The big read: Ireland’s record on climate action is among the worst in the world – and our children are about to protest – Irish Independent, March 9 2019

It’s the first day in March and exactly one year since heavy snowfall buried the country beneath a heavy white blanket. Today’s view is a stark contrast. Sun beats down on those basking in St Stephen’s Green park, many of whom are sporting T-shirts in the unseasonably mild weather.

I sit flicking through a book called The Children’s Fire written by author and environmentalist Mac Macartney, who recently visited Ireland to talk on sustainable leadership and reclaiming the future for the generations to come. In the opening chapters, he describes a concept called The Children’s Fire that was shared with him by some Native American mentors. This refers to an ancient pledge which said that, when governing the people, “no law, no decision, no commitment, no action, nothing of any kind will be permitted to go forth that will harm the children”.

Across the globe, it appears that this fire has been extinguished for a long time. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions through activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, agricultural activities and changes in land use are leading to the warming of our planet, and we are witnessing the effects. Last year’s special report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the global temperature rise must be kept below 1.5°C by the end of this century in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. According to the report, achieving this would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.

The threat of climate change is something that today’s youth are acutely aware of and, from the student movement sweeping the globe, it’s clear they’re not willing to stand for inaction. Ireland’s young people are no exception.

The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) 2019 ranked Ireland’s performance on climate action in response to global warming as the worst in the EU and among one of the worst in the world. The report acknowledged that existing climate mitigation efforts will not enable Ireland to achieve either its EU 2020 or 2030 targets domestically.

Outside the Dáil, dozens of young people of all ages stand together in their school uniforms, waving placards and calling on the Government to reverse this trend.

“We’re out of school to make the world cool,” they cry. The protest is part of the Fridays for Future movement, which has seen young people across the globe miss school on Fridays to protest about climate change inaction. Today marks the 14th consecutive week of the Dublin protests.

One of them is environmentalist and blogger Flossie Donnelly (11), who has garnered much attention for her environmental work in recent times. “I’m here today to show the Government and anyone in the world who thinks that we must be in school and not care about the problem, that we do care,” says Flossie, who organises regular public beach cleans around her hometown of Sandycove, Co Dublin.

“It’s our future that we need to fight for and it’s really important that we all fight on this because if it’s just one of us fighting, nobody will take us seriously.”

Also striking is Peter Reid (12) from Dublin 8, who is supported by many of his classmates from St Catherine’s National School.

“Climate change is a big issue and this seemed like one of the biggest ways that children can get involved,” says Peter.

The strikes are not limited to Dublin alone, with others being held in Cork, Kildare, Limerick, Tipperary and elsewhere in recent weeks. Largely inspired by Swedish student activist Greta Thunberg, Saoi O’Connor (16) from Skibbereen began weekly protests outside Cork’s City Hall in January.

“We want international governments to align themselves with the terms set out for them in the Paris Agreement, we want our world leaders to unite behind the clear scientific truths of climate change and take radical action to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels on global average before it is too late,” says Saoi when asked about the young protesters’ motivations.

Momentum is building for this Friday, when pupils across the globe will strike in response to the failure of adults to address climate change. Student-led group School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C) Ireland is encouraging students from around the country to get involved, and says that interest is high.

While saying that he has been aware of and interested in the issue of climate change for several years, group representative Theo Cullen-Mouze says it was Greta Thunberg who inspired him to take more radical action.

Manifesto of demands

“I’m someone who has dreams for the future. These dreams cannot be realised if we don’t take action now because the future will only exist if something is done within the next 12 years,” says the Mayo student. “Sometimes you have to stop looking around for someone else to fix problems. You have to start fixing them yourself.”

The group has published a 15-page manifesto of demands online, covering areas such as public awareness and media coverage, EU elections and Government action. In the case of the latter, the group calls for a “combination of aggressive legislation surrounding fossil fuel usage, a Government-backed complete transition to sustainable energy and a very heavy carbon tax”, stressing that climate action must be taken in a way that does not hinder lower-income families.

“We believe that the issue is no longer about targeting individuals and their actions, but about the Government taking hard action on corporations and the real roots of climate change,” Dublin-based member Beth Doherty (15) tells Review.

“The majority of climate change is caused by corporations, and as such we want to see a GND (Green New Deal) as well as tax breaks for corporations with low emissions. Overall, we want the Irish Government to work towards Ireland becoming a leader in climate action,” she says.

Member of the SS4C group Chaya Smyth (14) from Dublin says the movement gives a voice to young people like herself who cannot vote. Theresa Rose Sebastian (15) echoes this view.

“This has given us the steering wheel to try and make change right now instead of waiting for us to get into government in years to come and make the changes,” says the third-year student from Cork. “We want action so that in the years to come, we can still celebrate and enjoy the life on this earth in a way that we don’t have to be continuously looking over our shoulder to see if we can make it to the next day.”

According to the many young activists, there’s a mixed response from schools and teachers to the March 15 strike. Some schools are fully on-board. Many say they have requested permission from principals to get their school involved and await a response. Others say that regardless of school permission, their parents support their involvement in the cause. Some are not seeking permission at all. While adult support may vary, they all share the same determination to take part.

On a global scale, the movement has attracted criticism from some politicians. A statement from UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesperson criticised the thousands of participants of a February 15 school walkout, saying that their action increased the workload for teachers and wasted lesson time. In New South Wales, education minister Rob Stokes warned students in Australia against participating in the strikes.

Greta Thunberg subsequently labelled such statements as something that “belongs in a museum”.

Fight for the future

The Irish participants seem equally unfazed by any such criticism. “We want to be educated. We want to have that future where we can use our education to the full. But if we don’t take action now for climate change, we might not have that opportunity,” says Theresa.

Beth agrees. “The idea of the strike is that there is no point in going to school to memorise facts if the politicians will not listen to these facts,” she says. “If school is preparing us for a future, we should fight in order to maintain that future and not have it destroyed by the reality of climate change.”

Theo says criticism from the politicians is an “arrogant response” from people who don’t understand the problem and who won’t have to live with the consequences.

“Under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, every human being is given the right to peaceful assembly. I think what we are doing qualifies as peaceful assembly,” he says. “We feel that something is inherently wrong with what is happening now and we don’t see other people doing this for us.”

In Fermanagh, 14-year-old blogger, naturalist and conservationist Dara McAnulty has been working tirelessly to raise awareness about environmental issues, particularly the threats to biodiversity. He recently became involved in the climate strike movement and took part in a school strike alone, leaving his classroom to sit outside in “50-mile-an-hour winds”.

“I had been trying out lots of different methods to try and get people to realise all the devastation that was happening around them. I tried my blog, Twitter, doing stuff round my community and then I just thought, well this is going to make them listen, won’t it?” says Dara, whose blog Young Fermanagh Naturalist was runner-up in the BBC Wildlife Magazine Blogger Awards last year.

“I also wanted to make a wave of realism about climate change with other kids because most of us are not educated about this.”

Dara’s passion for the planet has spurred on his involvement in environmental activism.

“At this point, I don’t see myself as separate from nature,” he says.

“I see myself as a part of nature and it’s all a part of me. I’m not exactly going to want to bring hurt to any part of myself.

“What is happening now is this beautiful giant web is starting to crumble and I can’t actually let that happen. I won’t allow myself to let any more of this beautiful web of life crumble away.”

Dara, whose debut book is set for release in 2020, was invited to speak about environmental and youth issues in the UK Parliament this week.

“They were pretty brave and decided to let me in to speak,” he joked several days prior to the meeting.

Decimation of our planet

With the constant barrage of news about the ­decimation of our planet’s biodiversity and a changing climate, it’s no wonder many people feel disempowered.

However, Ireland’s young ­environmental activists hope to empower other young people and show them that they can make a difference.

“Look into what is already going on. If there are younger people doing things, see if you can get involved there,” says SS4C member Tara O’Neill (14) from Galway. “If there isn’t anything going on, try and get some creative ideas going. Participate in strikes, create your own marches, do whatever you can.”

“Take action in any way you can if you want to ensure a future and habitable planet for yourself, your children and every other living thing,” echoes Beth. “Nothing will ever change if it isn’t challenged.”

For young people interested in the climate action movement, Theo says the best first step is to inform yourself.

“Make up your own mind and don’t let anyone tell you what you should think. Do the research for yourself. Don’t listen to those that say climate change is a hoax. They belong in the same box that we put flat-earthers in,” he says.

“After that, if you’re interested in striking, there’s a number of Instagram and Twitter accounts that you can follow.

“These will provide you with information on the climate strike movement, details, times and locations and so on.”

Dara says that everyone can make a difference and while ‘petrified’ that change won’t happen, he remains hopeful. “There’s always a chance. We’re not at the tipping point yet, though it’s coming and it’s very close,” he says.

“The scientists have the answers that we need. We know what we need to do.

“We have the answers to solving this massive problem and it’s just getting the people who can implement these changes to ­actually listen to sense.”

(First published in the Irish Independent on March 9 2019. Available online at: https://www.independent.ie/life/the-big-read-irelands-record-on-climate-action-is-among-the-worst-in-the-world-and-our-children-are-about-to-protest-37890645.html)

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The buzz around pollination – Irish Examiner, March 6 2019

Bees are under threat in Ireland, but a handful of experts are now marshalling an army of volunteers all over the island to protect these miniature wonders, writes Amy Lewis. The next time you consider swatting away a bee, instead pause to appreciate these miniature wonders. These insects, of which Ireland has 99 species, provide a plethora of benefits to humans worldwide.

Most noted is their role as crop pollinators; of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food supply, 71 are pollinated by bees. Indeed, the honeybee is also responsible for honey production. However, the benefits of bees extend far beyond food, as Dr Úna Fitzpatrick explains.

“Bees also pollinate 78% of the wild plants in the landscape. The countryside would look very different in terms of how attractive the landscape is without them,” explains Dr Fitzpatrick, who is senior ecologist at the National Biodiversity Data Centre and project co-ordinator of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan.

Those wild plants provide the fruits and seeds for birds and mammals so by protecting pollinators, you’re protecting the whole ecosystem. Without them, a lot of other elements of biodiversity would suffer.

One third of Ireland’s bee species — which includes 77 solitary bees, 21 bumblebees and the honeybee — are currently at risk of extinction. Habitat loss and degradation, starvation due to wildflower decline, disease, poisoning by pesticides and other chemicals, and climate change are pushing them to the brink.

Thankfully, efforts are being made to reverse this decline, particularly through the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020 (AIPP). Initiated by Dr Fitzpatrick and Professor of Botany at Trinity College Jane Stout in light of their parallel research, this plan identifies 81 actions aimed at making Ireland more pollinator-friendly.

“We were researching why the decline was happening, we knew what to do about it. You either bury your head in the sand or try to do something,” explains Dr Fitzpatrick.

What started small is now a plan overseen by a 16-member steering group and supported by 90 governmental and non-governmental organisations, including local councils, businesses, and schools. Last year’s mid-term review states that support has exceeded expectations.

Prof Stout says that they’re “delighted and amazed” with this engagement, noting a variety of reasons for its success.

“When we first put the plan together, we had people sign up to the things that we wanted to do,” explains Prof Stout, who in 2018 was one of nine ecologists worldwide to receive a British Ecological Society award for public engagement for her work on bee decline. “They were already committed and engaged at that early stage.” Timing was also key, according to Dr Fitzpatrick and Prof Stout, who recognise the growing public interest in pollinators.

“It’s also very tangible. People see insects and bees in their gardens. They can also appreciate the link between what bees are doing and the food that’s being produced,” adds Prof Stout.

The fact that involvement is simple and not costly is another attractive factor. Chairperson of Clonmel Tidy Towns Martin Behan is one of the many enthusiastic people on board. The group’s simple efforts to benefit bees in the locality soon developed momentum and drew in the wider community, he says.

Planting pollinator-friendly plants such as crocuses and snowdrops, promoting native flowering trees, creating a wildflower garden and apple orchards, reducing mowing, and swapping spraying for manual weeding are some of the many actions they’ve taken. The community efforts, which involved council staff, local businesses, schools and others, hasn’t gone unnoticed; in September, they won the overall national Tidy Towns Pollinator Award.

“It was a whole town effort, that’s what swung it for us.” Even the youngest members of the Clonmel community have played their part through school involvement. “Kids are so interested. We were delighted. They’re the future environmentalists,”said Mr Behan.

Visitors are alerted to the actions through signage.

“We put it up to make people realise that the grass verges and brambles are left there for wildlife.” Behan adds that they’re trying to move away from the idea that “untidy” landscapes are a bad thing.

Bernadette Guest, the heritage officer with Waterford City and County Council echoes the view that a change of mindset is needed. For example, she notes that dandelions — an extremely important food source for bees — are often removed.

“A key thing for bees is to have a good food supply from spring until autumn,” she says. “People welcome spring daffodils, which have no value for bees, but then go and spray dandelions. We need to change this mind-set and see that the dandelion isn’t the enemy.”

Across Waterford, Ms Guest, her colleagues, and many community members have taken aspects of the AIPP on board. For example, a pollinator plan has been devised for the Waterford Greenway, which includes reduced mowing, avoiding pesticides, planting pollinator-friendly plants, and the installation of bee hotels constructed by local men’s shed groups. Dungarvan town and Waterford Nature Park, Kilbarry, are other standout bee havens.

“Many environmental issues are overwhelming, and you wonder how can I do something?” says Ms Guest. “This is something where, once informed, you can go out and achieve something.”

Ken Norton, PRO of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations, says the plan is helping to educate and spread the message about bees. With a variety of threats contributing to bee decline and still more to learn, addressing the problem is a complex issue, says Professor Neil Rowan from Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT).

“If we all come together, scientists, environmentalists and lay people, collectively we will make a big impact,” says the director of AIT’s Bioscience Research Institute, who is independent from the AIPP implementation. He feels that the plan has so far been successful at bringing people and knowledge together. This is being noted elsewhere, with representatives from abroad reaching out to those behind the AIPP for advice.

One of the primary challenges to the plan is limited resources to meet the interest, particularly human resources.

Implementation is shared between Dr Fitzpatrick — who balances it with her work as senior ecologist — and a project officer position which is operated as a job share.

We’re constantly asked to give talks or training days. We have to say no to about 80% of requests which is a real shame.

The plan is chiefly funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which funds resource development, while the Heritage Council and Bord Bia co-fund the project officer position.

The threat of climate change is another issue, as a changing climate can lead to a mismatch between the flowering of the plant and the emergence of pollinators. Making the habitat more pollinator-friendly will allow bees to move around the landscape to seek alternative food sources, says Dr Fitzpatrick.

Prof Stout says they hope to get more people involved, and also determine whether their actions are proving effective through bee monitoring. Additionally, the National Biodiversity Data Centre will trial a farmland pollinator project in Kildare, which has secured €1.26m under the Department of Agriculture’s European Innovation Partnership (EIP) programme.

On a wider scale, there’s a great amount of research going on. For example, Prof Stout and colleagues have commenced a research project looking at the exposure of bees to chemicals such as pesticides and their subsequent effects; she will also soon publish a paper on the economic and societal value of pollinators in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Prof Rowan has teamed up with researchers in the University of Minnesota for ground-breaking research investigating technologies that can mitigate complex parasites and viruses affecting bee health.

 

This partnership has led to an Environmental Protection Agency co-funded PhD in AIT which links in with Maynooth University.

“Whether in their garden or their office, the farm or the golf club, everyone can do a little bit and if everybody did a little bit, it could really help,” concludes Prof Stout.

Training workshops for the All-Ireland Bumblebee and Solitary Bee Monitoring Schemes — citizen science projects run through the Centre — will commence in spring. Those who wish to get involved in this or other aspects of the AIPP can visit http://www.pollinators.ie.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on March 6 2019. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/outdoorsandgarden/the-buzz-around-pollination-908920.html)

Inside the world of coursing – Irish Independent, February 2 2019

On a damp winter morning in Camolin, makeshift signs direct vans and jeeps to an isolated field where many hope to edge closer to their dream. On arrival, the muddy plot already has several dozen vehicles in a row. At almost every car is a greyhound, who waits as coats are fastened, muzzles are secured and pep talks are given. Many – but certainly not all – of the owners are men, and in some cases, families unload dogs from their vans.

It’s the 86th Annual Gorey Coursing Meeting and approximately 100 participants have travelled from around Ireland to attend. Run over two days, it’s one of approximately 90 coursing meetings held during the September to February coursing season. These local meetings are all leading up to the main event, the 94th National Coursing Meeting in Clonmel in February, where the top prize is €40,000.

Of course, dogs aren’t the only animals involved in coursing. On wading towards the coursing field, we catch sight of some of the 66 hares in the hare park which have been netted from surrounding areas in recent weeks.

The Irish hare, an endemic subspecies of the mountain hare, is legally protected at European level and also in Ireland under the Wildlife Acts. Under the same legislation, licences to net hares for coursing meetings are issued to clubs affiliated to the Irish Coursing Club (ICC) by the Department of Culture, Heritage and The Gaeltacht. Eighty-seven licences were issued for the 2018/19 season. While numbers for the ongoing season have yet to be finalised, a total of 5,044 hares were captured for coursing last season according to ICC figures; 5,017 of these were released back into the wild.

The event has already begun. Over a loudspeaker, the names of the next two dogs to course are called. The pair of muzzled dogs are held back by a person known as a ‘slipper’ as a hare is released on to the approximately 320-metre field and allowed to run. Once the hare runs for several seconds, the slipper releases the dogs who bolt after the hare.

The first dog to make the hare change direction – known as ‘turning’ the hare – is the winner. Some courses are relatively quick, with the hare turning and finding its way through the escape into the hare park. Others see the hare zigzag around the field, sometimes into the netting that borders it as it attempts to evade its pursuers.

TRADITION AND TIES

Among the participants today is Leinster representative of the ICC executive committee Glen Healy.

“I first got involved locally with a club in Newbridge. It was tradition there on Stephen’s Day to get out and about and everyone after the Christmas dinner was starving for a bit of air,” says Healy, who has eight dogs competing during the 2018/19 season.

Healy says that his parents are now passionate about coursing, as are his three kids.

For Chairman of the Gorey Coursing Club and owner of today’s venue John Doyle, coursing is also a family affair.

“We used to go to meetings with the four of them [children] in the back,” says Doyle, whose sons and daughters have remained involved in coursing. “Talk about bonding! A sport brings everyone together as a family.”

Secretary of Old Kilcullen Coursing Club and former ICC President Tony McNamee later tells me that he has been involved in coursing since 1960, saying ‘it’s like a religion’. His children and grandchildren also take part. For him, coursing is a past-time that gets him away from work on his farm.

While she no longer enters, Yvonne Harrington still attends approximately 40 meetings a year as a photographer. Originally from England, the family ties, social aspect and unpredictable sport are what initially attracted her to coursing.

“People that course are often doing it from five or six-years-old,” she says. “They go [to meetings] with their fathers, join in on everything and they grow up around it. It’s like a huge social club.”

Another common interest among the competitors is to have a dog qualify for the National Meeting in Clonmel.

“That’s the dream,” says McNamee.

CEO of the ICC D.J. Histon says tradition and the social aspect are major draws for coursing club members, of which there are between 15,000 and 20,000. He adds that some club members don’t enter greyhounds into the meetings but instead, spectate and carry out land maintenance.

“The club may run their meeting over two days but for the other [days of the year], they’re working with farmers, policing preserves where hares have been released and doing their best to deter illegal hunting.”

COURSING CONTROVERSY

For many who haven’t grown up with hare coursing, the idea of it doesn’t sit well. For decades, individuals and organisations alike have been protesting and calling on the government to ban coursing on animal welfare grounds. Hare coursing has been banned in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland since 2010, 2004 and 2002 respectively. The Republic of Ireland is one of three European countries where coursing remains legal, alongside Spain and Portugal.

Although I witness no injuries while in Gorey, that isn’t to say they don’t happen. In the 2017/ 2018 coursing season, 32 hares were injured,​ three of which were euthanized.

In 1993, the late Tony Gregory introduced a Private Member’s Bill calling for a coursing ban. While defeated, it lead to the introduction of compulsory greyhound muzzling during meetings.

However, opponents say this didn’t eliminate cruelty. In 2016, Maureen O’Sullivan introduced another Bill to render hare coursing illegal, which was defeated by 114 to 20 votes.

“Hares are being mauled and tossed and some have to be killed afterwards,” says O’Sullivan when asked about her reasons for the Bill. “That’s not taking into account what happens in the netting of the hares beforehand.”

Many animal welfare organisations have been actively campaigning for a ban including the Irish Council Against Blood Sports (ICABS). Spokesperson Aideen Yourell joined in the 1980s after watching a programme about hare coursing.

“I was just so horrified about this idea of hounds chasing a hare. I thought it was something from the dark ages,” says Yourell. “It’s 2018 now and I can’t believe it’s still going on.”

John Fitzgerald of the Campaign for the Abolition of Cruel Sports views coursing as a ‘completely unnatural’ activity.

“You may have more hares getting knocked about and mauled and injured at one event than another but overall it does happen. Our point is, there’s no need for that.”

The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA) have also been outspoken about their opposition.

“The ISPCA has a policy that we are opposed to the use of animals in sport for such uses contrary to their nature or may involve suffering or may adversely affect their welfare,” says CEO of the ISPCA Dr Andrew Kelly.

Kelly points to the exemption of hare coursing under Ireland’s Animal Health and Welfare Act, saying that such an exemption is recognition that it is cruel.

The ISPCA also views the use of greyhounds in racing and coursing as problematic as dogs are often unwanted once retired. The Irish Retired Greyhound Trust, funded by the Irish Greyhound Board and greyhound owner contributions, partially funds the rehoming costs of dogs and many are rehomed abroad. However, Kelly says they would like to see the industry cover the full costs.

The Irish Wildlife Trust has also expressed its views.

“People are very exploitative of the things that are useful to them,” says IWT Campaign Officer Pádraic Fogarty. “We need to value the hare, as everything else, for its intrinsic value and not exploit them.”

LEGISLATION

The control of hare coursing, including the operation of meetings and managing the use of hares, is carried out under the Greyhound Industry Act 1958 and administered by the ICC. The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht issues annual club licences containing 25 conditions, including a requirement that veterinarians attend all meetings and trials and a prohibition on the coursing of hares more than once a day. Following every meeting, a report must be filed to the NPWS.

Subject to resources, National Parks and Wildlife Service Conservation Rangers attend coursing meetings to monitor compliance. According to the Department, some 35 coursing events were monitored last season. Department of Agriculture vets also attend meetings to make observations; they visited 12 last season. The ICC appoints stewards and executive members to attend meetings.

However, O’Sullivan doesn’t see this as enough.

“When it comes to anything about animal welfare, we have the regulations and the conditions but the other side of that is, we don’t have the staff to enforce them,” argues O’Sullivan. “The bottom line is the cruelty to the animal and the conditions won’t eliminate that.”

CONSERVATION

Replacing hare coursing with lure coursing is often proposed by those against current practice. However, Histon and Healy say that coursing dogs have a different bloodline to track-bred greyhounds and wouldn’t follow a lure.

Either way, Histon says it’s a ‘short-sighted’ proposal. He believes that, if hare coursing is banned, the hare will be a ‘forgotten species’.

“Our organisation is made up of voluntary members who, on a daily basis, are out there ensuring that the habitat is in place for the hare,” says Histon, who also notes their annual Hare Husbandry conferences and the health benefits of clubs deworming and inoculating captive hares.

Club members also help to detect and report illegal hare hunting, adds Histon, who says this is a great threat to hares. Indeed, Kildare Superintendent Martin Walker, who says they generally have a good relationship with licenced coursing clubs, says that illegal hare poaching using non-muzzled dogs is prevalent nationwide and is often associated with ancillary crime.

A 2006 study conducted by Queens University comparing hare abundance in coursing club preserves with the wider countryside is often cited by ICC members. After controlling for variance in habitat, it concluded that hare numbers were three times higher within preserves than the wider countryside. It’s noted that the role of habitat cannot be ruled out.

Lead author Dr Neil Reid is now involved in conducting the NPWS Hare Survey of Ireland 2017-2019. While saying that hare populations tend to fluctuate, their preliminary data suggests that the population is ‘relatively stable’.

However, the conservation biologist doesn’t think research like his 2006 study is useful in informing debate about banning or continuing coursing. While his studies focus on population and conservation, arguments for a ban are centred on individual hares and animal welfare.

“[My studies] don’t really answer the questions the anti-coursing lobby want answered which is about the impact on individual hare welfare. That’s a very difficult question to answer scientifically.”

Further research on stress hormones in coursed hares would be more applicable to the animal welfare debate, says Reid.

Kelly would also like to see this research being conducted.

“I think if research showed [coursing] has a detrimental effect on the hare’s welfare, that would be the evidence we needed to produce a ban.”

MIDDLE GROUND

Histon says the ICC is willing to speak to anyone with ‘constructive ideas around the hare and hare conservation’. Meanwhile, both Healy and McNamee say that they’re happy for anybody to attend a coursing meeting and get a first-hand perspective of what goes on.

However even with this, it is unlikely that anti-coursing campaigners will change their views. It’s clear that both sides see the issue through a different lens and with this in mind, finding a middle ground anytime soon appears impossible.

(First published in the Irish Independent on February 2 2019. Available online at: https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/a-social-club-inside-the-world-of-coursing-37771069.html)

Why planting trees could be bad for Ireland’s hen harriers – Irish Times, November 15 2018

The twists, tumbles and turns of a hen harrier’s sky dance are a spectacle not everyone has been lucky enough to witness in recent times. Yet while it exists only in poetry or memory for many, for others, the species remains centre-stage.

Undertaken by the Golden Eagle Trust, Irish Raptor Study Group (IRSG) and BirdWatch Ireland on behalf of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the fourth and most recent National Survey of Breeding Hen Harrier in Ireland in 2015 estimates that 108 to 157 breeding pairs remain. This represents an 8.7 per cent decline in confirmed and possible pairs since 2010.

Survey data, along with other research and the views of relevant sectors, have helped to inform a draft Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan (HHTRP), which aims to outline actions for securing the bird’s future. Prepared by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in cooperation with three other departments and a stakeholder consultative committee over five years, the draft plan was scheduled for public consultation in October.

However, the IRSG and BirdWatch Ireland – who are on the consultative committee – have expressed concern with the draft in its current form, saying it does not acknowledge scientific research. Chairman of the IRSG Ryan Wilson-Parr says their primary concern is a proposal to consider further afforestation within hen harrier special protection areas (SPAs).

“Habitat loss due to forestry is detrimental to the hen harrier so any further afforestation in protected areas, which already have 52 per cent forestry cover, isn’t going to help the hen harrier at all.”

Hen harriers breed in open, upland habitats including heather moor, bog and scrub. While they can use young conifer plantations for nesting and foraging, as plantations mature and the forest canopy closes, this habitat becomes unsuitable for nesting and hunting. There are also concerns over increased risk of predation for forest-nesting harriers. Forest maturation since SPA designation could explain why there are now more breeding harriers outside SPAs than within them.
‘Appropriate mechanism’
While saying a threat response plan is “an appropriate mechanism to implement effective conservation strategies for hen harrier”, raptor conservation officer with BirdWatch Ireland John Lusby outlines similar concerns about non-native forestry. “In [the draft’s]current form, it leaves the door open for further afforestation and from a conservation point of view, that absolutely cannot happen.”

Both refer to research conducted by UCC, which found that hen harrier breeding success can decrease noticeably when the percentage of second rotation pre-thicket forest in the surrounding landscape is above 10 per cent. Another UCC study concludes that a maximum threshold of 40 per cent total forest cover within the SPA network is required to keep second rotation pre-thicket forest at this level.

Therefore, while forest removal and connecting foraging habitat can be beneficial, Lusby says forestry within SPAs is already too high to consider further planting.

Chair of the HHTRP, Dr Ciaran O’Keeffe of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, says feedback received from all of the players involved in the plan is currently under review.

“What we have to do is work our way through them to do a complete reply to the committee. Where we have things we can do, we will do them,” says O’Keeffe, who underlines the plan must be science-based.

While he says it would be “premature” to comment on individual aspects of the draft version of the plan, O’Keeffe stresses that no submissions will be ignored, whether from landowners or environmental NGOs. However, he does note that the issue is complex and that accommodating everyone’s interests can be difficult.

Indeed, balancing all interests has been a notoriously hard task, as widely highlighted within the agricultural sector.

Since the designation of hen harrier SPAs in 2007, many of the approximately 4,000 farmers with designated land have been outspoken about their grievances. The reallocation of funding originally designated for landowners in Natura 2000 sites, and the later ban on new forestry within these areas, meant that their land was considered worthless.

Shane McAuliffe, who has farmland within the Stack’s to Mullaghareirk Mountains SPA, on the Limerick, Cork and Kerry borders, says farmers like himself have been left with no options. “We have this land and it just sits there, it’s worthless. In the past, I have applied for afforestation grants and it has been declined. We don’t even graze cattle on it, the land is so bad.”

Native forestry
McAuliffe notes the association between non-native forestry and hen harrier decline and says if permitted, he would only consider native forestry.

“I’d love to plant native oak or alder to give a bit of biodiversity to the area,” he says. “We have 20 acres of Sitka spruce on our land and I hate it. You go through it and there’s no wildlife, there’s nothing going underneath the forest canopy, it’s just dead.”

He feels the European Innovation Partnership locally-led Hen Harrier Project may provide hope to both farmers and the hen harrier. While he wasn’t accepted into the first round, he hopes to get into the next.

“What farmers would like to see is that the role that they play in enhancing the environment is properly rewarded,” says Gerry Gunning of the IFA, who’s also hopeful about the new project.

The €25 million pilot project, compatible with GLAS and GLAS + and funded under Ireland’s Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, financially rewards farmers who manage their land in a manner that benefits the hen harrier.

Just under 700 farmers have been offered contracts since it opened in December 2017, with up to 1,200 participants expected by next summer. The project is universally welcomed, though Lusby notes such schemes would provide greater landowner security and conservation benefits if it were long-term.
Discussion around hen harrier conservation isn’t limited to scientists, conservation groups and private landowners. Additionally, habitat change due to afforestation is only one known pressure, alongside agricultural intensification, upland burning, peat extraction, disturbance from wind turbines and illegal persecution, and pressures vary by region.

There’s also still plenty we don’t know. While the focus within SPAs is breeding hen harriers, O’Keeffe and Wilson-Parr both note we need more research on hen harriers in their wintering sites.

Looking ahead and working together is clearly what’s needed to increase hen harrier numbers but whether that’s possible remains up in the air.

Birds in bloom
On a visit to the Slieve Bloom Mountains, it’s quite possible to avoid seeing another being for miles. Forestry extends across the slopes; in fact, it covers 62.8 per cent of the SPA.

Considering what’s known about the hen harrier and forestry, it’s surprising to see in the 2015 survey, National Survey of Breeding Hen Harrier in Ireland, that breeding pairs in this SPA have increased. However, this is likely due to the existence of protected heather moorland habitat, where the majority of pairs have been nesting.

“This SPA has a nature reserve taking up a big part of it so it is managed optimally, whereas in many others, this is not the case,” says O’Keeffe.

Lusby echoes this, saying this SPA should be looked at in isolation.

“In one way, it does show that the population will respond to positive management but it’s not possible to compare like for like.”

(First published in the Irish Times on November 15 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/why-planting-trees-could-be-bad-for-ireland-s-hen-harriers-1.3694928)

Watching from the wings – Irish Examiner, August 13 2018

Just a stone’s throw away from the world-acclaimed Wexford Opera House, it’s easy to get a front-row seat at arguably the best and most diverse show in town. This is a show where nature takes to the stage.

On this summer afternoon, now unfamiliar clouds serve as a slow-moving backdrop while swallows dip and dive over the gently lapping water.

Ducks of various varieties bob along before a heron swoops in from the wings, causing an eruption of squabbles and commotion. Unaware of the fuss, a pair of goldfinches dance and whistle around one another before settling on a nearby swaying branch.

The smell of salty sea air wafts in through the open door. Wind whispers through the reeds. As far as shows go, it’s certainly a feast for the senses.

All of this unravels before the Pump House Hide overlooking Wexford Wildfowl Reserve’s main water channel. It is one of the reserve’s three bird hides – a simple shelter used to observe wildlife at close range without disturbance.

Birdwatching from the hides or the reserve’s elevated observation tower gives people the chance to remain sheltered from the elements while still getting to witness nature’s spectacles. In fact, nature often brings itself even closer.

Next to the wooden bench I’m perched upon is a sign requesting that hide windows are left open, to allow for the resident swallows to return to their nests. Sure enough, a mud-bound dwelling is nestled into the wooden ceiling above my head. In the upper floor of the hide, which overlooks Wexford Harbour, there are several more.

Despite the myriad of activities, Education Officer at the reserve John Kinsella tells me that summer is quiet season. A ‘ballpark figure of 260 species’ have been recorded on the 200-hectare reserve, which is managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and jointly owned with BirdWatch Ireland. Many birds will arrive later this year.

Perhaps the most famous winter residents are the Greenland White-fronted geese, whose expected time of arrival is October.

The reserve welcomes up to 8,000 of the visitors – approximately 45 per cent of the world population – each winter and many birders swoop in to greet them after their long journey.

“The geese have a 15 to 18-hour flight from Greenland to Iceland, their halfway point,” explains John, adding that they stop for four weeks in Iceland before taking the second 18-hour flight to our shores.

“By the time they reach Ireland, they have lost above half a kilo in bodyweight, which is the equivalent of about two stone for us humans.”

This is no issue for Europe’s rarest geese, who replenish their energy stores by feeding up on rye grasses and sugar beet in the following months. The geese remain in Ireland, as well as their other wintering spot in Scotland, before making the journey back to Western Greenland in April.

However, John points out that one individual has decided to stick around a bit longer. From the reserve’s eight-metre high observation tower, a lone goose with a distinctive orange bill can be spied sitting comfortably in a field.

While unsure as to why he remains, John says that the goose is healthy and will likely return to Greenland next year. The influx of Greenland White-fronted geese is an indication that winter is coming, says John. “Cue Game of Thrones music,” he laughs. Until then, there’s still always something to be seen.

From the tower, a group of godwits can be seen prodding in the grass for food with their strikingly-long beaks. Several curlews walk among them, likely migrant birds rather than members of our breeding population, which has declined by 96 per cent since the 1980s.

Little terns, sedge warblers and great-crested grebes are just some of the other birds that can be spotted in summer, while pale-bellied brent geese, Slavonian grebes and great northern divers may be ticked off the list in winter.

The North Slob is also an Irish Hare sanctuary and we spot two on the grass as evening sets in, while at least five species of bat have been recorded here.

In the summertime, the reserve plays host to several events, including the popular weekly pond-dipping and bug discovery activities. This year, a special photography exhibition telling the reserve’s story will be held in the Visitor Centre during Heritage Week in advance of the 50th anniversary in 2019.

While the reserve was officially established in 1969, its history began long before that. The North Slob, where the reserve is located, is a 1,000-hectare mudflat that was reclaimed from the sea for farmland in the 1840’s.

Nowadays, along with being a Nature Reserve, Wexford Wildfowl Reserve forms part of the larger Wexford Slobs and Harbour Special Protected Area (SPA) – a habitat designated under the EU Birds Directive for the protection of endangered species of birds.

The remainder of the North Slob still consists of farmland and the reserve team liaise with local farmers to ensure birds are not disturbed. When the geese arrive, local landowners are subsidised for halting any potentially disruptive agricultural activity on nearby land.

“Goodwill is very high,” says John when asked about cooperation.

Bar the occasional incident with poachers and this year’s heavy snow – more problematic for reserve staff and visitors than birds – John says the reserve has been confronted with few challenges since its foundation. However, they are faced with an issue universal to most environmental efforts: climate change.

Last year, the reserve welcomed less Greenland White-fronted geese than usual. Although ongoing long-term research must be completed to be certain, it’s believed this is a result of climate change.

However, scientists are not yet sure exactly how this affects them or whether the decline will change.

Butterfly walks on the reserve have also yielded less sightings than usual.

Only time will tell what the consequences of our rapidly changing planet will be for birdlife worldwide. In the meantime, staff here will continue to do what they can to protect the many species that call Wexford Wildfowl Reserve home.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on August 13 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/watching-from-the-wings-where-nature-takes-centre-stage-861738.html)

Umbrella Species: Conservation’s Poster Children – The Scientist, August 1 2018

Regardless of how sturdy your umbrella is, someone’s always going to get left out in the rain.

The concept of umbrella species is the central tenet of a conservation strategy that focuses on protecting the habitat of one species in the hope of protecting many others in the same ecosystem. But recent research questions the effectiveness of this strategy. It’s likely that not every species whose range overlaps with that of an umbrella species will benefit—in fact, some may even suffer as a result of the interventions—and conservationists are beginning to call for a revaluation of this conservation approach.

“There’s a misinterpretation of the concept that an umbrella species is going to shelter everything under the umbrella,” says John Wiens, a retired ecologist formerly of Colorado State University who most recently served as chief scientist for a number of conservation nonprofits. “Like all things in ecology, it’s not as simple as it looks.”

study published this May on the use of the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) as an umbrella species illustrates the problem. After three years of ecological monitoring in an area where the sagebrush had been mowed to improve nesting habitat for the sage-grouse, researchers from the University of Wyoming found that two “background” species, the Brewer’s sparrow (Spizella breweri) and sage thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus), fared less well than they would have without the habitat alteration. This was likely due to differences between the species in nest site preferences. While ground-nesting sage-grouse are thought to prefer mowed sites due to the increased availability of food for their chicks, Brewer’s sparrow and sage thrasher nest almost exclusively in shrubs, habitat that was largely wiped out by the mowing. The overall abundance of Brewer’s sparrow remained the same, but the overall abundance of sage thrashers decreased by nearly 50 percent.

“This paper focused on the fact that we don’t always just protect, we often manage the habitat, and that can have unanticipated consequences,” says Jason Carlisle, a former University of Wyoming graduate student and lead author of the study. While not surprised at the results, he hopes that they will encourage others to adopt caution when carrying out habitat management.

We must be honest about what assumptions we make, whether they’re justifiable, and whether they can be examined in advance using data.

—Jason Carlisle, University of Wyoming

Just because it can act as a double-edged sword, however, conservationists shouldn’t throw the umbrella species concept out of the conservation toolbox, says University of California, Davis, behavioral ecologist Tim Caro. Rather, he says, researchers and managers should be aware of the approach’s limitations and critically evaluate its effectiveness in meeting intended goals.

“The heart of the problem is there are always going to be trade-offs,” notes Wiens. “You need to do an analysis of who benefits and who loses, and then you can assess whether the trade-offs are worth it.”

Choosing the best representative

Evaluating those trade-offs depends on what background species are considered. For example, the jaguar(Panthera onca) is often cited as an effective umbrella species for many large mammals across Central America, but smaller critters, such as hares, moles, and shrews, aren’t as well shielded by habitat protections designed to conserve jaguar numbers. Similarly, a study assessing the effectiveness of using the coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) as an umbrella species in British Columbia found that while fish species with similar resource and habitat requirements benefitted, most amphibians inhabiting some of the same freshwater ecosystems as the salmon did not. And Carlisle and his colleagues have found that species with similar habitats and traits to those of the sage-grouse, such as sagebrush sparrows (Artemisiospiza nevadensis),  vesper sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus), and pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis), were protected better than others.

For an umbrella strategy to benefit as many co-occurring species as possible, researchers must choose a species that best represents the ecosystem and all it encompasses. “It’s clear that picking the right umbrella species is key,” says Carlisle, now a biometrician at the environmental and statistical consulting firm Western EcoSystems Technology, Inc. While researchers are still working out what makes a species a good umbrella, there are a few characteristics that conservationists generally aim for, including a large range and ease of sampling. In addition, umbrella species should be sensitive to human disturbances while being unlikely to become endangered or go extinct.

Barry Noon, an ecologist at Colorado State University, suggests adding one more trait. “The umbrella species should be one that uses a diversity of resources or habitat types for different life history stages.” Other scientists have argued for the use of multiple umbrella species, whose spatial, compositional, and functional requirements are different from one another and, collectively, encompass those of all other species in the ecosystem.

Whatever species are chosen, researchers must continue to evaluate their suitability to represent the ecosystem. Noon and his colleagues have demonstrated, for example, that while the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) was initially an effective umbrella in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, after a significant drop in its population—first due to logging of old-growth forest required for nesting, then as a result of the barred owl’s (Strix varia) unexpected invasion—it was no longer a suitable representative of the ecosystem.

“Initially the northern spotted owl was a good umbrella,” says Noon, explaining that this was because it uses forest habitats of varying levels of maturity throughout its lifespan. “Now, if we use the [umbrella] criteria and look at its viability, northern spotted owls are in significant decline,” he says. Rare and declining species are less likely to make effective umbrellas, as they occur in so few locations and are less likely to protect others.

Umbrellas rally support

Taking a step back from the umbrella species concept to focus on simply protecting a large area could be a better approach for wildlife conservation than focusing on one or several species, says Noon. In fact, many of the more successful umbrella studies suggest that focusing on a broad area, rather than the umbrella species themselves, as the reason the conservation efforts proved effective, he notes. Indeed, Caro’s analysis of East African reserves that were established 50 years ago using large mammals as umbrellas suggests that background species have been well protected because most reserves were initially large. Similarly, in a study published last August, Carlisle and colleagues found that priority areas for conservation (PACs) set up to protect the greater sage-grouse in the western U.S. were no more effective than randomly selected PACs of the same size at protecting golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos).

But selecting an umbrella species is often helpful for getting political and social support to protect areas, Carlisle says, noting that focusing on the iconic sage-grouse was what garnered support for the protection of the 70 million acres of the Midwestern grasslands in which it resides. This makes it a “flagship-umbrella” species, meaning that it combines the functions of a flagship species—to promote public awareness and raise conservation funds—with the intended role of an umbrella species, to protect co-occurring species and habitats. Caro argues that such flagship-umbrella species could be a boon to conservation efforts. Indeed, a 2016 study demonstrated that the flagship species the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) could also be an effective umbrella species because its range overlaps with many other endemic species in China.

But the criticism of umbrella species strategies is valid, says Carlisle, and it’s important to be realistic about the approach’s weaknesses and assess what background species need for protection. “We must be honest about what assumptions we make, whether they’re justifiable, and whether they can be examined in advance using data.”

INFOGRAPHIC: CHOOSING THE RIGHT UMBRELLA

Umbrella species are often chosen to represent an ecosystem in need of protection. The idea is that protecting the umbrella species will indirectly benefit habitat and other species in the area. But the strategy has its weaknesses. There are three varieties of the umbrella species concept as coined by Tim Caro in his book Conservation by Proxy—classic, local, and management— each of which is liable to fail if implemented incorrectly or in the wrong circumstances.

Classic umbrella strategy

Assumes that if researchers can protect the area that contains a viable population of an umbrella species, that effort will also maintain viable populations of other species in the area.

Risk: The reserve might not be big enough to cover viable populations of other species of concern.

Example: The jaguar (Panthera onca) served as an effective umbrella species for protecting other large mammals in Latin America but was less effective at shielding smaller animals such as rodents, likely due to differences in the size and scale of their respective habitats.

Local umbrella strategy

Makes no viability assumptions, instead simply assuming that protecting the areas where an umbrella species is present will also protect many other species in the same area.

Risk: Other species of conservation concern might not co-occur with the umbrella species and might therefore be unprotected.

Example: The northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) was found to be a good local umbrella species in the Italian Alps, offering protection for other birds species as well as butterflies and other background species. In northern Japan, however, despite being an effective umbrella for a variety of birds, goshawks were not effective as an indicator of the species diversity of butterflies, beetles, or native forest-floor plants.

Management umbrella strategy

Assumes that planned human management and intervention targeting an umbrella species will benefit a suite of other species in the same area.

Risk: The management actions taken to benefit the umbrella species might harm other species.

Example: In Wyoming, mowing intended to benefit the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) resulted in a higher abundance of vesper sparrows but lower abundance of Brewer’s sparrows and sage thrashers, likely due to differences in land use.

(First published by The Scientist on August 1 2018. Available online at: https://www.the-scientist.com/features/umbrella-species–conservations-poster-children-64507)

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)