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)

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A tern for the better – Irish Examiner, April 2 2018

A hugely successful conservation project has seen an Irish island nominated for a major European award, writes Amy Lewis.

In 1989, a conservation project on tiny Rockabill Island off north Dublin took flight and now it’s in the running for a major European environmental award.

The Rockabill Roseate Tern Conservation project is the only Irish initiative out of 25 finalists in this year’s Natura 2000 awards, a pan-European award which recognises excellence in the management of Natura 2000 sites.

Led by BirdWatch Ireland, this project focuses on conserving one of Europe’s rarest seabirds, the roseate tern, which owing to almost three decades of monitoring and conservation efforts, is now thriving here.

The Rockabill colony has grown from 152 pairs in 1989 to 1,603 pairs in 2017, making the island a nesting habitat for 47% of the European population.

This year marks the first time that an Irish-born project has been shortlisted for a Natura 2000 award.

Commenting on the nomination, senior seabird conservation officer with BirdWatch Ireland Dr Stephen Newton said that, in the coming weeks, he hopes to drum up support from the public, whose vote determines who will win the European Citizen’s Award.

“We think we have a good project. We have a tiny site with 80% of the biogeographical population of these birds on it,” says Stephen, who coordinates the project which is supported by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

“It’s of phenomenal importance; every bird is ringed, we know each bird’s mother, father, where it was born and what year they were born in.

“We have built a big database of their movements and survival rates and know an awful lot about them. It’s quite unique.”

It was the departure of the last lighthouse keepers from Rockabill in the late 1980s that prompted BirdWatch Ireland to step in. Up until then, roseate terns had gained protection and nesting spots in the gardens of the lighthouse keepers and it was feared that their absence may cause the already small population to decline further.

In 1988, Rockabill was declared a Special Protection Area (SPA) and the following year, BirdWatch Ireland sent the first pair of wardens to the island. Since then, wardens have resided on the island annually between April and August.

Much of the work involves increasing the area of nesting space for these ground-nesting birds by removing non-native vegetation such as tree mallow and placing down nest boxes.

“The terns like nesting under tree mallow but only around the edges as they like seeing what is going on around them to avoid predators. We essentially remove all that, compost it and put out nest boxes so that we can get far more terns nesting in the same area,” explains Stephen, who says there are currently about 900 nest boxes on the island.

The wardens check each nest daily to monitor the bird’s progress, see how many eggs were laid and when they hatch. All of the chicks are then ringed and monitored throughout their lifespan.

We have four or five hides around the tiny island and we sit in those for a couple of hours at a time to scan and try to read ring numbers of as many animals as we can. Because of this, we have a lot of information on the birds and how long they survive. Our oldest bird is 25 years old.

The ringing system also allows the team to track the whereabouts of the terns post breeding season; occasionally, they receive photographs of them in unexpected locations such as Lake Geneva and the River Seine.

It’s uncertain why the European population of roseate terns declined to globally-threatened status in the years preceding this project.

According to Stephen, it’s likely that persecution by predators and loss of key breeding sites resulted in birds becoming displaced and not breeding for several years. While many of them eventually settled on Rockabill, there are also about 200 pairs at Lady’s Island in Wexford.

Though it has been hugely successful, the Roseate Tern project is not without its challenges. Stephen says that the main hurdle he faces is looking after the wardens who reside on Rockabill in accommodation leased from island owners Irish Lights.

“The main thing is keeping those people alive during these few months! Everything has to be taken out to the island, including food, water, gas and diesel.

“I have to keep a generator running and often I get a call during the night to say it isn’t working. If I can’t fix it over the phone, I have to get out there as soon as I can as we need electricity to power laptops and chargers.”

Ensuring that the project has adequate funding is another challenge; at present, it costs approximately €40,000 a year, much of comes from the EU LIFE programme.

While not involved in the project himself, bird expert Eric Dempsey has been following the work and says it’s an “incredible attraction” for birdwatchers on his guided tours.

“Very few of us are able to go to the island which is the way it should be. Terns are very prone to disturbance; if you disturb them from nesting, gulls can swoop in and take their eggs,” he explains.

“The wonderful thing about this project is that in places like Skerries, the birds are feeding right off of the piers and coastal walkways so I don’t need to bring people to the island.

For people to be able to see the roseate tern catching fish 20 metres off shore, it’s as good as seeing Trinity College or the Rock of Cashel.

“This is unique to Dublin and special to the east coast and we should cherish it.”

Voting closes on April 22 and votes can be cast via natura2000award-application.eu/finalist/3188

(First published in the Irish Examiner on April 2 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/outdoorsandgarden/a-tern-for-the-better-835300.html)

Natural Pest Control Method Taking Flight – Earth Island Journal, February 26 2018

Farmers from Israel to California are embracing barn owls over toxic rodenticides

A recent study linking fatalities of California’s endangered northern spotted owl to rodenticide poisoning on marijuana farms reignited the flaming debate about the use of chemical agents in agriculture. Yet as discussion rages on, farmers elsewhere are using owls as a pest control solution, hopefully preventing them from becoming pest control victims. And the idea seems to be taking off.

photo of barn owl box

Photo by Bill Gracey: A mature barn owl delivers food to a young owl nesting in an owl box. Barn owls are cavity nesters, meaning they nest in places like hollow trees, open buildings, and nest boxes.

Most farmers use rodenticides to minimize the damage that rodents can cause to crops, but it is no secret that these chemicals can have unintended effects, such as the secondary poisoning of non-target species. As a result, some people have attempted to find other ways of keeping pests at bay, including by attracting barn owls to fields to prey on rodents.

Using barn owls as a form of biological pest control is certainly not a novel idea. First developed as a pest control technique through Malaysian studies in the 1970s, the idea truly took flight in Israel in 1981 when local researchers and farmers decided to test it out at Kibbutz Neot Mordechai, an agricultural community in the Hula Valley. Led by the Society for the Protection of Nature, the Nature and Parks Authority, three keen researchers, and some local farmers, this project saw the installation of eight barn owl boxes, three of which were occupied within a year. (Barn owls are drawn to boxes as nesting sites.) However, like most scientific experimentation, the trial did not come without complications. A pioneering young nature conservationist with the Society for the Protection for Nature, Yehuda Weiss, who played a pivotal role in the research, was killed in action in Lebanon when war later broke out in June 1982, bringing the vital work in this area to a halt.

This did not deter the researchers and farmers involved. Confident in the efficacy of the method following the trial and resulting nestbox occupation, they relaunched their project the following year in Israel’s Beit Shean Valley. Three decades later, and following plenty of ups and downs, between 3,500 and 4,000 owl boxes have been erected across Israel by open-minded farmers willing to give this method a try. The growing interest in natural pest control methods has spurred several related initiatives, including a national barn owl box program and a regional cross-border peace project with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Another recent initiative is the Shamir Research Institute at Haifa University’s Project Bird Box Israel. This group aims to assist farmers who wish to set up their own owl boxes through education and the provision of boxes. Dr. Motti Charter, Head of Project Bird Box Israel, is quick to credit local farmers for the success of this pest control method.

“I’ve given many ideas in my life, but sometimes it’s very easy to simply just say an idea; the person who takes and does it deserves the credit. In Israel, this initiative is 100 percent down to the farmers. They did it slowly and took their time. Little by little, it grew,” explains Charter, whose scientific research sees him monitoring all of the boxes in the Hula Valley in order to improve the efficiency of the nest boxes. “I’ve been able to jump on board because I researched owls but I would have never been able to do this if it wasn’t for them.”

Such methods require more than just barn owls and some willing farmers; having the correct infrastructure in place is key. Barn owls are cavity nesters, so farmers can attract them to an area with a rodent problem — and encourage them to remain and breed there — by erecting simple pole-mounted nest boxes. Project Bird Box Israel offers some assistance to farmers to help purchase the boxes, which cost $250 each, but Charter says that farmers personally pay 95 percent of the price themselves.

Over in the US, Mark Browning, who owns the company Barn Owl Box, has supplied at least 5,000 boxes to farmers and landowners interested in testing out biological pest control. For him, it is not solely a business. It was Browning’s own satellite telemetry study on barn owls, which he conducted while working at the Pittsburgh Zoo, that encouraged him that this was a worthwhile cause. He spent a year and a half perfecting the perfect barn owl box design before putting it on the market.

Echoing Charter, Browning says he doesn’t try to convince farmers to use his solution, he just presents the information. “The way you encourage people to adopt a method is by ensuring that you get the information out there,” he explains. “It is easy for farmers to believe that using a bird is esoteric and mystical but they may not necessarily feel they’re effective at controlling rodents.”

But sometimes the research speaks for itself. Indeed, a three-year study conducted by Browning and colleagues to measure the impact of barn owls on rodent populations on a 40-ha vineyard in California appears promising. The installation of 25 nest boxes on the vineyard led to the rapid growth of the barn owl population on the treatment site. As bird numbers grew, there was a significant decline in the number of gopher mounds. The researchers estimated that the birds consumed 30,020 rodents over three years. They also deemed biological pest control as more cost-effective than trapping or poisoning as it only requires one initial investment in the boxes, rather than repeated investment in traps or rodenticides.

Barn owls are a species that lend themselves well to the task of pest control for several reasons, explains Browning. Unlike other birds, they are not territorial and are happy to nest near one another, as well as within close proximity to humans. They are also attracted to nest boxes, while the fact that they are not powerful fliers ensures that they won’t stray far from their prey source. All of these factors, along with the fact that barn owls pose no threat to livestock, has inspired landowners to test barn owl-based pest control through small initiatives in Argentina, the UK, and Indonesia. Other birds have also been shown to have a similar pest control benefit. For example, researchers in New Zealand found that vineyards with resident falcons had significantly fewer pest birds and less grape damage.

According to Browning, the relationship between barn owls and farmers is symbiotic: “Every time we are distributing a nest box, we are expanding habitat for a very important bird, as well as experiencing a practical application of using natural methods of control. That’s a win-win situation.”

While confident in the method, Browning hopes that more studies will be carried out to determine the effectiveness of barn owls across various cropping systems and scenarios. Roger Baldwin, a wildlife specialist at University of California, Davis, echoes the desire for more studies in this area. Together with colleagues, he is currently conducting research to see whether the birds of prey can help control rapidly expanding populations of rodents such as voles.

Baldwin believes that using barn owls to control rodent numbers will be more effective if all landowners in a given area use the same method, therefore encouraging a greater regional density of owls. However, based on current knowledge, he feels that there’s no one size fits all solution to pest control, and is a firm believer in a combined approach.

“I suspect that in most cases regarding the management of pests, the integrated pest management approach is the most effective; this incorporates multiple strategies of pest control and can target the susceptibility of an animal,” he says. “For example, some creatures are not as prone to walking into traps, others are not as prone to feed on bait or be predated on.”

Baldwin believes that there will always be a place for rodenticides and is quick to address their dirty reputation. “Everyone thinks of rodenticide as one product. There are a variety of different kinds with different active ingredients. Not all of them have the same risk to non-target species and some have no secondary risks. It is a bit challenging to use the term rodenticide without understanding the differences,” he says.

While second generation anticoagulants have been shown to cause harm to non-target species, Baldwin says that other chemicals such as zinc phosphide have relatively no harmful secondary effects. Overall, he feels that responsible usage is key.

However, Maggie Ruffo, a wildlife volunteer with Earth Island Institute’s Raptors Are The Solution (RATS) initiative, would “strongly disagree” that any rodenticides can be used safely.

“From all the research we have read, there are no safe poisons,” says Ruffo, who is also a certified naturalist and volunteer with the Hungry Owl Project. “Anything you put out into the environment is going to cause a problem for wildlife.”

The primary aim of the RATS initiative is to take rat poison off the market and educate the public in alternative pest control methods. According to Ruffo, barn owls are one tool in the toolbox of Integrated Pest Management,” and can in fact be more effective than rodenticides, which can wipe out beneficial predator species through secondary poisoning.

“Rodents are always going to be part of the environment,” Ruffo adds. “They are the chosen prey item for many species. It’s a question of us learning to live with that fact, and doing our best to keep them out of our dwellings and businesses … and then creating attractive habitat for our beneficial predators.”

(First published on Earth Island Journal on February 26 2018. Available online at: http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/elist/eListRead/natural_pest_control_method_taking_flight/)

The definitive guide to avoiding Penang’s tourist traps – Zafigo.com, February 8 2018

colour-1298862_1280 (1)As a cultural melting pot, foodie hub and historical hotspot, Penang has become a major tourist destination for both Malaysian and international tourists. However, with so much to do here, it comes as no surprise that the island’s main landmarks can be crowded 365 days of the year. If you’re staying a while and are sick of the hustle and bustle, try this list of alternative activities:

BEST VIEW

Skip Penang Hill

See Muka Head Lighthouse

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The stunning views of Penang’s coastline. (Photo Credit: Amy Lewis)

Gazing down at the twinkling lights of George Town from the peak of Penang Hill is certainly worth ticking off the list. However, if you’re seeking something a bit more tranquil and wish to avoid the crowds, head to Muka Head Lighthouse at Penang’s National Park. It’s not easy to get to – prepare for a sweaty hike through the forest! – but the stunning views of Penang’s coastline will revitalise a tired body and mind. Climb up the twisting staircase to the top and perch yourself on the balcony to watch white-tailed sea eagles soar and be soothed by the sound of the crashing waves below.

BEST BEACH

Skip Batu Ferringhi

See Gertak Sanggul

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This small fishing village is the epitome of a lazy afternoon. (Photo Credit: Amy Lewis)

When you have eaten double your weight in Penang’s famous hawker food, what better place for an afternoon doze than the beach? Batu Ferringhi is Penang’s most popular beach and while it’s beautiful, you will likely have to battle for towel space on a busy day. Head to Gertak Sanggul instead. I stumbled across this beach during a drive around the island and found it to be the perfect place to digest both my thoughts and my food. Nestled along the southern coast of Penang at the edge of a quaint fishing village, it’s rarely frequented by tourists and so, is the epitome of calm. Come here with a good book and watch the boats and your worries float away.

BEST MARKET

Skip Batu Ferringhi Night Market

See Hin Sunday Pop-Up Market

Support the local artists and craftspeople at Hin's Pop Up Market. (Photo Credit Hin's PopUP Facebook)

Support the local artists and craftspeople at Hin Pop Up Market. (Photo Credit Hin Pop Up Market)

Every Sunday, the grounds of Hin Bus Depot spring to life with a small artisan market brimming with local crafts and trinkets. Handmade batik garments, natural cosmetics, mouth-watering food and statement jewellery are just some of the treasures on offer at this weekly affair, which sees new stalls springing up each week. While you won’t find the same offering of cheap clothes available in Batu Ferringhi, you will come across plenty of unique gems unavailable anywhere else. What’s more, by buying something here, you are supporting local artists and craftspeople. For the perfect Sunday, take a yoga class at nearby Wholey Wonder and peruse the market stalls before crashing on the grass at Hin Bus Depot to tuck into a tasty lunch.

BEST FOR A COFFEE AND CATCHUP

Skip Starbucks

See The Alley

Skip the staple branded coffee houses and spend an evening at a local shop instead. (Photo Credit: The Alley Penang)

Why go Starbucks when you can have churros at The Alley? (Photo Credit: The Alley Penang)

Let’s face it: I can go to Starbucks anytime. Despite having a three-letter name, they can never get mine right! If I’m in need of an afternoon energy boost or want somewhere to chill with friends, The Alley at Stewart Lane is my top pick. Why? One word: Churros! The small and simple café is famous for the warm doughy delights, which offer crispy skins and fluffy centres in good, equal measure. Paired with a selection of sauces (try the salted caramel) and a steaming mug of coffee, it makes for the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. The only downside of going with friends? Having to share.

BEST BAR

Skip Love Lane

See Magazine 63

(Photo Credit: SM Butler)

A true speakeasy bar, Magazine 63 is quite a challenge to find, but oh so worth it once you do. (Photo Credit: SM Butler)

Walking through Love Lane at night feels a bit like being in a bizarre video game – you have to dodge and leap over dozens of pushy bar promo staff to get to the power up i.e. a refreshing cocktail or mocktail at the end of a busy day. On top of that, the crowds and noise continue to swell as the night goes on. Ditch the hectic nightlife and head to Magazine 63 on Jalan Magazine instead. Nestled behind an inconspicuous doorway, it’s quite a challenge to find; but trust me, it’s worth it. Behind its shabby exterior sits a trendy speakeasy dripping in vintage class, with a unique cocktail menu to boot. Add to that cosy seating, regular live bands and DJ sets and you’ve got yourself the perfect watering hole. A word of warning: at bars this trendy, drinks don’t come cheap.

BEST UNIQUE PHOTO SPOT

Skip 3D Trick Art Museum

See Penang Avatar Secret Garden

(Photo Credit: Flickr / ShangChieh )

The mini forest comes to life with dazzlig lights. (Photo Credit: Flickr / ShangChieh)

Trick art museums have seen a surge in popularity in recent years, but once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. If you’re hoping to get some unusual snaps for the ‘gram, head to Avatar Secret Garden at Tanjung Tokong before sunset instead. When the daylight fades, the mini forest is transformed into an enchanted land that is alive with dazzling lights in myriad hue. A near replica of the mystical land of Pandora in Avatar, this hidden gem is sure to take your breath away.

BEST CAFE WORKSPACE

Skip Co-workingspaces

See BEAN Sprout Cafe

Fancy working out  of a quaint little heritage building? (Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes)

Fancy working out of a quaint little heritage building? (Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes)

Co-working spaces certainly have their place and I’d be the first to praise them for their reliable Wi-Fi and endless networking opportunities. However, when in Penang, you might as well soak in the atmosphere while getting some work done. Enter BEAN Sprout Café. Set in a beautiful two-storey heritage building, this relaxed coffee shop is a good spot to escape to when you need to get stuff done and dusted. If the rustic décor and chilled music fail to inspire, sit and work from the balcony which offers great views of the hustle and bustle of George Town. Failing that, their delicious coffee or tasty brunches should be enough to set the brain cogs into motion.

BEST CITY CENTRE OASIS

Skip Armenian Park

See Garden at 23 Love Lane

Who knew such a serene little corner existed on Love Lane? (Photo Credit 23 Love Lane)

Who knew such a serene little corner existed on Love Lane? (Photo Credit: 23 Love Lane)

Who knew that such a serene oasis existed along hectic Love Lane? Well, it does, and it’s in the form of this boutique hotel’s stunning garden courtyard. It’s the ideal place to escape the mid-afternoon sun and catch up on some reading over a refreshing drink. Non-staying guests are welcome to enjoy the garden courtyard provided they purchase something from the hotel bar. Coffee al fresco amid restful settings? Who can say ‘no’ to that?

(First published on Zafigo.com on February 8 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/guide-avoiding-penangs-tourist-traps/)

 

10 Dreamy Winterscapes Worth Braving the Chill for – Zafigo.com, January 1 2018

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While the fairy lights may be twinkling and the shops may be heaving, the sun-soaked majority of Southeast Asia is a different world to the chilly, snow-covered places that we often hear about in Christmas songs. It may already be January, but it’s still winter, so if you’re in need of a vacation and want to experience the beauty and enchantment of the winter chill, bundle up and plan your getaway to these places!

Harbin, China

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Do you wanna build a snowman? Or perhaps an icy replica of the Egyptian pyramids? At the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, the world is the canvas. The festival’s 34th edition officially opens on 5th January 2018 and will go on till end February 2018, but the flurry of events and activities actually begin from mid-December, as international ice sculptors start working on exquisitely-detailed sculptures ranging from recreations of famous landmarks to mythical creatures.

Although generally known as one festival, it is, in actual fact, made up of at least three main events: Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo, Harbin Ice and Snow World, and Ice Lantern Fair. All of which add up to more than a mouthful, but all you need to know is this: There will be many moments of awe as you walk among larger-than-life structures meticulously crafted from fine snow and get close to faithful reproductions of iconic landmarks constructed of solid ice ‘bricks’, all lit up colourfully.

Hallstatt, Austria

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With many of its main attractions closed for the season, the quaint village of Hallstatt is almost devoid of tourists during winter. There won’t be much to do, but there’s also no better time to catch postcard-perfect snapshots, sans the crowds. Enjoy the breath-taking scenery along the lakeside before curling up with a good book by a roaring fireplace at your B&B.

Edinburgh, Scotland

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With the magnificent Edinburgh Castle as its backdrop, there’s something truly magical about Edinburgh in winter. Despite freezing temperatures, the Christmas period sees its narrow cobblestone streets spring to life with craft markets, fairgrounds, live music performances and even an outdoor ice rink. The town is also famous for having one of the world’s best New Year’s celebrations, known locally as Hogmanay.

Prague, Czech Republic

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Ask anyone in Europe about a Christmas market and the annual event in Prague is sure to come up again and again. Whether you’re shopping for gifts or just browsing, the sprawling rows of stalls piled high with local crafts and foods are worth a few hours of wandering. Warm yourself up from the inside with some grog – warm rum and lemon – or a decadent hot chocolate. The latter pairs well with trdelnik, a rolled dough mix that is grilled and topped with sugar and walnuts.

Lake Bled, Slovenia

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Just one look at ethereal Lake Bled and its surroundings and you’ll be transported into your favourite fairy tale! If you visit in winter, you may even be lucky enough to have it almost all to yourself. Create a fantasy of your own by taking a boat out to the lake’s snow-dusted island while embracing the tranquillity and stunning natural landscape.

Yellowstone National Park, USA

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Yellowstone is pure paradise for those seeking both chills and thrills. Power down the snow-covered slopes on skis or a snowmobile before dipping a toe (or your whole body) into one of the park’s steamy hot springs. Naturally, the park is also a haven for lovers of the great outdoors; you can observe species such as wolves, elk and bison in their unspoiled habitat.

Shirakawa-gō, Japan

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If bucket loads of snow is what you’re after, look no further than the villages of Shirakawa- gō, a rural region nestled at the foot of Mount Haku-san in central Japan. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its traditional thatched houses called gassho-zukuri, which look even more spectacular when illuminated and topped with a thick layer of snow.

Annecy, France

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While most visitors to the region quickly skate through to get to the other more famous ski resorts nearby, this romantic gem of an alpine town is worth a visit. Its winding cobbled streets, pastel-coloured houses and the remarkable Château d’Annecy makes this medieval city appear as though it has been taken straight out of a storybook.

Lapland, Finland

 

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Finland’s northernmost region is sure to enthral adults and children alike. Famous for its jolly bearded resident (Santa Claus!), it also boasts some of the most magnificent winter landscapes imaginable. Cross your fingers and hope to catch the Northern Lights!

Banff National Park, Canada

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Its snow-capped mountains and striking blue lakes are enough to make any adventurer’s jaw drop. At Banff National Park you can also enjoy ice walking, dog-sledding, skating on Lake Louise and hitting the slopes in some of the world’s top ski resorts. Feeling lazy? Pamper yourself at the sauna or pick out a hibernation point in front of the biggest fireplace you can find.

(First published on Zafigo.com on January 1, 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/dreamy-winterscapes-worth-braving/)

What I learned from visiting Thailand’s famous elephant sanctuaries – Zafigo.com, November 22 2017

My first experience with an elephant was pretty artificial. Being from Ireland, it was unlikely that I would find these magnificent creatures while wandering the streets or playing in a field. Unsurprisingly, my first memory of elephants is the same as most of my peers’: Watching the movie Dumbo at the tender age of four.

I remember well how I cried when young Dumbo was separated from his mother. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine anything more traumatic, and failed to comprehend how humans can be so cruel towards an innocent creature. Of course, Dumbo is fiction. And as I grew older, I realised that acts of cruelty towards elephants are indeed very real. Across the globe, thousands of elephants are kept in poor conditions and forced to entertain humans through rides and performances.

Because of these realisations, I’ve long vowed to never support such acts, and I know I’m not alone. In recent years, there has been increasing awareness about the unethical treatment of elephants in riding camps, which has encouraged many tourists to avoid them.  As a result, numerous ‘ethical’ elephant sanctuaries have been established in their place.

While in Thailand, I decided to pay a visit to one and after much research, settled on a sanctuary I believed held the best interests of elephants at its core. The experience was unforgettable.

We learned about their former lives as logging and riding elephants, including the horrendous ‘spirit-breaking’ process they endured to make them submissive. We were informed about the work that the organisation are doing to give them a better life and their ongoing efforts to change public attitudes. And, apart from feeding one older elephant, we simply watched them from afar. I may not have left with hundreds of elephant selfies like most, but it is because of this that I left feeling certain that I supported a good cause.

Fast forward several months to when I was in northern Thailand with some friends. The idea of visiting an elephant sanctuary arose and I jumped at the chance of seeing these creatures again. We chose to visit another well-known sanctuary, where the elephants roam free and riding isn’t an option. Yet, while this visit was also preceded by plenty of research, the outcome wasn’t so positive.

Our arrival coincided with the approach of several elephants from a nearby hill. It seemed unlikely that this was a natural response to the arrival of loud, sweaty humans but I guess it was all part of the show to come.

Then, our guide introduced himself and apologised that he must give a quick safety talk, insisting that we would have plenty of time afterwards to “play with the elephants” and “take selfies.” “We want you to have fun” was their message, though not a mention was given to how the elephants felt, where they came from and why they were there.

We were then allowed to feed the elephants, which felt okay, to a point. The handlers then encouraged the elephants to do tricks, which we were told they still remembered from their circus days. While probably true, it felt wrong to encourage them to perform these charades for the sake of a photo.

After eating, the elephants were brought down to a mud pool, many of them being tugged in by their ears. Most of the visitors opted to get in with them for a mud bath, with some lying across their backs to get a selfie.

Elephants and humans alike were then given the chance to cool down in a river. “The elephants can leave the water when they like,” we were told, but the reality wasn’t so idyllic. Observing everything from the riverbank, I saw several elephants leave the water and head uphill. When one tried to take an alternative route, I noticed a handler slip a sharp nail from his pocket and prod his head. The elephant swiftly obeyed.

Following lunch, I witnessed another act of cruelty when an elephant attempted to take some leftover rice from a pot. A handler quickly ran over and led him away, but not without smacking him with a stick when he felt he was out of eye and earshot of us.

I left feeling uneasy and with many unanswered questions, despite my attempts to learn more throughout the day. Where did these elephants really come from? Unlike the first sanctuary, these elephants were allowed to breed. What will happen to their newborns? Was I just being paranoid?

Various conversations following my visit confirmed my suspicions that not all was what it seemed. While better than a riding camp, this place was definitely more concerned with entertaining tourists than helping elephants.

Elephant tourism in Thailand is not diminishing, but simply evolving. According to World Animal Protection (WAP), there’s been a 30 per cent increase in the number of captive elephants there between 2010 and 2016. People are becoming aware that most tourists won’t support animal cruelty, and so they are slapping labels like ‘sanctuary’ and ‘eco-tourism’ on their fliers. Yet, if the animals are still being controlled and sometimes hurt to please humans and keep us safe, what’s the difference?

Indeed, not all elephant sanctuaries are fake. Elephant Nature Park, Wildlife Friends of Thailand, and Kindred Spirit are three world-renowned organisations that are making a difference. They are worthy of and in need of public support.

I cannot turn back the clock or forget what I witnessed, but I can encourage others to research thoroughly before they visit an elephant sanctuary. Ask questions. Choose wisely. And if it appears too good to be true, it probably is.

(First published on Zafigo.com on November 22 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/visiting-thailands-elephant-sanctuaries/)