-ups and informs visitors about the environmental dangers of plastic. He has seen it first-hand, recalling incidents of seals getting caught up in nets and a recent occasion when he was alerted to a young whale trapped in fishing gear.

“We do see evidence [of harm from marine waste]: I can’t say daily or weekly but, when we do see it, it’s significant. For example, that whale would have starved to death if we weren’t able to free it”.

Internal harm is less obvious. As Ireland doesn’t have a facility to conduct post-mortems on large marine mammals, it’s impossible to know whether whales washing up on Irish shores have died as a result of plastic ingestion. However, worldwide studies suggest that this could be the case for some of our species, according to Slocum.

“Sperm whales are very prone to plastic ingestion. They feed on squid and often mistake plastic bags for food. Post-mortems have been done on many sperm whales around the world and it has been shown they are full of plastic. There’s no reason why it would be different here”.

While visible waste in our oceans is of great concern, an equally pressing but perhaps more difficult issue to tackle is that of microplastics. This refers to small plastic particles less than five millimetres long that although virtually invisible, can harm marine life. They’re created from the breakdown of larger plastic items, while they also originate from plastic fibres in clothing or microbeads in cosmetic products. Recent research from scientists at NUI Galway showed that 73 per cent of deepwater fish surveyed in the northwest Atlantic had ingested microplastics. The identified microplastics were mostly fibres and their potential sources include microfibres shed from clothes during washing. Lead author of the research Alina Wieczorek says that their studies are continuing as they endeavour to determine secondary effects of this ingestion.

“We have these plastics in our system now, and no way really of taking them out. In fact, it may get worse at first as larger plastics continue breaking down”, says Wieczorek. “The main thing to do is to stop them from entering the environment and move towards a more sustainable society”.

Introducing a deposit return scheme for drink containers and mandatory Environmental Impact Assessments for new products and materials are some larger moves that can be made, according to Dubsky, who also says concerned individuals can speak to politicians, participate in coastal clean-ups and utilise the Coastwatch Microlitter App. Meanwhile, Slocum believes that targeting plastic producers and supermarkets and ‘making plastic their problem’ is key.

This is precisely what happened through a recent ‘Shop and Drop’ day organised by Friends of the Earth and VOICE Ireland. This encouraged people to leave plastic packaging in supermarkets to highlight the need for businesses to act.

According to Coordinator of VOICE Mindy O’Brien, the campaign was a great success and just one of the many ways that individuals can play their part. Ditching single use plastics, buying goods with less packaging and voicing concerns to politicians are others.

“People are getting better with recycling at home; the government needs to bolster our infrastructure so that we can recycle on the go”, she adds.

Looking ahead, Dubsky is hopeful, particularly considering the European Plastics Strategy from the EU Commission; this promises that all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, that consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and the intentional use of microplastics will be restricted. O’Brien believes that we are making good strides in reducing plastic consumption but worries about historic damage.

“There’s so much in there now, how do we get that out?” she says. “The legacy issue is enormous”.

“We have known about this for twenty years and haven’t done anything about it. There is a movement and greater awareness now but unfortunately, an awful lot of damage gets done before change happens”, adds Slocum.

(First published in Village Magazine, May 2018. Also available online at: https://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2018/05/swimming-against-a-plastic-tide/)

How to cut costs now to travel later – Zafigo.com, May 29 2018

Being unable to afford to travel is one of the most common issues you hear from those dreaming of an exotic getaway. True, most of us can’t afford to quit our day jobs for a life on the road, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore the world. With a bit of budgeting and a few small sacrifices, even those with the lightest of wallets can bring their faraway fantasies to life.

Cut out (expensive) coffee

Buying takeaway coffees isn’t only bad for the environment, it also chips away at your bank balance. With a basic coffee in a café chain costing at least RM10 (approximately USD2.50) in Malaysia, a daily cup of the black stuff will amount to a minimum of RM3650 (approximately USD918) in a single year.

At time of writing, that can score you return flights to New Zealand, with some change to spare! If you still need your coffee – and most of us do – swap trips to coffee chains for a brew at a food court or kopitiam (traditional coffee shop). Better yet, buy a reusable flask and have home-brewed java on the go.

Ditch the gym

Before you use this as an excuse to morph into a couch potato, hear me out. Exercise is a key component of maintaining optimal physical and mental health, so by no means should you give it up entirely. After all, you want to be ready to tackle those holiday hikes right? However, gym memberships can be extremely expensive and by cutting it out in favour of more cost effective forms of exercise, you can rake the bucks back in.

YouTube has a whole host of channels offering free fitness classes, from yoga to Zumba to circuit training and everything in between. Those who tend to drive to their gym will also save on fuel money, toll and parking.

If working out in the great outdoors is more your thing, no problem. Activities such as walking, running and swimming in nature are extremely beneficial forms of exercise. Grab a friend and a bottle of water, and get moving!

Seek out deals

You needn’t put life on hold now just to save for life in the future. Saving certainly involves cutbacks, but you don’t need to sacrifice everything you love and enjoy. It’s all about making smarter choices, not neglecting yourself.

For those who love monthly massages or regular trips to the hairdresser, seek out monthly in-house deals or discounted sessions offered by practicing students. If eating out in good restaurants is what makes you tick, take advantage of early bird deals or share a large main with a friend. Books and clothes can be bought online or at flea markets, which has an added environmental benefit as well as a financial one.

It’s also worth keeping a close eye on sites like Fave, that offers deals on practically everything in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Stay in

Staying in is the new going out, didn’t you hear? Perhaps not, but by opting to socialise in somebody’s home rather than at a restaurant or bar, you’ll certainly decrease your weekly spending.

Giving up your thrice-weekly lunch – not to mention coffee, dinner and drink – dates with friends may feel like the ultimate sacrifice now, but you’re certainly not going to regret it when boarding a plane in a few months. So why not tell the gang your intentions and kick-start regular social gatherings at home?

Pot luck dinners are a fun way of enjoying a feast without it costing the earth. The fact that everyone brings a dish means that you’ll always get to try something new and also, that not just one person is slaving away in the kitchen. Coffee dates, cocktail nights, cosy movie evenings and karaoke sessions can also be replicated at home for a fraction of the cost.

Sell online

As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Most of us are likely to have some clothes, CDs, sports equipment, electronics, or all of the above gathering dust in our cupboard after years of underuse. A clear-out is always good for your headspace and your wallet.

Organise a car boot sale to sell some of your old items, otherwise, avail of one of the many online platforms allowing you to do so. You won’t earn a fortune, but every little helps. Just try not to be an overly-sentimental hoarder when looking through old things.

Budget

Examining exactly what you spend in a month may be a shocking and painful task, but it’s a key part of your savings plan. Determine the amount you require for essentials such as rent, food and transport, add in an allowance for some treats and emergencies to keep you sane and you have your budget. Be strict with yourself and put anything outside of this directly into a separate account to avoid temptation.

(First published on Zafigo.com. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/how-to-cut-costs-now-to-travel-later/)

Asia’s best summertime festivals – Zafigo.com, May 16 2018

It’s already halfway through the year, and if you haven’t been to a festival yet, it’s time to get organising! Over the next three months, countries across the continent will spring to life as music, cultural, and food festivals kick off. With so many to choose from, and something for every preference and budget, here’s a taster of what’s out there:

Music magic

For many of us, festivals mean just one thing: Music. There’s nothing better than hearing your favourite band live in the great outdoors while chilling with good friends. Even if you don’t know all of the artists, music festivals give a great opportunity to make some new discoveries.

At the 20th annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia (July 13-15, 2018), you’re bound to do just that, as a wide array of international and local artists will converge in the stunning heart of Borneo’s jungle for the occasion. Acts include Tunisia’s Yallah Bye, and home-grown talent SwarAsia Malaysia, to name a few.

The Fuji Rock Festival (July 27-29, 2018) in Japan has the added bonus of a breath-taking backdrop, with the majestic Mount Fuji presiding over the event’s 10 stages. This year’s event includes some big-name acts like headliners N.E.R.D., Kendrick Lamar, Bob Dylan and Vampire Weekend, while drumming circles, workshops, massages and ‘Cinema Fuji’ will ensure you won’t get bored.

Other top music festival picks are the diverse and fun-filled Good Vibes Festival (July 21-22, 2018) in Genting Highlands, Malaysia, and Bali’s Sunny Side Up Tropical Festival (July 20-21, 2018) in Indonesia which offers the perfect concoction of music, art, and sustainability.

Culture vulture

There are plenty of impressive festivals in Malaysia, and the month-long Georgetown Festival (held every August) in Penang is as good as it gets. A true tourist magnet set in the streets of one a UNESCO World Heritage site, this annual event consistently holds an impressive line-up that showcases concerts, art exhibitions, theatre, dance, storytelling… Need we go on?

Another one for Malaysia, but this time in Borneo and cited as a celebration of the promotion of peace through culture, Sabah’s International Folklore Festival (July 23-30, 2018) in Kota Kinabalu is certainly worth a trip.

Dating back to the ninth century, Japan’s Gion Matsuri Festival in Kyoto (July) is one of the country’s most famous festivals; and for good reason. With origins rooted in an ancient religious purification ritual, and a name stemming from the famous Gion District, this is a must-go if you want to get a taste of traditional Japanese culture during your trip. Festival highlights include a float procession (a series of elaborate floats that often require teams of 50 to pull them), the procession of mikoshi (portable shrines) and  Nagoshi-sai (summer purification ceremony).

Other noteworthy festivals are China’s colourful Dragon Boat Festival (known as Duanwu), centred mainly in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Foodie fests

While most modern-day music and culture festivals offer a diverse range of delicacies – one needs energy for all that partying – there are many events where food takes centre stage. For instance, the Singapore Food Festival which runs from July 13-29, 2018, requires an expandable waistband to allow for all of that feasting! Visitors can gorge on many of Singapore’s best local eats, hear the stories behind the dishes, attend the ‘Fifty Cent Feast’ and test their own skills at cooking workshops before dancing off their dinner to the sounds of local musicians.

Meanwhile, fruit fans can rejoice as the Rayong Fruit Festival in Rayong, Thailand is set to return from June 1-5 , 2018. Dine on a delectable assortment of locally-grown fruits while supporting local farmers in the process. Delhi’s International Mango Festival (July 9 and 10, 2018) is also a good choice for fans of the five-a-day.

Finally, the Mogumogu Festival (short for ‘more goods, more gourmet’ and also known as MoguFes) is a mouth-watering celebration of world foods being held in Hokkaido, Japan from August 5-11, 2018.

Weird and wonderful

There are some things that you have to experience once in your lifetime, and Asia’s festival schedule certainly contains a few things worth putting on the bizarre bucket-list.

The Cheung Chau Buddhist Bun festival (May 19-23, 2018) in Hong Kong is a unique cultural extravaganza that culminates in the Bun Grabbing Contest at midnight on the last day of the celebrations. This sees the construction of a 60-foot tower of buns, up which participants scramble in the aim to collect as many buns as possible. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted!

If you’re not afraid of getting a little bit dirty, the Boryeong Mud Festival in South Korea (July 13-22, 2018) is the place for you! Held near Daecheon Beach, the aim of the event is to embrace your inner child and roll around in the mud through activities such as a giant mud bath, mud body painting and mud prison.

Finally, if you’re in need of a good conversation starter, tell friends you’re heading for the Hokkai Heso Matsuri (belly button festival) in Furano, Japan on July 28 and 29 , 2018. The main highlight of this is the ‘Hokkai belly button dance competition’ that attracts entrants in their thousands, and involves painting large faces on your belly. Local restaurants also get involved in ‘belly button gourmet’ by preparing unique dishes that somehow relate to the belly button.

(First published on Zafigo.com on May 16 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/asia-summertime-festivals-2018/)

Smart farming boosts income and helps planet at the same time – Irish Examiner, May 3 2018

In an ever-changing climate, we must adapt to keep up. Farmers are encouraged to do just that by the Smart Farming initiative established in 2014, while at the same time boosting farm returns and helping the planet.

Led by the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Smart Farming programme allows individual farmers to identify where they can cut costs and, in turn, reduce their environmental impact.

To date, 1,900 farmers have engaged with this programme, which focuses on eight key areas: Soil fertility, grassland, energy, water, feed, inputs and waste, machinery, and time management.

The programme is co-ordinated with the help of expertise from bodies including Teagasc, the EPA and the SEAI, to name a few.

“The lead and the drive on this came from the work of the IFA environment and rural affairs committee, at a time when there was an adversarial debate around climate change and greenhouse gases in Ireland. This was a genuine effort on their part to get involved in a positive way with the environment, and make a direct impact on their income,” says IFA Smart Farming programme manager Thomas Ryan.

The key objective of the programme is to identify €5,000 in cost savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5-7% per farm, on average.

This goal has been exceeded. In 2017, average cost savings identified on participating farms totalled €8,700, the average greenhouse gas emission reduction was 10%.

According to Ryan, most cost savings were made in the area of soil fertility, and the largest savings were seen on dairy farms.

“Forty-seven percent of the cost savings came from getting soil fertility right. In Ireland, almost two thirds of soil are classified as nutrient-hungry. The point we were able to demonstrate was that you can decrease your concentrates bill and increase grass growth by improving soil fertility. This may require an initial investment, in liming for example, but what we are able to show is the value in that investment.”

Meanwhile, increasing genetic merit through Economic Breeding Index (EBI) was identified as being the most effective measure for reducing greenhouse gases.

Although actions and results are unique to each farm, the initial Smart Farming procedure is the same. Each participating farmer receives a Resource Efficiency Assessment (REA) of their farm, which identifies potential cost savings. This is conducted by a qualified agronomist who, as well as evaluating farm data submitted by the participant, completes a farm walk with the farmer in order to gain a more complete understanding of management practices. Following this, a draft REA is drawn up recommending appropriate cost-saving changes.

A carbon reduction strategy for each farm is also developed, using a Carbon Navigator tool developed by Teagasc and Bord Bia; This provides an estimate of greenhouse gas emission reductions that can be delivered. Soil, water and silage tests are conducted, while feed management strategies are also usually recommended.

For the whole process to be a success, the complete co-operation of each farmer is key. Along with submitting a long list of documents including home and farm electricity bills, soil sample results and silage test results, participants must commit to passing on their knowledge.

“It’s quite innovative how this is working,” says Director of the EPA’s office of environmental sustainability Dr Eimear Cotter. “The farmer signs up, completes a farm walk, and identifies some improvements they might be able to bring in. The interesting part is, then, the farmer commits to sharing his or her experience with others.

“This peer-to-peer learning is quite different from anything else out there, but many environmental challenges are quite complex. Trying to effect change and action is going to require different ways of doing things”

The intention is that effective smart farming techniques will roll out through the wider agricultural community through word-of-mouth.

While not affiliated with the initiative, programme leader for the BSc in Agriculture at Waterford Institute of Technology and lifelong farmer Dr Tony Woodcock praises its approach.

“A huge amount of farmers are custodians of the environment. They care about it, and care about what they pass on to the next generation. You can also always say they will care about the profit of their farm. So the low-hanging fruit are changes where you are going to be environmentally-friendly and profitable at the same time.

“These programmes works much better than having an academic present a research project. That will go so far. It’s not that farmers don’t believe the research, but they’re more likely to engage if they see somebody they know who has made changes and saved money.”

While one method may prove beneficial on one farm, it may not on another.

This variability is what makes it difficult to recommend blanket agricultural changes across the country, according to Woodcock.

Affirming that there is “no silver bullet” when it comes to reducing costs and environmental impact, he says that the best thing a farmer can do is to educate themselves as much as possible about their own farms.

Irish farmers appear eager to do just that. The limit of 50 participants for this year’s Smart Farming programme was easily reached, with many more on the waiting list for 2019. It’s envisaged that up to 65 farms will participate next year. And many more farmers will engage with the programme as a result of peer-to-peer learning.

As the network of participants in the Smart Farming programme expands, so too does the scope of its plan. This year, the areas of nutrient planning and water management will be added to the current themes. Biodiversity will also become a key part of the initiative. The initial stage will see IFA working together with Teasgasc, UCD and the National Biodiversity Data Centre to create a shared understanding of biodiversity, and what it means in the farming context. Biodiversity priority areas will be agreed, and recommendations will then be incorporated into the existing programme.

While there is no end in sight for the initiative, there are certainly long-term ambitions. “The goal is to continue to demonstrate the real tangible effort that farmers are willing to make themselves to contribute to the sustainable development of the sector,” says IFA Smart Farming Programme Manager Thomas Ryan.

Ultimately, it’s hoped that sustainable practices will become embedded into common practice on farms, says the EPA’s Dr Eimear Cotter.

In Ireland, we have committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 2005 levels, by 2020; and agriculture accounts for 32% of our emissions.

Though it’s widely acknowledged that we will miss our target, could the Smart Farming Initiative help us to move in the right direction?

“If we get profit before scale right, we will continue to improve efficiency, and hopefully will decouple the link between size of herds and increased environmental impact,” says Ryan. “I’d like to think Smart Farming will play a part [in meeting our goals] alongside other programmes out there.”

Cotter echoes these sentiments.

“It’s going to require a build-up of lots of initiatives. Smart Farming is a part of that where we are looking at long-term behavioural changes but it won’t provide all of the answers. It’s one measure that we are supporting, along with many others.”

(First published in the Irish Examiner on May 3 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/farming/smart-farming-boosts-income-and-helps-the-planet-at-the-same-time-840692.html)