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)

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Turning the tide on plastic pollution – Irish Examiner, November 12 2018

Seal Rescue Ireland’s innovative way to remove plastics from the sea is a step-up in their conservancy work, writes Amy Lewis

From a corner of north Wexford, a team of dedicated environmentalists are working towards, quite literally, building a better future for our planet and its inhabitants.

As resident volunteers at Seal Rescue Ireland — a registered charity established to rescue, rehabilitate and release sick, injured and orphaned seal pups — they’ve seen first-hand the effects that human activity is having on marine life. The threat of plastic pollution, famously highlighted in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series, is something to which Irish common and grey seals are not immune.

Such threats and what we can do to prevent them is something the team are keen to highlight to visitors at their rescue and rehabilitation centre in Courtown, Wexford. During my own visit, Seal Rescue Ireland Executive Director Melanie Croce tells me the story of a grey seal pup and former centre resident named Karma.

“Karma looked like she was in good condition. She was nice and fat with no visible injuries but she had some strange behaviours. In the end, she passed away.”

A necropsy at UCD’s School of Veterinary Medicine generated a stark conclusion. What had cost Karma her life was an item so commonplace, disposable and harmless to humans: a single crisp packet.

“As it turns out, she had a crisp packet blocking her intestines,” explains Melanie, pointing out how the reflective surface of a crisp packet can mimic that of a fish. “Seals are opportunistic feeders. They’ll eat anything they can get their teeth on, whether it’s crab, squid or fish. Now that there’s more plastic in their environment, they’re mistaking it for food and eating it.” Similarly to all soft plastics, crisp packets are not recyclable in Ireland. Even when disposed of correctly, they can easily get swept out into the ocean and cause harm to marine life, says Melanie.

“The best thing we can do is cut down our use of plastics,” she says.

Using your purchasing power to support markets that don’t use unnecessary packaging is important as we try to work towards a better environment.

Until we further develop novel eco-friendly alternatives, non-biodegradable single-use plastics will still exist. However, Seal Rescue Ireland has adopted an innovative way to put unavoidable plastics to good use. Known as Ecobricks, this simple building material consists of large plastic bottles which have been tightly packed with soft plastics.

“Firstly, making Ecobricks stops the plastic from going out into the environment. Secondly, it is upcycling it into something useful and finally, it makes you very aware of every single piece of non-biodegradable piece of plastic you will use because you have to stuff it into a brick,” says Melanie, stressing that the Ecobrick is not their own invention.

To date, these surprisingly heavy “bricks” have been used by the team to make sturdy furniture such as stools. Looking into the future, they also hope to use them to make benches and as the building blocks of a second rescue facility in Ireland.

To do so, they will utilise any plastic collected from their volunteer houses nearby, where between 15 and 20 volunteers reside while working at the centre. Additionally, they’re accepting Ecobricks from members of the public keen to put their waste to good use. In order to be deemed acceptable, these bricks must be made from 1.7 or two-litre plastic bottles densely packed with as much clean, soft plastic as they can hold. Water bottles will not be accepted.

“You have to make sure you get rid of all of the open spaces because they will compromise the integrity of the brick,” says Melanie.

Seal Rescue Ireland hope to eventually run public workshops on Ecobrick making. In the meantime, there are various tutorials and videos available online.

Entanglement in discarded fishing line, which cuts into skin and blubber as they grow, is another major threat to pups. Poor water quality from pollution and raw sewage discharge is also problematic, as are dog attacks.

Extreme weather conditions are placing additional pressures on seals, particularly during breeding season. Vulnerable pups resting on the shore are knocked against rocks, separated from their mother or drowned during heavy storms.

Additionally, depleting fish stocks are forcing seals worldwide to travel further to find food. As a result, they often don’t have the energy to provide pups with the fat-rich milk they require and may abandon them.

Well-intentioned humans can also cause harm. Although pups rest on land, bypassers may mistake it for being ill or orphaned and approach it. Watching mothers may abandon the pup as a result.

“We advise people to stay two hundred metres away. If you think it needs help, call our rescue hotline number and don’t try to take matters into your own hands,” says Melanie.

All of these threats and how to minimise them are communicated to schoolchildren in Seal Rescue Ireland’s Marine Conservation Roadshows, as well as during school tours to the centre.

“Kids are amazing and absorb everything,” says Melanie. “If we can get them to care about this, then future world leaders will care about this.” Seal Rescue Ireland also runs daily public tours and facilitates corporate days at the centre.

The organisation currently has 800 trained volunteers around the country, who are ready to assist if a seal is in peril. This growing network have been vital in assisting with the increasing number of seal pups requiring rescuing. Indeed, intakes are rapidly rising, a trend Melanie says is largely due to weather conditions. In 2013, the centre took in 62 pups compared to a record 145 last year.

Through working with everyone to create a safer marine environment, they hope to minimise the number of seal casualties.

“We’re in the business of wanting to put ourselves out of business. We are rehabbing seals but if we can educate people and keep the marine environment safe and sustainable, there are fewer seals that need to come in,” says Melanie.

Seal Rescue Ireland’s Centre is open to the public daily.

Seal Rescue Ireland operate a 24/7 rescue hotline on 087 195 5393.

http://www.sealrescueireland.org

http://www.ecobricks.org

(First published in the Irish Examiner on November 12 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/seal-rescue-irelands-plan-to-turn-the-tide-on-plastic-pollution-884672.html)

Ireland’s Wildlife Warriors – Sunday Business Post, November 4 2018

Across the country, there’s a network of dedicated individuals who work tirelessly to help some of our most vulnerable neighbours.

Late-night feeds, cuts and scratches and constant goodbyes go hand-in-hand with their largely voluntary roles but neither this, nor juggling tasks with full-time jobs, families or other life responsibilities, deters them from their mission.

Indeed, Ireland’s wildlife rehabilitators are a determined and passionate bunch and this shone through at the recent Irish Wildlife Rehabilitation Conference at Rock Farm in Slane. Organised by Emma Higgs and her team at Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland (WRI) – an organisation established to promote wildlife rehabilitation and support rehabilitators – the event pulled together carers from Ireland and the UK to share their stories and knowledge.

Those familiar with the insomnia that can accompany human newborns may not entertain the idea of interrupting a good night’s sleep to feed a furry or feathered friend. So what drives wildlife rehabilitators? Bray-based veterinarian Dr Pete Wedderburn, aka “Pete the Vet”, outlined his own motivations in his talk on why it’s worth rescuing wildlife.

“The first reason for me is compassion for the individual creature,” says Wedderburn, who regularly sees wildlife patients at the BrayVet clinic. Concern for endangered species, picking up new skills to help other endangered creatures later on and raising awareness about the environment are some of the other reasons that Wedderburn is willing to treat wildlife. He also feels it helps to promote kindness in our society.

“The message of being kind to animals does eventually change our culture.”

Deciding whether to rehabilitate a sick or injured animal goes far beyond a love for wildlife, as stressed by all rehabilitators throughout the day. With each creature that comes their way, comes an ethical conundrum: should we leave the animal alone, try to heal it or consider euthanasia? Whatever the answer, the welfare of the individual animal and the likelihood of a successful release is key.

This is emphasised by vet Dr Liz Mullineaux in her own speech. She cites a definition of wildlife rehabilitation as the ‘treatment and temporary care of injured, diseased, and displaced indigenous animals, and the subsequent release of healthy animals to appropriate habitats in the wild.’

“Rehabilitation is not about captive animals. You need to keep that at the back of your mind at all times,” says Mullineaux, an experienced vet and Scientific Advisor to Secret World Wildlife Rescue.

There’s a fine line between wildlife rehabilitation and interfering with nature. While well-intentioned, members of the public often pick up animals they perceive to be orphans, unaware that the mother is nearby. Additionally, sometimes a single orphan is abandoned by a mother who is aware that it’s unlikely to survive.

“We should only take an animal from the wild when absolutely necessary,” founder of Secret World Wildlife Rescue Pauline Kidner tells us, adding that we should really only interfere when a casualty is rooted in human rather than natural causes.

For the less-experienced, whether or not to intervene can be a difficult call to make. This is why observing an animal and liaising with those with wildlife knowledge is critical before a creature is moved.

Observing for blood, limb injuries, vision problems or breathing difficulties, as well as noting whether an animal is conscious, are just some of the things that can be noted down according to Mullineaux. These observations also apply to birds, as can fluffed up feathers and poor feather quality.

Not all potential patients are found at the roadside, as outlined in RSPCA Wildlife Veterinary Officer David Couper’s informative talk on seal rehabilitation. Does the seal have injuries; is it struggling to breathe; how alert is it and is the mother nearby are all questions that should be asked. Hydration levels can also be determined, according to Couper, who explains that a healthy seal will have tears flowing down its face when on land.

Deciding whether to rehabilitate an animal yourself or pass it on to others is largely dependent on experience, time commitment and resources at hand. Additionally, rehabilitation of wildlife casualties requires a licence in Ireland. For those who can’t tick these boxes, it’s usually in the animal’s best interest to transfer it to a trained individual or organisation as soon as possible. The Irish Wildlife Matters website contains a list of Ireland’s wildlife-friendly vets and rehabilitators who are happy to advise on safe transportation and take in casualties.

However, having a university degree in a wildlife-related discipline isn’t essential for those who wish to become wildlife rehabilitators. So how can people get involved?

“People who want to get involved have natural empathy for animals anyway. But obviously, the best thing to do is come to a day like today so you can pick up advice and make contact with people who are going to help you,” Kidner tells me. “You’re going to start by deciding what your ethics are going to be. You have to decide whether you believe in euthanasia or not because that is the hardest question you are going to have. And you have to decide how you are going to do it because it can cost a lot of money.”

For those who do want to become a rehabilitator, WRI runs two-day Basic Wildlife Rehabilitation courses throughout the year, explains WRI chairperson Heidi Bedell. Such courses, in addition to the organisations, vets and other trained rehabilitators who donate their time for free, currently form the backbone of wildlife rehabilitation in Ireland.

“In Ireland, we don’t have any location that anyone can bring or send wildlife to for something more serious like surgery or rehabilitation,” Bedell tells me.

This is all set to change. WRI are planning the establishment of a large National Wildlife Rehabilitation and Teaching Hospital. Based at a site in Fingal due to be donated by Fingal County Council following the completion of a feasibility study, it will contain enclosures and pools for animals, a conference space, an educational visitor centre and accommodation for volunteers.

“It will also be a very valuable asset for universities,” explains Bedell. “We would hope to have students coming from universities who are studying some aspect of wildlife rehabilitation or veterinary practice. This could be a place where they can live and have stations where they can study and record wildlife.”

WRI will be seeking various sources of funding for the hospital going forward.

Speaking after the conference, Director of WRI Aideen Magee tells me that such an event is important for spreading the word about wildlife rehabilitation.

“We have everyone at it, from members of the public right up to people who do this as a profession,” says Magee, also a wildlife rehabilitator with Kildare Animal Foundation’s wildlife unit. “The more people we have in the community who are aware of wildlife rehabilitation, what it is and how to get involved, the more animals we can help.”

Attendees at the conference all have their own backgrounds and unique motivations. Kildare Superintendent Martin Walker and his colleague and Wildlife Liaison Officer Garda Sharon McGinty came as they’re often called upon to assist with injured wildlife.

“Deer mortality is a problem, particularly at this time of year because you have the rut on,” says Walker. “Motorists should exercise care, courtesy and common sense.”

Walker also has much experience in tackling wildlife crime. In December, An Garda Síochána will run a training course to equip specially-appointed inspectors from each division with tools to recognise and deal with wildlife crime. These inspectors will work alongside the NPWS.

It’s obvious that becoming a wildlife rehabilitator requires much time and commitment. Yet, final speaker of the day Mary Reynolds gives a simple message that everyone can take on board: look after the land that supports us and our wildlife.

“Rewild and remagic your garden,” says the award-winning gardener and author. “Allow it to become what it wants to become.”

Bedell hopes the key take-home message from the conference is one of kindness.

“Do we want to live in a world where it’s quite ok to see other creatures suffering? I don’t want to live in that kind of world, I don’t want my children to be brought up in that world,” she tells me. “I would like to promote that idea that it’s good to make that effort. Do stop, do get out, do help that animal that’s injured. It’s kind and that’s the world that we want to go into.”

TAKING ACTION

Director of WRI and wildlife rehabilitator with Kildare Animal Foundation’s wildlife unit Aideen Magee has a wealth of experience in dealing with wildlife casualties, from rescuing injured otters to nursing baby birds in her box room at home. For members of the public, who might be uncertain what to do if they find an injured or ill animal, she recommends taking the following steps.

“The very first thing is to ensure your own personal safety because if you end up becoming a casualty yourself, you’re no good to yourself or the animal either. Look at the context that you find the animal in. If it’s on the side of a motorway, always make sure it’s safe to stop and intervene,” she says.

“The next thing to do is to observe the animal for a while and see does it actually need intervention or not,” she continues, adding that sometimes seemingly abnormal behaviour is completely natural. “Particularly if they are in an area in which they are more habituated to people, they might not have the fight or flight response.”

If in any doubt whatsoever, she advises visiting the Irish Wildlife Matters website, finding your nearest wildlife-friendly vet or rehabilitator and contacting them for advice. When it’s something straightforward, they could guide you through how to safely handle that animal and transport it to the nearest expert. Otherwise, they might send out an experienced volunteer to assess and assist with the situation.

“If you’re a member of the public and haven’t handled these animals before, never try to do so on your own without getting expert guidance first,” says Magee. “If you don’t have somebody near you on that list, just look up your local vet. They may have contact numbers of somebody else who can offer guidance and assistance.”

(First published in the Sunday Business Post on November 4 2018. Available online at: https://www.businesspost.ie/magazine/irelands-wildlife-warriors-429332)

Curlew task force is on a mission to restore threatened wader bird – Irish Examiner, November 1 2018

The evocative cry of the curlew is a memory of summers past for many in rural Ireland.

Unfortunately, Ireland’s breeding curlew population has plummeted by 96% since the 1980s, so this memory isn’t shared by younger generations.

Loss and fragmentation of its habitats are the main reason why this ground-nesting bird is now on the IUCN red list of threatened species.

These reasons were in turn driven by factors such as drainage and restriction of bogland, agricultural intensification, unmanaged upland burning, land abandonment and afforestation.

Such habitat changes increased vulnerability to predation, further diminishing numbers. Fewer than 150 breeding curlew pairs remain.

That may surprise those who have seen curlew flocks in recent months. However, these are likely to be migrants arriving from Scotland and Scandanavia, from July until the spring. Breeding pairs, on the other hand, can be spotted in April, May and June and are identified by their distinctive bubbling call and circular display flight.

Surveys by BirdWatch Ireland and the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) in 2011 and 2015/2016, plus many calls for action, underpinned the decision by Minister Heather Humphreys to establish a curlew task force in 2017. This task force brings together stakeholders to make decisions aimed at saving the curlew. Established separately but running in parallel is the NPWS Curlew Conservation Programme, focused on monitoring and improving habitats in seven key sites for breeding curlew.

This year’s cold winter and summer drought were particularly difficult for curlews.

 

In monitored sites, 19 chicks were confirmed to have fledged in 45 territories, in 2018. While this may appear low, Barry O’Donoghue, who manages the Curlew Conservation Programme, says it’s “within the range for maintaining a stable population” and an improvement on the first year’s results.

“Compared to projects in the UK with similar numbers of territories, they had zero chicks produced, so we are hopeful that we have begun to see a turnaround in fortunes for the curlew,” he says.

“It won’t be easy, but we have made a good start and in some areas we have actually seen an increase in breeding numbers.”

Independent curlew task force chair Alan Lauder also notes an improvement on previous years, saying we should monitor what is happening at the most successful sites and learn from them.

He says, as monitored sites don’t contain the whole population of breeding curlew in Ireland, there were potentially more chicks elsewhere.

Senior conservation officer with BirdWatch Ireland Anita Donaghy says the results are “mildly encouraging” but echoes the sentiment that we have a long way to go.

“Farmers are the number one land managers when it comes to curlew in Ireland,” says O’Donoghue.

Indeed, farmers have been heavily involved in curlew conservation, in the many agri-environment schemes and in task force discussions.

For example, farmers with curlew in their area were prioritised for entry into GLAS, and the opportunity to get €5,000 annually for avoiding damaging activities and promoting suitable habitat.

The Curlew Conservation Programme has established curlew action teams, with advisers, curlew champions, and nest protection officers, in each monitored area.

Comprising people from various backgrounds, these teams work with the community and landowners to monitor sites and improve habitats.

Co-operation Across Borders for Biodiversity (CABB) was launched in December to improve breeding habitats for curlew and other species.

Supported by the EU, the €4.9m project aims to restore 2,228 hectares of blanket bog in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

“As part of this, BirdWatch Ireland is implementing a small number of management agreements directly with farmers who have breeding waders, including curlew, on their lands,” says Donaghy.

“We provide advice, pay them for basic habitat measures and have the facility to pay for capital works programmes.”

June 2018 saw the completion of the Results Based Agri-environment Pilot Scheme (RBAPS) in Leitrim and the Shannon Callows. Predominantly funded by the EU, it rewarded participating farmers for biodiversity measures on their land.

Looking ahead, a three-year Irish curlew breeding European Innovation Partnership trial (EIP) will soon commence in southern Lough Corrib and south Leitrim.

Overseen by BirdWatch Ireland, the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA), Irish Grey Partridge Trust,and Teagasc, it will focus on training and assisting farmers in predator control, says INHFA vice president and EIP operational group member Henry O’Donnell, a cattle and sheep farmer in Co Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula.

“This is going to be a source of income for farmers and will supplement their conventional agriculture.”

Longer-term schemes would be extremely beneficial going forward, says Lauder.

“Curlew have large territories and often move big distances between farms,” he says. “It would be encouraging to have a scheme promoting a level of integration between neighbouring farmers.”

Agri-environment schemes are praised by O’Donnell, but he hopes other factors don’t override their success.

One of his concerns is the push for agricultural intensification, which he says is driven by Teagasc’s farm advisory services, Harvest 2020, and “other objectives not in keeping with sustainable agriculture”.

“Farmers should be advised that if you kept less animals in a less intensive situation, it would be better for conservation, better for your bank account and more sustainable for the environment.”

“The basis for environmental schemes and protection of endangered birds is to provide a suitable habitat and try to increase their numbers.

“That ignores the reality of things like predators, and the fact that blanket afforestation with conifers has provided an ideal habitat for predators.

“That is as much an issue in the decline of the bird species that we are concerned with as is producing a suitable environment for them.”

For Donaghy, agri-environment schemes like GLAS need to employ ecologists giving specialist advice to farmers, something she says proved very beneficial in RBAPS.

“That’s really going to improve results on the ground in terms of better habitats and better nesting conditions.”

While glad to see the curlew issue addressed by the Government, she’s equally “dismayed” that calls for action were responded to so late, saying that the curlew’s situation would be better if action had been taken “even five years ago”.

However, Donaghy is “cautiously hopeful” that efforts from all sectors can improve the bird’s prospects, and says, we “must not give up”.

Working with Nature

The Curlew Conservation Programme focuses on seven key areas for breeding curlew: Lough Ree, Lough Corrib, Stacks Mountains, north Roscommon, Leitrim, Monaghan and Donegal. Pat Devaney, who farms along the shores of Lough Ree in Roscommon, is one of the many participants. Through his involvement, he worked alongside NPWS ecologists to carry out habitat improvement measures on his land; these including clearing shrub to create open habitat for breeding curlew and erecting a predator-proof fence.

“I have been aware for some time of how sensitive the area where I farm is to the wading birdlife such as the curlew, geese and lapwing,” says Devaney, who farms suckler cows, sheep and ponies on his farm based in the townlands of Cloonmore, Clooneskert and Rinanny. “It’s an SAC area and I participate in GLAS which is a great scheme. When approached by the NPWS to restore the area to its former glory and the natural habitat for these birds, local farmers and the NPWS have cooperated very well, each realising the important role we both have in ensuring that farming and wildlife can co-exist in harmony. I was delighted to take part.”

(First published in the Irish Examiner on November 1 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/farming/curlew-task-force-is-on-a-mission-to-restore-threatened-wader-bird-882531.html)

A thrifty guide to visiting Dublin – Zafigo.com, September 12 2018

It’s no secret that a visit to Dublin can make a dent in your bank balance. Ireland’s capital was recently named by Mercer as the most expensive city in the Eurozone in terms of cost of living for expatriates. A separate report by ECA International lists Dublin as the 72nd most expensive city worldwide, beating the likes of Abu Dhabi and London. Yet, this shouldn’t put you off visiting the fun-filled and friendly city. With a bit of planning and some tips from a thrifty Dubliner, an affordable trip can most certainly be achieved.

Accommodation

Be it a hotel or a long-term rental, accommodation in Dublin is notoriously expensive. Hotel room rates are at a record high, with the latest average rate of a standard room at €136.96 (approximately USD159) per night. If you’re visiting Dublin with friends, your best bet is to share the cost of an Airbnb in or near the city centre.

If you aren’t fussed about staying in the city centre, considering planting your roots on the outskirts. Dublin is a small county, so provided you stay somewhere along the bus, Luas (light rail), or DART (train) lines, it’ll be pretty easy to get into the city. Howth and Dun Laoghaire are two beautiful seaside towns within close proximity to Dublin that I recommend. Of course, no matter where you choose to stay, it’s always worth hunting out hotel deals on sites such as Living Social and Groupon. Those willing to give couch-surfing a go will also save themselves some cash.

Long-term visitors will likely struggle to find a cheap pad, owing to a lack of accommodation available to meet the demand. The average monthly rent for a single room in the city is €643 (approximately USD746), and even at that price, rooms are often miniscule and in poor condition. The nightmare that is the search for rentals in Dublin is well-documented, and the best tip I can offer is to start early, long before the college year begins in September.

Keep an eye on university noticeboards and online pages for room shares or consider renting a room in a family home (known as digs) to cut on costs. If commuting is an option, staying in the suburbs or in neighbouring counties such as Wicklow or Meath may save you some stress as well as cash.

Food

The cost of dining out in Dublin varies depending on where and when you choose to grab a bite. Lunchtime offers are aplenty and you’re sure to stumble across them if you simply follow the students. Lolly and Cooks, KC Peaches, Chopped, Boojum Burrito Bars, and any supermarket deli counter are good choices for quality and affordable sandwiches, salads, and wraps. You also can’t beat a good cheese toastie in Peter’s Pub.

Govindas offers massive vegetarian plates for €6.95 (approximately USD8), while Yum Thai Noodle Bar and the Mongolian BBQ do cheap and extremely filling stir fry and noodle dishes for between €6.95 and €10 (approximately USD8-11.60). Luncheonette offers variety at a low cost, with a new menu of healthy dishes under €4 (approximately USD4.60) every few days, while the adorable and affordable Italian café Dolce Sicily is one of my new favourite spots to meet a friend for a hearty bowl of soup, pasta, or Italian pastries.

For dinner, avoid the sky-high prices of touristic centre Temple Bar and check out somewhere around the Dublin 2 area. Some personal favourite choices are grabbing a mouth-watering mezze platter to share at Jerusalem, anything on offer at Café Bliss (which has the added bonus of being BYOB), the €12 (approximately USD14) pizza and a pint on board the Big Blue Bus behind Bernard Shaw (weekdays 5-7pm), and the €5 (approximately USD6) Monday paella deal at Havana.

On weekends, I also love going to the farmer’s market at the seaside town of Dun Laoghaire for some cheap local grub. Try the falafel, it won’t disappoint! Of course, there are always discounts on offer across the city, so keep an eye on the aforementioned deal sites. Another way to save on dining out is to eat a bit earlier; many restaurants in the city offer great early bird deals.

If you’re here for a longer stay, you’re unlikely to be dining out every night. Lidl, Aldi, and Tesco are the best places to do a weekly shop and offer deals on fruit, vegetables, and meat. Though a bit pricier than the supermarkets, farmer’s markets such as those in Temple Bar, Howth, and Dun Laoghaire offer delicious baked goods and organic produce.

Nightlife

Dublin has become awash with trendy cocktail bars, but unfortunately, behind every delectable drink usually lies a €12 (approximately USD14) price tag. If you’re trying to cut costs, pass these places by, along with tourist hotspot Temple Bar which is renowned for its rip-off prices. Diceys, O’Reillys, and The Living Room are known to be student magnets, predominantly because of their affordable drinks and regular deals.

If you prefer a more relaxed environment, try somewhere like The Porterhouse on the weekdays, or hunt out offers in any of the cosy and unassuming pubs in the city’s side streets. When cocktails are on the cards, Capitol Lounge offers them from €5 (approximately USD6), while Sinnotts, 777, and Pygmalion offer two-for-one deals on certain days of the week.

Should you be lucky enough to catch a rare balmy evening in Dublin, head straight to the Pavilion (aka The Pav) at Trinity College. During the summer, this green area welcomes swarms of students, locals, and tourists alike, who can bring their own food and drinks to enjoy on the grass.

Concerts are expensive in Dublin, but many of the pubs offer live music several nights a week for little to nothing. The Bleeding Horse Pub and Whelans are two great choices. Alternatively, wander along Grafton Street for some free entertainment from one of the many buskers and street artists.

If you’re in need of a warm beverage in a chilled environment, head to Accents. This cosy late night café has plenty of comfortable seating, perfect for snuggling up on with a mug of hot chocolate and a brownie.

Activities

In the summertime, most of Dublin’s best activities are free of charge. The city is home to several parks, including Stephen’s Green, Iveagh Gardens, and Europe’s largest urban park, Phoenix Park. All are perfect picnic spots while at the latter, you may even get a chance to watch a polo game or meet some of the park’s wild deer.

Just a short DART journey from the city centre is Dun Laoghaire, where you can enjoy relaxing evening walks along the pier at any time of the year. Buying an ice cream cone from famous shop Teddy’s is an absolute must there. North of the city, the cliff walk in Howth is also a wonderful way to spend some time in nature, as are the tranquil National Botanic Gardens.

While not within Dublin, the scenic neighbouring county of Wicklow is also worth a trip if you have time. Spots within it such as Glendalough and the quaint village of Avoca are stunning throughout all four seasons.

Indeed, Ireland is not renowned for having a tropical climate (or anything remotely close), so outdoor activities may be out of the question. Not to worry. The city homes plenty of free museums worthy of visiting, including the Natural History Museum (known as the ‘dead zoo’), the National Museum of Ireland, the National Gallery, the Science Museum, Chester Beatty Library, the Hugh Lane Gallery, parts of Dublin Castle, and much more.

A walk around the grounds of Trinity College is also worth ticking off the list and is completely free. However, if you wish to view the Old Library and Book of Kells as many tourists do, it’ll set you back €11 (approximately USD12.80).

History buffs may wish to check out Kilmainham Gaol Museum, where many of Ireland’s revolutionary leaders were imprisoned and in some cases executed. A tour will provide a good overview of the country’s history and costs just €8 (approximately USD9.30) including museum entry.

From pay-what-you-can yoga classes to free talks and lectures to kilo sales, there’s always something happening in Dublin. Websites such as Eventbrite, Meetup, and Ticketmaster can help you find some of the more unusual events.

Transport

Dublin’s city centre is small and walkable, so if you want to save on transport, slip on those trainers and get moving. Cycling is the next best option. Dublin Bikes is a city-wide bike rental service that allows you pick up and drop off your set of wheels at various stations for just a few Euro.

Dublin Bus, the DART Service, and the Luas are the three modes of public transport in Dublin, with lines extending beyond the city centre and into the suburbs and even Wicklow. If you choose to avail of this, purchase a Leap Card in order to get discounted prices and avoid the hassle of fumbling for change for a bus. Unfortunately, Grab and Uber don’t exist in Ireland, but taxis are plentiful. They can be extremely expensive, however, so probably best avoided unless all other options are exhausted.

(First published on Zafigo.com on September 12 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/thrifty-guide-dublin-ireland/)

Ireland’s battle to save our wildlife – Irish Examiner, September 3 2018

Amy Lewis highlights the measures taken in tackling crimes against Ireland’s wildlife and the need for more action.

Protecting the voiceless victims of wildlife crime is a constant battle.

The ongoing persecution of wildlife overseas is often highlighted but such incidences aren’t as far away from home as one might imagine. In fact, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and Gardaí face them each week.

In July, two men were charged before Portlaoise District Court for the trapping of protected wild goldfinches using bait and rat glue.

Meanwhile, an investigation is underway in Louth regarding the unlawful killing of two peregrine falcons nesting in the Cooley Mountains.

However, these and other known cases are only the tip of the iceberg.

“Many cases go undiscovered because by their nature, they’re suspicious and secretive activities,” says Dr Barry O’ Donoghue from the NPWS Agri-Ecology Unit.

The stakes are being raised to combat wildlife criminals and their increasingly sophisticated methods.

An Garda Síochána recently announced plans for a wildlife crime training course. Commencing in September, it will equip specially-appointed inspectors from each Garda division with tools to recognise and deal with wildlife crime.

Each inspector will work closely with their opposite number in the NPWS.

“Information is key. We want to show [inspectors] what the main offences are and demonstrate how to deal with them and prosecute them in the District Court,” says Kildare Superintendent Martin Walker, who previously led the Garda’s anti-poaching investigation Operation Bambi alongside the NPWS.

Although the Wildlife Act is the principal legislation regarding wildlife crime, Supt Walker says prosecution powers within it are limited.

Through training, he hopes to encourage Gardaí to ‘think laterally’ about other legislation that relates to these cases.

A surreptitious nature is a common denominator among wildlife crimes but offences take many forms.

According to Supt Walker, the illegal hunting of deer at night using lamps or lurchers is common.

Indeed, the Irish Deer Commission recently reported a significant increase in deer poaching and badger baiting in the Midlands.

“That’s particularly cruel. These animals release stress hormones and the meat isn’t even fit for human consumption. It’s just an absolute bloodlust,” says Supt Walker.

Catching finches is widespread, as is hare poaching with hounds.

“People are hunting hares across farmer’s land. They’ve no authority to be there, farmers are afraid and sometimes their livestock is getting injured,” says Supt Walker, who says that poachers often use hunts as intelligence-gathering operations for farm theft.

Birds of prey are also regular targets. The RAPTOR (Recording and Addressing Persecution and Threats to Our Raptors) protocol is a collaborative approach between the NPWS, Regional Veterinary Laboratories and the State Laboratory to determine non-habitat related threats to birds of prey.

“We needed a mechanism of investigating and recording incidents, as well as using that data to inform and provide intelligence for addressing these issues,” says O’ Donoghue, who is a Project Investigator for RAPTOR.

The sixth and most recently published report showed that in 2016, there were 19 poisonings, six shootings and one incident involving a vehicle collision.

Common buzzards, red kites and peregrine falcons were the most highly-recorded victims.

Niall Hatch of Birdwatch Ireland notes that peregrines are common targets.

While he says some crimes have been at the hand of pigeon-fanciers, he stresses that most people involved in this hobby wouldn’t harm peregrines in any way.

Project Manager of the White-tailed Sea Eagle Reintroduction Project Dr Allan Mee adds that peregrine chicks are sometimes taken from the wild by those without a licence.

“Buzzards are [also] being targeted because some see them as a threat to pheasants being released. Buzzards aren’t well-regarded by some gun clubs in parts of the country,” continues Mee, stressing that generally, his team have a good relationship with gun clubs.

“Buzzards were almost extinct in Ireland but now have spread across the country. There’s no earthly reason for anyone to persecute them,” adds Hatch.

People are sometimes worried that they’re a threat to lambs but they couldn’t kill a lamb in a million years. They’re nothing but a benefit to a farm as they kill rats and rabbits.

The RAPTOR report notes that some poisoning incidents, particularly those involving buzzards, red kites and barn owls are the result of bio-accumulation i.e. birds ingesting rodents that have been poisoned with rodenticides.

These cases are considered secondary and unintentional.

Through spreading awareness, Mee has seen that this can be mitigated.

Of 14 confirmed poisoning cases of white-tailed sea eagles, since their reintroduction from Norway commenced in 2007, Mee says not one has taken place since 2015.

He credits this to awareness, education and working with landowners.

“In the past when they were poisoned, it was largely because people weren’t aware that the birds were out there or of a change in their population.”

Some other poisoning incidents are more sinister, such the illegal placing of poisoned meat baits.

According to O’ Donoghue, some have been laced with enough poison to kill a human if touched and accidentally ingested.

To tackle these crimes, it’s universally agreed that more education and public awareness is key.

“We must engage with local communities so that they have someone they know and trust they can report something to,” says O’ Donoghue.

The 2013 and 2015 Wildlife Crime Conferences organised by Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland have helped to spread awareness.

The organisation, who run the information website Wildlifecrime.ie, will hold a public Wildlife Rehabilitation Conference in Slane this October which includes talks on wildlife crime.

Additionally, Hatch says that more resources could help.

“The NPWS needs to be much better resourced. They’re doing great work but are struggling because they don’t have the resources they need and deserve.”

Supt Walker hopes that with the upcoming training, potential plans for a wildlife crime recording system and liaising with various stakeholders, wildlife crime nationwide will be minimised.

This can be aided with the cooperation of the public.

If aware of a suspected wildlife crime, they should report it to the Gardaí and local NPWS ranger.

Supt Walker stresses that anyone who reports will have their anonymity fully respected.

(First published by the Irish Examiner on September 3 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/irelands-battle-to-save-our-wildlife-866228.html)

Machine minds: can AI play a role in mental health therapy? – Irish Times, August 23 2018

A welcome conversation surrounding mental health has arisen but as more people make the decision to reach out, too few find a supportive hand.

Not a week passes without a report on Ireland’s mental health system, where lengthy waiting lists, staff shortages and inadequate facilities are the rule rather than the exception. Minister of State with special responsibility for mental health Jim Daly recently announced plans to pilot mental health “web therapy”; signalling a growing recognition of the need for novel approaches.

The capabilities of technology in the mental health sphere continue to flourish and developing therapeutic applications based upon systems driven by artificial intelligence (AI), particularly chatbots, is one arena that’s rapidly expanding. Yet, if you needed to open up, would you reach out to a robot?

Bot benefits

While not specifically focused on AI, a study from the Applied Research for Connected Health (Arch) centre at UCD shows 94 per cent of Irish adults surveyed would be willing to engage with connected mental health technology.

Study co-author Dr Louise Rooney, a postdoctoral research fellow at Arch, says AI-based systems with a research and a patient-centred focus could be beneficial.

“I don’t think AI is the answer to everything or that it could fully replace therapy intervention but I think there’s a place for it at every juncture through the process of treatment; from checking in, to remote monitoring, even down to people getting information,” she says.

The latest Mental Health Commission report shows waiting times for child and adolescent mental health services can reach 15 months. Rooney believes AI-based therapy could be particularly useful for young people who “respond very well to connected mental health technology”. The anonymity of such platforms could also break down barriers for men, who are less likely to seek help than women.

Prof Paul Walsh from Cork Institute of Technology’s department of computer science feels that AI-driven tools can “improve the accessibility to mental health services” but won’t fully replace human therapy.

“For those who are vulnerable and need help late at night, there’s evidence to show [therapy chatbots using AI and NLP] can be an effective way of calming people,” says Walsh, who is currently researching how to build software and machine learning systems for people with cognitive disorders. “If someone’s worried or stressed and needs immediate feedback, it’s possible to give real-time response and support without visiting a therapist.”

Professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dr Brendan Kelly says AI-based platforms such as chatbots can help people to take control of their wellbeing in a positive manner.

“They can help people to take the first step into an arena that may be scary for them but I feel there will come a point that this is combined with, or replaced by, a real therapist,” adds the consultant psychiatrist based at TallaghtHospital.

Privacy concerns

Using AI-driven mental health therapy doesn’t come without concerns, one being privacy.

“Clearly it’s a very important issue and people shouldn’t use something that compromises their privacy but it’s not a deal-breaker,” says Kelly. “There are ways to ensure privacy which must be done but [fears and challenges] shouldn’t sink the boat.”

Being completely transparent with users about data collection and storage is key, Rooney adds.

Whether AI can determine someone’s ability to consent to therapy is another potential caveat raised by Rooney. However, she feels that forming “watertight legislation” for this technology and ensuring it’s backed by research can help to overcome this and other potential pitfalls.

While most current tools in this field focus on mental wellbeing and not severe problems, Walsh raises the potential of false negatives should AI decide somebody has a chronic illness. To avoid this, it’s important to keep a human in the loop.

“Many machine-learning systems are really hard to analyse to see how they make these judgements,” he adds. “We’re working on ways to try to make it more amenable to inspection.”

As potentially anybody can engineer a system, Walsh recommends avoiding anything without a “vast paper trail” of evidence.

“These will have to go through rigorous clinical trials,” he says. “We need policing and enforcement for anything making medical claims.”

Humans could become attached to a therapy chatbot, as was the case with Eliza, a chatbot developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s. However, Walsh doubts they will ever be as addictive or as great a threat as things like online gambling.

While the sentiment that AI-based therapy will assist rather than replace human therapy is quite universal, so is the view it can have a great impact.

“Achieving optimum mental health involves being open to all different ingredients, mixing it up and making a cake. AI can be part of that,” says Rooney.

If well regulated, Walsh says AI can augment humans in terms of treating people.

“I’m hopeful that benefits would be accentuated and the negatives or risks could be managed,” says Kelly. “The fact that it’s difficult and complex doesn’t mean we should shy away, just that we must think how best to capture the benefits of this technology.”

Brains behind the bots

Stanford psychologist and UCD PhD graduate Dr Alison Darcy is the brains behind Woebot: a chatbot combining artificial intelligence and cognitive behavioural therapy for mental health management.

“The goal is to make mental health radically accessible. Accessibility goes beyond the regular logistical things like trying to get an appointment,” explains the Dublin native, who conducted a randomised control trial of Woebot before launching. “It also includes things like whether it can be meaningfully integrated into everyday life.”

Darcy is clear that Woebot isn’t a replacement for human therapy, nor will he attempt to diagnose. In the interest of privacy, all data collected is treated as if users are in a clinical study.

Not intended for severe mental illness, Woebot is clear about what he can do. If he detects someone in crisis, Woebot declares the situation is beyond his reach and provides helplines and a link to a clinically-proven suicide-prevention app.

Originally from Wexford, Máirín Reid has also harnessed the capabilities of AI in the mental health sphere through Cogniant. Founded in Singapore with business partner Neeraj Kothari, it links existing clinicians and patients to allow for non-intrusive patient monitoring between sessions.

It’s currently being utilised by public health providers in Singapore with the aim of preventing relapses and aiding efficiency for human therapists. As Cogniant is recommended to users by human therapists, decisions on consent capabilities are formed by humans.

“Our on-boarding process is very clinically-driven,” says Reid. “We’re not there to replace, but to complement.”

While not intended for high-risk patients, Cogniant has an escalation process that connects any highly-distressed users to their therapist and provides supports. There’s also a great emphasis on privacy and being transparent from the offset.

“Clinicians are saying it drives efficiency and they can treat patients more effectively. Patients find it’s non-intrusive and not judgmental in any form.”

(First published by the Irish Times on August 23 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/machine-minds-can-ai-play-a-role-in-mental-health-therapy-1.3598546)