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/)

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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)

Watching from the wings – Irish Examiner, August 13 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Plastic planes, Sunday Business Post – July 22 2018

Recent studies and documentaries have offered a glimpse into the growing expanse of waste sweeping across our oceans. Yet as we gaze into the depths of this issue, we might forget about what lies above.

While more a convenience than a memorable experience for most of us, in-flight dining does leave a lasting mark on the environment. According to statistics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the average airline passenger generates 1.43 kg of waste. Considering this, and the fact that a record 4.1 billion airline passengers were recorded in 2017, we can estimate that approximately 5.8 million metric tonnes of cabin waste were generated last year. This includes unconsumed food and beverages, plastic utensils, packaging and lavatory waste, among other waste items.

Cabin waste continues to grow annually in line with passenger increases, according to Assistant Director of Environment at IATA, Jon Godson.

“In the absence of any change in regulations, it’s set to double in the next 15 years.”

This 1.43 kg estimate is a ‘very ballpark figure’, according to Godson, who says it was formed through a 2013 airline waste audit at Heathrow Airport. However, owing to the difficulty involved in arranging audits and subsequently, the lack of them, this is one of the few available estimates.

IRELAND’S INCOMING WASTE

If this estimate is applied to Irish airports, which saw 34.4 million passengers pass through in 2017, 48,000 metric tonnes of waste came off airplanes landing here last year. However, it’s difficult to form anything more than an estimate. A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture – the body responsible for licencing and inspecting landers, transporters and disposal sites dealing with International Catering Waste (ICW) – says the department ‘does not hold figures on what volume of material is taken from aircraft in Ireland.’

Additionally, Irish airlines will not disclose their cabin waste figures. According to Director of Communications with Aer Lingus Ruth Ranson, the company doesn’t make such data public.

“Aer Lingus is working to ensure greater waste reduction. The introduction of multi-sector bars in 2015 resulted in a 33 per cent reduction in inflight waste,” she adds, saying that an inflight service review to further consider waste reduction has recently commenced.

While Ryanair would also not disclose such data, Head of Communications Robin Kiely cites their recently launched Environmental Policy, which outlines their commitment to become the first airline to eliminate the use of non-recyclable plastics across operations within the next five years.

“We are working with our suppliers to source alternative packaging including cutlery, cups etc., which we will roll out in-flight and at our offices by 2023,” he says. “Our stock ordering system minimises waste by only ordering the stock we will need, and we also carry a large number of ambient products with long shelf lives.”

LAW OF THE LAND

In light of increasing recognition of the issue of waste, the EU have conjured up some new proposals. For example, the European Commission’s Single-Use Plastic Directive will ban certain single-use plastic products from the market, alongside other measures.However, the introduction of more sustainable waste measures in the aviation industry could be a turbulent battle. Waste reduction measures and plastic alternatives may be introduced but recycling cabin waste is no mean feat. At present, very little cabin waste is recycled.

The reasons why are multi-fold. EU legislation developed to prevent outbreaks of animal disease – which could occur through feeding contaminated food waste to animals – currently dictates how catering waste is treated when it lands on new shores. Under these EU Animal By-Product (ABP) Regulations, waste arriving from outside of the EU is classed as a Category 1 ABP, which is the highest risk category. Incineration, co-incineration or burial in an authorised landfill are the only permitted disposal methods for this waste.

Catering waste transported within the EU is classified as a Category 3 ABP, meaning that it is low-risk and some could potentially be recycled. However, many countries take absolute caution and treat all waste as high-risk. Such is the case in Ireland, as confirmed by the Department of Agriculture following a query from this newspaper.

“Waste from flights outside the EU and inside the EU are treated equally in Ireland as Category 1 ABP as it is not practical to determine the earlier destinations that the plane has been to and verify where food and passengers etc. have originated from.”

The Department currently lists Indaver Waste-to-Energy Facility in Duleek, Co Meath and Covanta Waste-to-Energy in Poolbeg as authorised incinerators for ICW, and Bord Na Mona’s Drehid Waste Management Facility (Kildare), Knockharley Landfill Limited (Meath) and Powerstown Landfill Site (Carlow) as authorised landfill sites. ICW also includes waste landing at Irish ports.

STRUCTURAL ISSUES

The law isn’t the only hurdle. According to former Irish Air Corps officer and current DCU lecturer in Aviation, Lt Col Kevin Byrne, lack of space on airplanes makes waste separation challenging.

“If we want to recycle, we have to increase the size of the space allocated for it so we can separate different streams of waste on-board the aircraft,” explains Byrne, who also serves as International President of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT).

Time demands, particularly on short-haul flights, also don’t lend themselves well to waste segregation measures, says Byrne, who explains that cabin crew already have a very heavy workload.

“It seems like a small element but it does have a huge effect on the efficiency of an aircraft.”

To introduce segregation measures would also require staff training, according to Odile Le Bolloch of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who notes that the EPA does not currently work with the aviation industry on waste matters.

“You would need to train cabin crew to segregate the waste and be 100 per cent sure there’s no mixing taking place,” says Le Bolloch, who manages the EPA’s Stop Food Waste programme.

A lack of uniformity between countries could also prove challenging if segregation and recycling was to be universally introduced.

“Not only is there a need for infrastructure on planes, but also in airports. If you’re flying into different airports, each with a different system for waste management, it could make things quite difficult,” says Le Bolloch.

NEED FOR CHANGE

It’s clear that the barriers to reducing and recycling cabin waste are aplenty but according to Byrne, there’s a need for change. Acknowledging that the issue has been ‘neglected for a long time’, he says that the aviation industry should emulate any sustainable changes made by the catering industry on the ground.

“Effectively in a plane, you have a fast-food chain in the sky. It focuses on lightweight things and getting it all out fast,” he says. “Airlines will have to make a special effort and have a portion of the aircraft where waste can be separated. It will mean extra work, effort and redesign but it should be the norm as long as ground-based restaurants do the same thing.”

We could also reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place by using glassware and metal utensils across the cabin, he suggests. While acknowledging this would add weight to the plane, Byrne believes it could be feasible.

 “It’s not sustainable to continue to do what we are doing at the moment.”

However, Godson is not positive this substitution would be any better for the environment.

“If we move from disposable plates and cutlery to rotables, the weight difference is significant. Weight increases fuel burn, if you increase that, you increase CO2. On top of that, we would have to install dishwashers, which would have detergents causing water pollution and increase CO2 through heating water.”

“We are calling for debate with the Commission to discuss what is the best environmental option and see if this [suggestion] is simply a displacement.”

Godson suggests other cabin waste reduction options such as meal selection at check-in, feeding passengers in airport terminals before flying and better passenger profiling to determine what frequent fliers consume.

While acknowledging the importance of EU legislation, Godson says that we should consider trading the highly cautious approach with a risk-based approach that does not compromise animal welfare.

“I think the law trumps everything. We have to respect that,” echoes Le Bolloch. Rather than easing up on the legislation, she suggests the need for clear guidance on low-risk waste segregation. In the UK, this has been done by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, she notes.

Ultimately, Le Bolloch says that change needs to come from within the industry and be supported by other key players.

“We can’t go in and try to do these things without working with industry, as we have no idea of their challenges.”

POSITIVE MOVES

Elsewhere in the EU, some moves are being made to tackle this issue. For example, between September 2016 and December 2019, the “Zero Cabin Waste” Project will run at Madrid’s Barajas airport. The project, which is led by Iberia and co-financed by the EU through the LIFE Programme, aims to reduce the amount of low-risk cabin waste sent to landfill. This will be achieved by introducing separation trollies, staff training and other supports that make recycling feasible. Once complete, it is hoped that the model will be rolled out in London’s Heathrow Airport and potentially elsewhere.

As the first airport to achieve a Zero Waste to Landfill accreditation from the Carbon Trust, Gatwick Airport is also leading the way. Along with reducing and recycling waste when possible, they opened a £3.8 million waste management plant last year, becoming the first airport worldwide to convert Category 1 airline waste into energy on-site.

With no clear plans to change the way we handle airplane catering waste in Ireland, whether we can significantly reduce our growing waste pile is a question that remains up in the air. Yet, as airlines form plans to reduce the amount of packaging generated in the first place, so too can passengers. Eating in advance, refilling reusable flasks in the terminal before boarding, refusing straws and plastic cups on-board and making special dietary requests known prior to long-haul travel are just some ways to reduce your trash trail. Consumer awareness of waste problems has reached great heights in recent times and perhaps that’s where the real change will commence: from the ground up.

(First published by the Sunday Business Post on July 22 2018. Available online at: https://www.businesspost.ie/magazine/plastic-planes-421313 )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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