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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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)

Stopping animal cruelty in its tracks – Zafigo.com, June 6 2018

Aaron Gekoski is an environmental photojournalist from the UK who has spent over a decade documenting human-animal conflict. He has recently garnered much attention for his photography project which highlights animal cruelty at wildlife tourism attractions in Thailand. He spoke with Zafigo about the issues with wildlife tourism, being a responsible tourist, and his own goals.

Why did you choose to document this in Thailand?

This is a worldwide problem. It’s not just Thailand, it’s happening in [the United States of] America, the UK, and other places in the west too. Thailand seems to be the epicentre [of wildlife cruelty] as a lot of animals are kept in captivity in a country that has non-specific laws regarding cruelty. The Prevention of Cruelty Act isn’t specific on how big a holding area should be, what you should feed animals, what constitutes cruelty, and how an animal should be trained.

There are things like orangutan boxing shows daily. The majority of people are laughing at it and don’t seem to notice anything wrong, but they don’t see behind the scenes and how the animal may be trained, for example. Also, in other places, animals may have been taken from the wild and then have to live the rest of their lives in captivity.

What did you witness on your trip in Thailand?

The boxing orangutan shows were very bad. There were elephant rides being offered at Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo, and the elephants were not in a good state. They were skinny, swaying around and didn’t look healthy. Crocodiles there were in poor conditions.

Pata Zoo has four orangutans, a gorilla, and some chimps kept in filthy small cells at this zoo at the top of a shopping mall. They have no stimulation and [live in] an unsuitable environment. At Phuket Safari ECO+, there was a monkey theatre and elephants being made to perform in small rooms. It’s not happening just in Thailand, I really want to stress that.

Are there some places branding themselves as fair and sustainable but not necessarily abiding by these practices?

It’s quite common for places to greenwash. A lot of places dress themselves up as conservation initiatives. They say they’re all about conservation and about reintroduction, but often, they don’t end up doing it. They are money-making schemes working to the detriment of animals. I’m not anti-captivity; there are many zoos doing good things for conservation. I’m anti-cruelty. That’s the goal of this project, to fight cruelty.

Can you name some wildlife tourism operations worthy of support and others to avoid?

In Thailand, Wildlife Friends of Thailand are doing amazing things and have an excellent reputation. Safari World [Bangkok] is the glitziest, the most Disney-fied. What we witnessed was orangutan boxing and a morbidly obese orangutan who sat in a holding area that was much too small, begging for food. It doesn’t fill you with much hope when at the most high-end attraction you witness some of these shows and alarming situations. Phuket Zoo wasn’t great either, and Pata Zoo has had a lot of bad press also.

On the other hand, places like Houston Zoo and London Zoo put a lot of money into conservation. I used to live in London and visit London Zoo. Seeing animals up close inspired me to get into this industry. Most people don’t have access to these animals, so zoos and aquariums are important, but they must be done responsibly. If they can’t be, they shouldn’t be allowed to operate.

Did you have any difficulty getting these shots?

I just paid for tickets and filmed animals as I found them. This is all imagery that’s available and open to the public at any time. Those cage images weren’t behind the scenes, these are conditions animals live in.

I don’t want to speculate, but everything I hear about how these animals are kept and trained is bad. For example, elephants go through something called the crush, which is the most horrific form of animal abuse possible. They are literally beaten; their spirits are broken by handlers and they’re beaten until completely submissive.

What reactions have you had to your project?

I’ve seen the worst sides of humanity, and on the back of this, also seen some of the best. People have been donating; someone’s buying me a new camera and a guy is building me a site for free. The idea is to set up a platform so people can flag certain operations. It’ll be called Raise The Red Flag. People can log on to the website and make a report with photos. Once there are enough reports, we will speak to relevant authorities and try to make as much noise as possible.

Do you have any tips for those when choosing wildlife-related tourism options?

That’s why I’m setting up this platform, because there isn’t enough info out there. In general, if it involves animal shows and performances, there’s a red flag there right away. I don’t think animals should be made to perform for people because the way animals have been treated in order to make them perform is quite worrying. You can always do research on a place you are going to, check whether they have conservation initiatives, look at TripAdvisor and find out where they got the animals from.

(First published on Zafigo.com on June 6 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/stopping-cruelty-in-its-tracks/ )

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/)

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)

The clock is ticking to save the curlew – Irish Times, April 23 2018

The haunting cry of the curlew has long been embedded in Irish literary culture as well as in individual memory. Yet, with the breeding population dropping by a staggering 96 per cent since the 1980s, we are left to wonder whether Ireland’s future generations will have any more than these tales to rely on when learning about this iconic bird.

With the inaugural World Curlew Day held on April 21st, the focus was on the plight of the Eurasian curlew in Ireland, as well as that of other curlew species worldwide.

In 2011, BirdWatch Ireland carried out the first survey in Ireland specifically focused on breeding curlew populations. These were conducted in Donegal and Mayo as part of the Halt Environmental Loss Programme (Help), a cross-Border initiative funded through the EU Interreg IVA scheme. Just eight pairs of breeding curlew were found and it was estimated that there were fewer than 200 pairs nationwide compared to an estimation of 5,000 in the early 1990s. The first national survey was commissioned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2015 and 2016. It found numbers to be lower than estimations, with fewer than 150 breeding pairs discovered. Without action, it was predicted that the curlew will be extinct as a breeding species in Ireland within a decade.

This may surprise those who see curlew flocks between late July and early spring. However, these birds are likely to be wintering from Britain and Scandinavia whereas the breeding population can be found between April and early June.

“Without a doubt, the primary cause of population decline is habitat loss and degradation. This mainly occurred in the second half of the last century with things such as widespread agricultural change, drainage and restriction of bogland, loss of marshy pastures and afforestation,” explains Senior Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland Dr Anita Donaghy. “As a result, curlew habitats have become more fragmented. This degradation and fragmentation has had a knock-on effect and the population are now more vulnerable to predation.”

BirdWatch Ireland established a year-long “Cry of the Curlew” campaign in 2011 in an effort to raise money to fund nationwide curlew research. Since 2012, they’ve also been calling on the Government to take action. These calls were finally heard in 2017 when Minister Heather Humphreys announced the establishment of a Curlew Task Force aimed at saving the curlew from national extinction.

Independent chairman of the Curlew Task Force Alan Lauder says their primary role is “to bring together all relevant stakeholders involved with curlew conservation across the country”. In total, 30 people attend Task Force meetings, including groups and individuals from farming, turf-cutting, conservation, governmental, research and various other backgrounds.

“Our aim is to form approaches to first, halt their decline and then restore populations as quickly as possible,” says Lauder, who chairs the task force on a voluntary basis.

The Curlew Conservation Programme was established by the NPWS in 2017. This action programme is currently focused on seven areas: Stacks Mountains, Lough Ree, Lough Corrib, north Roscommon, Leitrim, Monaghan and Donegal.

“In each area we have a “curlew action team” with a “curlew champion”. These teams are liaising with local communities and landowners. Most of the people we have employed are local people themselves, with a blend of backgrounds including farming, hurling and tourism,” explains head of the Agri-Ecology Unit with NPWS Dr Barry O’Donoghue, who manages the programme.

Tasks carried out by action teams include field surveys and working with landowners to protect nests from predation. Habitat improvement measures such as the removal of gorse and blackthorn scrub from the Lough Ree area were also carried out.

For such a programme to be successful, O’Donoghue says it must be appropriate for curlew and farmer needs, offer supports to landowners, promote local pride and ownership in our natural heritage and ultimately, lead to results.

Researchers from UCD are currently monitoring the Curlew Conservation Programme to evaluate what measures are positively affecting curlew productivity. The benchmark figure for sustainable curlew population growth is 0.5 chicks per pair.

“Our aim is to ascertain what aspects of land use are leading to success,” explains UCD lecturer in wildlife conservation and zoonotic epidemiology Dr Barry McMahon. “Areas around the lakes such as Lough Ree are showing productive signs but we don’t have the data to go with this yet so it’s too early to say for sure.”

McMahon, who is principal investigator for the research project, says productivity is likely due to the lower levels of predation in these areas. As a ground-nesting bird, curlews are highly vulnerable.

The Department of Agriculture introduced a specific curlew conservation option in the agri-environment scheme Glas in 2015, while a curlew conservation project granted funding under the European Innovation Partnerships (EIP) Initiative will soon commence in Galway.

While praising all positive moves, Donaghy says more needs to be done. This includes the provision of additional resources to establish additional Curlew Action Teams elsewhere, as well as better protection from development for the curlew at a national level.

“BirdWatch Ireland regrets that the government didn’t take action when the problem was brought to their attention in 2012. The curlew population has declined even further since then. Now it makes it very difficult to build a sustainable population,” she adds.

Though not directly involved with the projects, birding expert Eric Dempsey has been keeping a close eye. While fully praising the establishment of the task force, he says it’s “hard not to view the Government’s move with cynicism”.

“It was such a hypocritical thing for Humphreys to do because she was simultaneously pushing the section of the Heritage Bill allowing farmers to burn randomly in the uplands,” he says. “On one hand she was launching a wonderful curlew campaign and on the other, pushing legislation that puts birds on the brink of extinction.”

He adds: “We must stop the Heritage Bill to allow the task force to do its business.”

World Curlew Day

The Eurasian Curlew is one of eight curlew species worldwide. At least three of these are seen as endangered or near threatened, while the Eskimo curlew and the slender-billed curlew are considered likely extinct. To highlight the importance of these birds, manager of the Curlew Conservation Programme Dr Barry O’Donoghue established the idea of a World Curlew Day which took place on April 21st – the idea has quickly taken flight internationally, with events arranged as far away as Australia.

“It’s so important that it is community-led,” explains O’Donoghue. “The aim is to mainstream conservation issues and have them tie in with something that is well known in the locality. One of the key focuses from the day is that local people realise how important their area is on a national and international scale to this bird.”

Events in Ireland included talks, art competitions and even football tournaments such as the Curlew Cup in Stack’s Mountains – all of which are featured on the World Curlew Day Facebook page.

(First published in the Irish Times on April 23 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/the-clock-is-ticking-to-save-the-curlew-1.3470968)

The Eskimo Curlew hasn’t been seen for 55 years. Is it time to declare it extinct? -Audubon, April 22 2018

Scientists hope the plight of this shorebird, once among the most common in North America, will spur conservation for other troubled curlew species.

Victor Emanuel will never forget the day he saw his first Eskimo Curlew. It was around 60 years ago, in Galveston, Texas, when the foot-long, brown-speckled bird poked its down-curved bill through the grass—a rare gem nearly invisible among a field of other mottled shorebirds. At first, Emanuel and several others believed it was a runt Whimbrel. But after checking all possible field marks and consulting guides, they confirmed that what they saw was the rare Eskimo Curlew. They were among the last people to see the species alive.

“There’s a chapter in my memoir in which I call it the bird of my life,” Emanuel says. “For a birder who had seen this bird in field guides, which said it was possibly extinct, it was like seeing a dinosaur. It had a huge effect on me.”

At one point, the Eskimo Curlew may have been one of the most common shorebirds in North America, with a population numbering in the many millions. Flocks once migrated from wintering grounds in South America, through the Great Plains, to breeding territories in Alaska and Canada—and back south off the Atlantic Coast.

For most people today, though, the species is merely a legend, fueled by old stories and the highly regarded 1954 book Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth. Photographer Don Bleitz took the last known photo of the shorebird in Galveston in 1962, and the last confirmed sighting was in 1963, when a lone bird was shot in Barbados. In 1983, a reported sighting of 23 Eskimo Curlews in Texas stirred up much excitement, but it was not accepted by the state bird records committee.

“It seems quite unbelievable to me that so many birds would show up on a single occasion, and not be seen ever again,” says Jon McCracken, director of national programs at Bird Studies Canada. “It’s like verifying that there are UFOs out there without good solid physical evidence.”

Though most cite the Barbados record as the last true sighting of the Eskimo Curlew, reports are still occurring—but they’re mostly wishful thinking. “Every season starting in June or July, I get a call with someone reporting an Eskimo Curlew,” says Bob Gill, a shorebird biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center in Anchorage who co-authored a detailed account of the species in The Birds of North America. “Invariably they are juvenile Whimbrels.”

What happened to this once-widespread species, you ask? They were hunted in large numbers through the 1800s; hunting migratory birds, except for those species approved by the government, largely ceased in 1918 with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Yet hunting is not the sole cause of decline, Gill says.

“Was it a contributing factor? Absolutely. Was it the only factor? No way,” he says. “As this bird was being hunted, the prairies were being plowed under and a principal food source, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, was going extinct.” These grasshoppers once had population booms in the billions; in 1875, they formed the largest recorded locust swarm: 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide, blanketing Plattsmouth, Nebraska for five days. As grasslands were converted to cornfields, the locusts vanished—and grassland birds, like the curlew, did, too.

“Hunting is an easy thing to blame,” Gill continues. “I just hope people can be more objective and look at the big picture.”

That’s particularly important given the threats to the seven other curlew species. This genus of wading migratory shorebirds, distinguishable from others by their down-curved bill and mottled plumage, faces threats in regions across the globe. The Eurasian Curlew, for example, has seen its European breeding population decline by at least one-third in 30 years due to loss of its grassland habitat, and significant declines have also been recorded in central Asian populations. The Bristle-thighed Curlew, with 7,000 individuals, is currently classed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, with drops in numbers largely attributed to predation by introduced predators on its wintering grounds in tropical Oceania; considering that more than 50 percent of adults are flightless during autumn molt, they are particularly easy targets.

Then there’s the Far Eastern Curlew, with a population of 32,000 birds in 2006, according to Wetlands International estimates. Habitat loss on the Yellow Sea staging grounds is considered the primary threat to the species and, with the rate of intertidal habitat loss averaging over 1 percent annually, this trend is expected to continue. While the Long-billed Curlew, Whimbrel, and Little Curlew are not currently a cause for concern, due to their relatively stable populations and wide range, ongoing climate change and habitat degradation could threaten them in the future.

Finally, there’s the Slender-billed Curlew, which hasn’t been spotted since 1995. Similarly to the Eskimo Curlew, historical hunting and habitat loss are believed to be key to their disappearance.

The Eskimo Curlew has not been declared extinct—yet. It is currently considered “critically endangered (possibly extinct)” by the IUCN. The latest report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada again declared the bird endangered in 2009. In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a five-year status review of the bird, which upon completion continued to list it as endangered.

Despite there being no confirmed sightings since 1963 and no evident breeding in more than 100 years, it’s difficult to definitively say whether the Eskimo Curlew is extinct.

“It’s a case of trying to prove a negative; absence of evidence isn’t proof of absence. If you can’t prove an absence, is it extinct or not?” says McCracken, who authored Canada’s 2009 report. “I personally believe that it probably, almost certainly, is extinct, and I think that’s the general consensus.”

Canada plans to reassess the Eskimo Curlew’s status in 2020, with no confirmed date yet for the U.S. review.

Regardless, circumstances remain dire for other curlews and birds that breed or migrate through landscapes that have been transformed. And based on the lack of optimism Gill hears at shorebird meetings, he’s not sure how much can be done to reverse the damage. For decades, scientists have sounded the alarm about the wildlife impacts of land fragmentation and the conversion of prairies and forests to farmland. At this point, he says, it might be too late. The changes people have made are vast; there’s no converting all of that farmland back to grassland.

Still, Gill maintains some hope that people might be convinced even quirky birds like curlews are worth the effort. And the story of the Eskimo Curlew could help.

“If we declare this bird extinct, let’s use it to our advantage and prevent others from becoming extinct,” he says. “I think anything we can do to raise public awareness will help [to protect other species]. We need to get people to get in touch with their concerns they may not have even known that they had.”

(First published on Audubon on April 20 2018. Available online at: http://www.audubon.org/news/the-eskimo-curlew-hasnt-been-seen-55-years-it-time-declare-it-extinct)