Parachuting birds into long-lost territory may save them from extinction – Science magazine, May 5 2017

Saving the Spanish imperial eagle was never going to be easy. This enormous bird, which once dominated the skies above Spain, Portugal, and northern Morocco, saw its numbers drop to just 380 breeding pairs in 2014, thanks to habitat loss, poaching, poisoning from farmers and hunters, and electrocution from power lines. Now, a new study highlights a potential way of restoring eagle populations to their former glory: dropping them into long-abandoned habitat.

One common approach for bringing threatened species back from the brink is to reintroduce them to the places they were last known to live. For example, the sea eagle in Scotland—which was hunted to extinction on the Isle of Skye in 1916—was successfully reintroduced in 1975 to Rùm Island near its last known breeding ground. But not all such efforts bear fruit: When scientists tried to release the same bird to its former range in western Ireland in 2007, the newcomers fell victim to the same poisoning that had done them in 107 years earlier.

“The tendency is to think that the last place that an animal was present is the best place for the species, but this isn’t always the case,” says Virginia Morandini, a biologist with the Spanish National Research Council’s Doñana Biological Station near Seville.

So Morandini and her colleagues teamed up with conservation biologist Miguel Ferrer of the Migres Foundation at Doñana to try a different approach. Along with the Andalusian government’s Spanish Imperial Eagle Action Plan, they introduced imperial eagles into a territory they last inhabited some 50 years ago, far from established populations. Their method had some strong theoretical underpinnings because relict populations that have been pushed into small, low-quality habitats—often the “last known address” of threatened species—are thought to have relatively low breeding rates.

From 2002 to 2015, the Doñana team monitored 87 eagles that had been released in the south of Cádiz province of Spain, some 85 kilometers from the nearest established eagles. Meanwhile, the researchers monitored a naturally occurring population of eagles in south-central Spain. When scientists analyzed the breeding success of the two groups—a proxy for how well the eagles might survive over the long run—they found that the relocated population produced nearly twice as many chicks, they reported last month in Ecology and Evolution. Morandini attributes their success to the ready availability of prey and breeding partners, as well as efforts to reduce threats from hunters and exposed power lines.

The results suggest such reintroductions can be helpful in recovering endangered populations, especially when natural range expansion isn’t a possibility, says Doug Armstrong, a conservation biologist at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand. But Armstrong, who was instrumental in rehabilitation efforts in New Zealand of a honeyeater-like bird called the hihi, also warns that this method won’t work for every threatened species. Lots of factors can lead to failure: selecting an inappropriate site, unpredictable environmental factors, and stress after reintroduction.

Cornell University ecologist Amanda Rodewald says that—even with its upsides—the approach should be seen as a last resort. “With ongoing climate change and habitat destruction, we are likely to be turning to [reintroduction] methods more and more,” she says. “However, taking proactive conservation steps such as habitat protection before a species becomes critically endangered is always going to be the most cost-effective and successful approach.”

(First published by Science magazine on May 5 2017. Available online at: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/parachuting-birds-long-lost-territory-may-save-them-extinction)

Is tracking technology putting creatures in danger? – Irish Times, April 13 2017

Electronic tracking or telemetry is a tool used to gain insight into species behaviour. Data gathered through this method helps to expand our knowledge on certain creatures and serves as a stepping stone to developing conservation strategies and informing policy. However, recent research indicates that it may be a double-edged sword.

A paper on research led by Prof Steven Cooke in Conservation Biology illustrates how poachers are using tracking technology to locate and kill the very species it was intended to protect. One method discussed is“cyber poaching”: the act of hacking into GPS collars to track down animals. The paper points to one notable – yet thankfully thwarted – attempt in India involving a Bengal tiger.

Hacking GPS systems takes “serious computing abilities”, but Cooke said it is relatively easy to tamper with basic devices.

“With a simple radio tag, you can buy a receiver for $300 (€280) online, turn the dial until you hear the animal, and go and find it,” the biology professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University told The Irish Times.

Cooke and fellow researchers also looked at how other groups can abuse tracking devices. An example occurred in Banff National Park, where photographers used personal telemetry equipment to locate wildlife in their quest for a perfect snapshot. As a result, Parks Canada implemented a public ban on VHF radio receivers.

Data gathered through telemetry is often made publicly available by researchers, particularly online. The paper describes how open-access data can prove problematic, with the researchers stressing the need to “share data in forms that do not facilitate abuse”.

“Telemetry provides data that people find interesting and easy to understand but there are ways to tell a story without telling exact animal positions,” said Cooke.

Data misuse

Since the paper was released, many people have come forward with examples of tracking and data misuse. A conference on the issue will be held in Australia in June. “We wanted to get the community talking like this so we can act before it is too late,” said Cooke.

Chairman of the Golden Eagle Trust Ronan Hannigan said tracking is an extremely useful tool, especially for monitoring re-released birds. Though he does not view hacking as a threat here, the trust guards sensitive data, particularly with highly-persecuted animals such as peregrines.

To avoid interference, the Golden Eagle Trust strives to keep nest locations private. If information is leaked, however, they find it safer to make it completely public. “Most people become natural custodians for animals if they know they are there and so it becomes too risky for poachers to target them,” said Hannigan.

When deciding to reveal an animal’s location, Dr Colin Lawton from the NUIG zoology department, says he believes it should be treated on a case-by-case basis.

“It depends whether an animal is particularly sensitive to interference,” says Dr Lawton, who has used radio tracking to monitor squirrels without major issue. “We want to be open without causing a problem to the species. Overall though, I’ve a lot of faith in the public.”

While acknowledging that sharing animal locations on social media can prove problematic – an issue touched upon in Cooke’s paper – Lawton finds the tool beneficial for disseminating and collecting information.

Lecturer in wildlife conservation and zoonotic epidemiology in University College Dublin Dr Barry McMahon says that preventing the abuse of telemetry and data requires the management of people.

“It’s not about the management of data but the management of how humans respond to having specific information,” he said.“Before researching a species, you must carry out studies to see where stakeholders are, how they feel about the creature and how they are being treated.”

Sustainable option

Whether studying Irish wildlife or a threatened species abroad, he feels this strategy is effective. “If a species is being poached, you must ask, Why are people poaching? They are probably in a terrible situation,” he said.“You would hope that, through working with these groups, they might find an alternative, more sustainable option.”

McMahon is a firm believer in open-access data. Though recognising its drawbacks, he feels legislation will eventually adapt to prevent abuses of this model.

Director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre Dr Liam Lysaght is “not aware” of examples of the abuse of telemetry in Ireland but he too stresses the need for risk assessment studies prior to research or disseminating information. While there is a “small suite of species” for which he feels the need to “blur data”, overall, he says that withholding data does more harm than good.

“Over the last 30 years, nature conservation has suffered tremendously in Ireland,” he said.“Data on rarer species has been restricted as people feel making it available might threaten them. This policy hasn’t helped conservation.”

In recent years, he has witnessed researchers becoming more open. This has raised the profile of certain species and is also key in issues such as informing planning decisions.

“Open access is the only way forward,” he said.“The transition from a protective attitude to an open one has been fundamental to what we do.”

PANEL: TAKING TO THE SKIES

Irish researchers may not view poaching as a concern for most native species, but it is a threat to others worldwide, particularly those perceived as valuable such as rhinoceros and elephant. In an effort to conquer poaching in South Africa’s national parks, global defence and aerospace company Paramount Group decided to aim high – literally.

The Johannesburg-based group recently began training dogs in their Anti-Poaching and Canine Training Academy to parachute from planes and helicopters in tandem with a handler. So far, one dog has been trained, with many more set to follow.

“With the African bush being such a vast wilderness and sometimes inaccessible via vehicle, it became clear that alternative methods of insertion must be considered,” said a spokesperson.“Parachuting enables getting the dogs on the ground as fast as possible.”

Though the parachute initiative is in its infancy, the canine anti-poaching unit has already seen success. One dog, Killer, and his handler have been responsible for the arrest of 115 groups of poachers in Kruger.

“These dogs have proven to be the most effective tool . . . [for] stopping or finding poachers,” said the spokesperson.“Before the use of dogs in anti-poaching operations, the success rate was extremely low due to the vast and dense bush. Today, almost every anti-poaching unit has dogs assisting them.”

(First published in the Irish Times print edition on April 13, 2017. Also available online at: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/is-tracking-technology-putting-creatures-in-danger-1.3035028)

Geese flock into Wexford for the winter – Wexford People, November 5 2016

Five hundred Greenland white-fronted geese touched down in Wexford last week following a treacherous 15 hour flight.

The visitors are some of the first of this year’s migrants to flock to Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, with an estimated 7,500 more of the species expected to fly in over the next few weeks.

‘It was a great sight to see them coming in,’ said Education Officer at Wexford Wildfowl Reserve John Kinsella. ‘At about half seven or eight in the morning, we could see them in the air flying over the Raven Woods before they landed next to the pond here.’

It was no easy feat for the birds to get here. According to John, the birds were subjected to strong winds, a non-stop flight and significant weight loss to reach their winter home.

‘They burn off half a kilo on the flight. That’s like us losing two stone,’ he said.

Over the next eight weeks, the remaining white-fronted geese will arrive in Wexford, where they will settle down until March. However, they cannot begin their journey until the wind direction changes to blow from the north.

‘The flight takes from 15 to 18 hours so they need the wind behind them to be able to do it,’ said John.

The Greenland white-fronted goose breeds in west Greenland and migrates via Iceland to winter in Ireland and Britain. They winter at less than ten sites in Ireland and the Wexford Slobs record the highest numbers.

Several thousand brent geese are also expected to arrive in the coming weeks and at peak time, John expects there to be a total of ’25 tons of geese’ on the lake at the Wildfowl Reserve.

In honour of the arrival of the birds, several events as part of Goose Week were organised by the Wexford Wildfowl reserve. These included dawn and evening watches and a walk at the Raven to see geese rise from their roost.

Hen harriers, godwits and plovers are some of the other birds observed.

(First published in the Wexford People newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/geese-flock-into-wexford-for-the-winter-35176442.html)

Wexford Forest School initiative aims to bring learning to the great outdoors – New Ross Standard, October 15 2016

Bringing learning to the great outdoors is the aim of the new Wexford Forest School initiative which planted its roots in the Irish National Heritage Park recently.

The first forest school in the county to be funded by a local authority, it will welcome children from schools across Wexford to learn about protecting the environment, bushcraft, building shelter and identifying nature. It came together through the collaboration between Outdoor Park Manager Chris Hayes, Ciara Hinksman of Earth Force Education and local Forest Rangers Orla Gallagher and Shane Furlong.

‘There is a phrase that has been coined by Richard Louv called “nature deficit disorder” that is used to describe the negative consequences that occur when children don’t spend enough time outdoors. Parents and families are so busy with school, homework and dinners to be made so it can be challenging for them to get the kids out in the evening,’ explained Orla. ‘We are looking at this as a way of getting children to come and engage with nature and develop a passion for the outdoors. Kids are the future stewards of the environment. If they don’t learn how to care for it and appreciate it, who will?’

Children from Crossabeg National School are the first to dive into the project and will visit the park each Thursday over the next seven weeks. Their first visit to the site was met with great enthusiasm from not only the children, but the teachers themselves.

‘The kids had really positive feedback about the day and did everything with great enthusiasm. Even the third class teacher and principal Eamonn Codd were getting involved,’ said Orla.

The forest school leaders try to encourage children to engage with nature in a fun way through the medium of stories and songs. They also teach them about wildlife tracking, pointing out various species of plants and animals as they explore the site.

‘We teach in a way that is really accessible to kids,’ said Orla. ‘A lot of the time, they don’t even realise the amount that they are taking in.’

The children will also be given the chance to channel their inner Bear Grylls as bushcraft and survival skills form a big part of Forest School. Making and using tools and building fires are some of the areas that they delve in to and although participants are young, the rangers ensure that safety is the top priority.

‘We have about 22 students at the moment and there are at least three adults there at any one time,’ explained Orla. ‘A big part of what we do in the fire skill section is help them to develop their own risk assessment abilities. We teach them that fire is really beneficial as it keeps us warm and we can cook with it but also instil the risks in them such as the possibility of getting burned. These lessons will stand to children as they get older.’

Forest School programmes can run throughout the year, in all weathers, except for high winds.

The founders of Wexford Forest School all have one shared aim: to establish a regional hub for forest schools over time. However, they understand that it will take time for the initiative to grow and flourish. The current phase of Wexford Forest School is a pilot scheme with Crossabeg National School. Wexford County Council have provided funding of approximately €2,700 under Local Agenda 21 Environmental Partnership Fund for this first seven weeks. Following this, Orla said that they hope to spread interest to schools across the county.

‘The first bit of funding is for seven weeks but hopefully we might get some more next year all going well,’ said Orla. ‘Schools that are also interested in getting involved can also provide some funding themselves.’

(First published in the New Ross Standard newspaper: print edition. Also available online at http://www.independent.ie/regionals/newrossstandard/news/wexford-forest-school-initiative-aims-to-bring-learning-to-the-great-outdoors-35119379.html)

Rosslare jellyfish influx leads to red flag during sunny spell – Gorey Guardian, September 3 2016

Sunbathers in need of some cool relief during this warm spell are unable to take a dip at Rosslare Strand as reports of Lion’s Mane Jellyfish forced lifeguards to raise the red flag.

The red flag has been flying at Rosslare Strand since Thursday August 25 due to a large increase in jellyfish numbers. Water Safety Development Officer with Wexford County Council Tom Doyle said that Rosslare Strand is receiving a much larger amount of the creatures compared to beaches elsewhere in Wexford.

‘This is new for us. We have never experienced this quantity of jellyfish in Rosslare before,’ he explained. ‘They are quite unusual on Wexford beaches. It is more common to find a type that just gives a mild sting.’

According to Mr Doyle, bathers are being warned to stay out of the water in Rosslare for the foreseeable future. He also said that the lifeguards have received basic first aid to treat anybody who has been stung.

This summer, only several incidents of stings in Rosslare Strand have been reported.

Earlier this summer, warnings about the jellyfish were issued by Irish Water Safety following reports that they had been spotted in waters around the country. The creature delivers a painful sting which has been known to cause anaphylactic shock in certain people.

Irish Water Safety advise those who have been stung to go to their lifeguard when possible. To treat the sting, it is advisable to rub the affected area with sea water and seek medical attention if the pain persists.

(First published in the Gorey Guardian newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.independent.ie/regionals/goreyguardian/news/rosslare-jellyfish-influx-leads-to-red-flag-during-sunny-spell-35004778.html)

Young otters dive into Wexford home, Gorey Guardian, May 21 2016

Three young otters made quite a splash when they arrived in their new home in North Wexford recently.

Released by conservationist Ronan Hannigan, the orphaned animals were hand-reared in Limerick before they were released back into their natural environment. Over the past few weeks, Ronan has been helping them to find their feet in the wild.

‘We have to do a thing called a soft release where the animal is slowly acclimatised to the wild. I try to do it over three weeks,’ he explained. ‘One day, they are just going to be gone.’

The new residents symbolise some good news for local farmers. According to Ronan, otters play an important role in controlling the mink population.

‘Dog otters are very territorial and they don’t tolerate mink who can do a lot of damage to fish stocks and wildfowl for example,’ he explained. ‘Studies show that when otters were reintroduced in rivers in England, the mink numbers declined.’

Otters can live in a combination of habitats but can only survive in clean water. Though pollution problems on Ireland’s east coast in the past caused a decline in numbers, Ronan said that improving water quality should help them to bounce back.

‘It’s good to have otters present as it means the water is clean,’ he said. ‘A selling point of Ireland should be its clean water and an otter is a symbol of that. They are like blue flags for rivers.’

Unfortunately, though pollution problems have decreased, otters are also faced with the danger posed by road traffic. As the creatures travel for lengthy distances across land, they can often be struck by passing motorists. Ronan said that overpasses and underpasses on motorways are proving to be beneficial in countries such as Germany and Canada.

‘When building motorways, it is important that we plan for wildlife passes,’ he said. ‘Creatures like otters follow the river and sometimes these intersect with roads. They need underground paths so that they can safely avoid traffic.’

(First published in the Gorey Guardian newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/young-otters-dive-into-wexford-home-34727098.html)