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)

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Would you trust a robot with your mind? – Asian Scientist, August 3 2018

When it comes to allowing others inside our heads, most of us only crack open the door for a select few, likely close family members or trusted psychologists. But if you were really struggling, would you consider sharing your innermost thoughts with a robot?

Robot therapists aren’t as far-fetched as you might think. In the 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory developed ELIZA, an early chatbot that could emulate the conversations of a psychotherapist. Since then, many increasingly sophisticated applications bringing artificial intelligence (AI) into the mental health realm have emerged.

The brainchild of Stanford psychologists and AI experts, Woebot combines machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) to assess users’ moods and offer them appropriate cognitive behavioral therapy. Emotionally intelligent chatbot Wysa, developed by Indian entrepreneurs Jo Aggarwal and Ramakant Vempati, uses AI and NLP techniques to track users’ emotions and act as their virtual mental wellness coach. Singapore-born Cogniant integrates AI technology with face-to-face therapy and aims to prevent mental illness relapses by monitoring existing patients and assisting them with therapy goals.

AI and mental health: what are the risks?

In 2018, an estimated 340 million people in Asia will require mental health services. With professional help shortages, rural isolation, high costs and stigma being the main obstacles to treatment, AI-centered mental health innovations could be particularly pertinent in the region. Yet, could involving AI in something as potentially delicate as mental health pose any threat?

Given that AI is currently used for mental health diagnostics and wellness coaching rather than treatment, Professor Pascale Fung of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology says privacy is the main concern.

“For AI to do a good job, it needs access to patient records, past history and family medical knowledge. Security and safety of this data is very important. There are concerns about AI being hacked or data being stolen for other purposes,” she says. “On the other hand, that’s something we should be worried about when dealing with patient records anyway.”

Indeed, researchers have noted that the misuse of sensitive information shared between a patient and AI can have significant consequences, for both the user and the profession’s integrity. To avoid distrust, it’s important for developers to fully disclose data policies to users from the beginning, says Mr. Neeraj Kothari, co-founder of Cogniant. He says that users can then make an informed decision about what they share.

“We have signed an agreement to say we won’t sell data to a third party,” he adds. “The best way we can progress is to demonstrate through action that we are here to help, not to harm.”

Another risk is that humans could potentially become attached to a therapy chatbot, as was the case for many of ELIZA’s ‘patients,’ who believed that they were truly conversing with a human. This led to the coining of the phrase ‘the ELIZA effect,’ which describes the tendency of people to assume computer behaviors are equivalent to human behaviors. However, while acknowledging the need for more research in this area, Fung doesn’t believe this problem is unique to AI—people also become attached to devices such as mobile phones and television sets, she says.

“In every generation, there have always been concerns with new technology. When it becomes obsessive, people go to professionals for help.”

People may also joke with or lie to AI, but such instances can be minimized through the use of deception detection techniques like facial recognition, says Kothari.

“In general, if AI is designed for the benefit of patients and is non-judgmental and non-intrusive, there will be no reason to lie to the AI.”

The possibility of deception has more to do with human responsibility than technological downfalls, adds Fung.

“[AI] is a tool and what people decide to do with it is up to humans.”

Complementing, not replacing

Most researchers in the field acknowledge that AI is not a therapist replacement, but believe that it can be a supporting tool. Professor Zhu Tingshao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues, for example, developed an AI-based system currently integrated into Weibo that recognizes people who express suicidal thoughts; subsequently, it sends them hotline numbers and messages of support. While the researchers can’t determine if people subsequently seek help, Zhu says the technology is still a proactive step towards suicide prevention.

“Right now when it comes to suicide intervention, we need the [suicidal] people to do the contacting themselves. [But] few people with a problem want to actively ask for help,” says Zhu, who adds that the tool has received positive feedback so far. “We cannot take the place of psychologists or counselling professionals, but we can help people know their mental health status and, if needed, provide some help in time [to prevent suicide].”

Ms. Bhairavi Prakash, founder of The Mithra Trust, an Indian organization that runs wellbeing initiatives combining technology and community engagement, believes that AI can be useful for promoting wellness. However, she too doesn’t think that it can provide complete treatment, especially for severe mental illness. Attempting to apply it to such cases could be dangerous, and should not be attempted until the technology is more sophisticated, she says.

“You don’t know if AI is triggering the person, you can’t see their facial reactions,” says the work and organizational psychologist. “If someone is delusional or hallucinating and talking to the AI, it won’t know how much is real.”

Legislation also needs to catch up before AI is assigned more tasks, adds Prakash. For example, human psychologists may be required by law to notify the authorities if a patient shows signs of wanting to harm others, but it’s unclear how such cases should be handled by AI.

Fung echoes the need for clearer legislation, saying that humans must still remain in the loop for important decisions such as medication prescriptions.

“Machines aren’t perfect. Humans aren’t either, but we do have laws or regulations [to deal with] human error or medical accidents. We don’t really have very good regulations for machine error.”

In the future, Fung envisions AI helping to create better personalized treatment plans, while Zhu says it will make mental health services more efficient. Prakash feels AI-based tools will encourage people to make the initial step in seeking help.

“In conversations people have with [AI], they are so open because there is zero judgment. They can talk about anything. That is extremely liberating and great for mental wellness.”

(First published by Asian Scientist on August 3 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/08/features/artificial-intelligence-mental-health/)

Umbrella Species: Conservation’s Poster Children – The Scientist, August 1 2018

Regardless of how sturdy your umbrella is, someone’s always going to get left out in the rain.

The concept of umbrella species is the central tenet of a conservation strategy that focuses on protecting the habitat of one species in the hope of protecting many others in the same ecosystem. But recent research questions the effectiveness of this strategy. It’s likely that not every species whose range overlaps with that of an umbrella species will benefit—in fact, some may even suffer as a result of the interventions—and conservationists are beginning to call for a revaluation of this conservation approach.

“There’s a misinterpretation of the concept that an umbrella species is going to shelter everything under the umbrella,” says John Wiens, a retired ecologist formerly of Colorado State University who most recently served as chief scientist for a number of conservation nonprofits. “Like all things in ecology, it’s not as simple as it looks.”

study published this May on the use of the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) as an umbrella species illustrates the problem. After three years of ecological monitoring in an area where the sagebrush had been mowed to improve nesting habitat for the sage-grouse, researchers from the University of Wyoming found that two “background” species, the Brewer’s sparrow (Spizella breweri) and sage thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus), fared less well than they would have without the habitat alteration. This was likely due to differences between the species in nest site preferences. While ground-nesting sage-grouse are thought to prefer mowed sites due to the increased availability of food for their chicks, Brewer’s sparrow and sage thrasher nest almost exclusively in shrubs, habitat that was largely wiped out by the mowing. The overall abundance of Brewer’s sparrow remained the same, but the overall abundance of sage thrashers decreased by nearly 50 percent.

“This paper focused on the fact that we don’t always just protect, we often manage the habitat, and that can have unanticipated consequences,” says Jason Carlisle, a former University of Wyoming graduate student and lead author of the study. While not surprised at the results, he hopes that they will encourage others to adopt caution when carrying out habitat management.

We must be honest about what assumptions we make, whether they’re justifiable, and whether they can be examined in advance using data.

—Jason Carlisle, University of Wyoming

Just because it can act as a double-edged sword, however, conservationists shouldn’t throw the umbrella species concept out of the conservation toolbox, says University of California, Davis, behavioral ecologist Tim Caro. Rather, he says, researchers and managers should be aware of the approach’s limitations and critically evaluate its effectiveness in meeting intended goals.

“The heart of the problem is there are always going to be trade-offs,” notes Wiens. “You need to do an analysis of who benefits and who loses, and then you can assess whether the trade-offs are worth it.”

Choosing the best representative

Evaluating those trade-offs depends on what background species are considered. For example, the jaguar(Panthera onca) is often cited as an effective umbrella species for many large mammals across Central America, but smaller critters, such as hares, moles, and shrews, aren’t as well shielded by habitat protections designed to conserve jaguar numbers. Similarly, a study assessing the effectiveness of using the coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) as an umbrella species in British Columbia found that while fish species with similar resource and habitat requirements benefitted, most amphibians inhabiting some of the same freshwater ecosystems as the salmon did not. And Carlisle and his colleagues have found that species with similar habitats and traits to those of the sage-grouse, such as sagebrush sparrows (Artemisiospiza nevadensis),  vesper sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus), and pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis), were protected better than others.

For an umbrella strategy to benefit as many co-occurring species as possible, researchers must choose a species that best represents the ecosystem and all it encompasses. “It’s clear that picking the right umbrella species is key,” says Carlisle, now a biometrician at the environmental and statistical consulting firm Western EcoSystems Technology, Inc. While researchers are still working out what makes a species a good umbrella, there are a few characteristics that conservationists generally aim for, including a large range and ease of sampling. In addition, umbrella species should be sensitive to human disturbances while being unlikely to become endangered or go extinct.

Barry Noon, an ecologist at Colorado State University, suggests adding one more trait. “The umbrella species should be one that uses a diversity of resources or habitat types for different life history stages.” Other scientists have argued for the use of multiple umbrella species, whose spatial, compositional, and functional requirements are different from one another and, collectively, encompass those of all other species in the ecosystem.

Whatever species are chosen, researchers must continue to evaluate their suitability to represent the ecosystem. Noon and his colleagues have demonstrated, for example, that while the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) was initially an effective umbrella in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, after a significant drop in its population—first due to logging of old-growth forest required for nesting, then as a result of the barred owl’s (Strix varia) unexpected invasion—it was no longer a suitable representative of the ecosystem.

“Initially the northern spotted owl was a good umbrella,” says Noon, explaining that this was because it uses forest habitats of varying levels of maturity throughout its lifespan. “Now, if we use the [umbrella] criteria and look at its viability, northern spotted owls are in significant decline,” he says. Rare and declining species are less likely to make effective umbrellas, as they occur in so few locations and are less likely to protect others.

Umbrellas rally support

Taking a step back from the umbrella species concept to focus on simply protecting a large area could be a better approach for wildlife conservation than focusing on one or several species, says Noon. In fact, many of the more successful umbrella studies suggest that focusing on a broad area, rather than the umbrella species themselves, as the reason the conservation efforts proved effective, he notes. Indeed, Caro’s analysis of East African reserves that were established 50 years ago using large mammals as umbrellas suggests that background species have been well protected because most reserves were initially large. Similarly, in a study published last August, Carlisle and colleagues found that priority areas for conservation (PACs) set up to protect the greater sage-grouse in the western U.S. were no more effective than randomly selected PACs of the same size at protecting golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos).

But selecting an umbrella species is often helpful for getting political and social support to protect areas, Carlisle says, noting that focusing on the iconic sage-grouse was what garnered support for the protection of the 70 million acres of the Midwestern grasslands in which it resides. This makes it a “flagship-umbrella” species, meaning that it combines the functions of a flagship species—to promote public awareness and raise conservation funds—with the intended role of an umbrella species, to protect co-occurring species and habitats. Caro argues that such flagship-umbrella species could be a boon to conservation efforts. Indeed, a 2016 study demonstrated that the flagship species the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) could also be an effective umbrella species because its range overlaps with many other endemic species in China.

But the criticism of umbrella species strategies is valid, says Carlisle, and it’s important to be realistic about the approach’s weaknesses and assess what background species need for protection. “We must be honest about what assumptions we make, whether they’re justifiable, and whether they can be examined in advance using data.”

INFOGRAPHIC: CHOOSING THE RIGHT UMBRELLA

Umbrella species are often chosen to represent an ecosystem in need of protection. The idea is that protecting the umbrella species will indirectly benefit habitat and other species in the area. But the strategy has its weaknesses. There are three varieties of the umbrella species concept as coined by Tim Caro in his book Conservation by Proxy—classic, local, and management— each of which is liable to fail if implemented incorrectly or in the wrong circumstances.

Classic umbrella strategy

Assumes that if researchers can protect the area that contains a viable population of an umbrella species, that effort will also maintain viable populations of other species in the area.

Risk: The reserve might not be big enough to cover viable populations of other species of concern.

Example: The jaguar (Panthera onca) served as an effective umbrella species for protecting other large mammals in Latin America but was less effective at shielding smaller animals such as rodents, likely due to differences in the size and scale of their respective habitats.

Local umbrella strategy

Makes no viability assumptions, instead simply assuming that protecting the areas where an umbrella species is present will also protect many other species in the same area.

Risk: Other species of conservation concern might not co-occur with the umbrella species and might therefore be unprotected.

Example: The northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) was found to be a good local umbrella species in the Italian Alps, offering protection for other birds species as well as butterflies and other background species. In northern Japan, however, despite being an effective umbrella for a variety of birds, goshawks were not effective as an indicator of the species diversity of butterflies, beetles, or native forest-floor plants.

Management umbrella strategy

Assumes that planned human management and intervention targeting an umbrella species will benefit a suite of other species in the same area.

Risk: The management actions taken to benefit the umbrella species might harm other species.

Example: In Wyoming, mowing intended to benefit the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) resulted in a higher abundance of vesper sparrows but lower abundance of Brewer’s sparrows and sage thrashers, likely due to differences in land use.

(First published by The Scientist on August 1 2018. Available online at: https://www.the-scientist.com/features/umbrella-species–conservations-poster-children-64507)

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)

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)

Swimming against a plastic tide -Village Magazine, May 2018

Along Ireland’s coastline, you’ll encounter long sandy stretches and wild seas crashing against craggy coastlines. Yet, if we care to look under the surface – literally – it’s clear our seas and coastal habitats are not quite as pristine as would appear.

The global issue of plastic pollution has recently come to the fore, amplified by David Attenborough’s series Blue Planet II. According to a study by the US National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis Working Group, roughly eight million tonnes of plastic enter the world’s oceans from land, annually; a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted that there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.

Ireland apparently became one of the best EU performers for plastic recycling, though most of it has been treated in China where it is difficult to track, and which has now stopped taking European waste. We’re also the EU’s top producer of plastic waste, producing 61 kg per person annually. When not disposed of responsibly, this plastic can cause significant environmental destruction.

While difficult to form statistics on the quantity of plastics in Irish seas, the founder of Coastwatch Europe Karin Dubsky says we have an inkling on the extent of the problem.

“Through coastal surveys, we can see improvements in certain areas, for example there’s less pollution from oil and sewage. However, other problems seem to be persistent. Plastic drinks bottles continue to be the most widely distributed item found on Irish coasts`’, explains Dubsky. “The amount of coastal cleaning has increased but the baseline number of plastic bottles we find remains greater than in countries that have a deposit return scheme. Without this, we rely on telling people not to throw bottles and on cleaning up after those who do”.

Indeed, over 8,800 plastic drinks bottles were counted across 535 sections of Irish coastline in the thirtieth annual Coast- watch survey in 2017 – along with 4,867 cans, 988 plastic bags and over 1,100 tyres – some of which had formerly been used for peeler-crab traps. Inevitably, much of this waste will be swept in and out with the tides if not collected.

Plastic pollution isn’t solely a result of littering. Coastal landfill sites are falling victim to erosion, resulting in leakages of hazardous waste into the sea.

“At the old landfill site in Bray for example, the sea has been causing approximately 1.5 metres of erosion annually. We need these sites to be very secure to prevent this from happening”, says Dubsky. She adds that while a decision has now been made to appoint consultants to place rock armour at the Bray site, it would be more appropriate to remove the ‘band of waste’ altogether.

“It’s mind-blowing how slow it is for action to be taken”. Waste also ends up in our oceans as individuals take coastal erosion management into their own hands.

“We have no national erosion management policy so people decide to do their own thing. They put all kinds of litter in front of their homes but because the area is at risk from erosion, the sea takes it away”, says Dubsky.

Lack of policy surrounding the environmental impacts of new materials and products is having a detrimental effect. “We need a proper screening process so clever ideas don’t go to the market without being screened to ensure they aren’t going to create another litter problem”, she suggests. “Pontoons are one example. The cheapest way to make pontoons is using polystyrene with a concrete surface. During Storm Emma, polystyrene was released from pontoons in Holyhead following a breakage. From April 14 onwards, it has been arriving on our shores”.

Discarded fishing gear, known as ghost fishing gear, is also an environmental concern. According to a recent report from World Animal Protection, it kills over 136,000 seals, sea lions and whales every year, in addition to millions of birds, turtles and fish. An estimated 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are left in oceans annually.

In the coming months, the Ghostfishing foundation will collaborate with local divers and stakeholders to remove discarded fishing gear off Irish coasts. Nic Slocum from Whale Watch West Cork is involved with the project.

“We decided it was important to first find out the extent of the problem”, explains Slocum. “We went to a number of dive companies and they told us that the extent of ghostfishing is not that great along the south coast here. Ghost-fishing is a greater problem further offshore on much deeper wrecks”.

As diving to such depths is challenging and requires specialist skills, the project is currently slightly delayed as organisers assess how they can run it in the safest and most effective manner.

For now, Slocum continues to take part in clean-ups and informs visitors about the environmental dangers of plastic. He has seen it first-hand, recalling incidents of seals getting caught up in nets and a recent occasion when he was alerted to a young whale trapped in fishing gear.

“We do see evidence [of harm from marine waste]: I can’t say daily or weekly but, when we do see it, it’s significant. For example, that whale would have starved to death if we weren’t able to free it”.

Internal harm is less obvious. As Ireland doesn’t have a facility to conduct post-mortems on large marine mammals, it’s impossible to know whether whales washing up on Irish shores have died as a result of plastic ingestion. However, worldwide studies suggest that this could be the case for some of our species, according to Slocum.

“Sperm whales are very prone to plastic ingestion. They feed on squid and often mistake plastic bags for food. Post-mortems have been done on many sperm whales around the world and it has been shown they are full of plastic. There’s no reason why it would be different here”.

While visible waste in our oceans is of great concern, an equally pressing but perhaps more difficult issue to tackle is that of microplastics. This refers to small plastic particles less than five millimetres long that although virtually invisible, can harm marine life. They’re created from the breakdown of larger plastic items, while they also originate from plastic fibres in clothing or microbeads in cosmetic products. Recent research from scientists at NUI Galway showed that 73 per cent of deepwater fish surveyed in the northwest Atlantic had ingested microplastics. The identified microplastics were mostly fibres and their potential sources include microfibres shed from clothes during washing. Lead author of the research Alina Wieczorek says that their studies are continuing as they endeavour to determine secondary effects of this ingestion.

“We have these plastics in our system now, and no way really of taking them out. In fact, it may get worse at first as larger plastics continue breaking down”, says Wieczorek. “The main thing to do is to stop them from entering the environment and move towards a more sustainable society”.

Introducing a deposit return scheme for drink containers and mandatory Environmental Impact Assessments for new products and materials are some larger moves that can be made, according to Dubsky, who also says concerned individuals can speak to politicians, participate in coastal clean-ups and utilise the Coastwatch Microlitter App. Meanwhile, Slocum believes that targeting plastic producers and supermarkets and ‘making plastic their problem’ is key.

This is precisely what happened through a recent ‘Shop and Drop’ day organised by Friends of the Earth and VOICE Ireland. This encouraged people to leave plastic packaging in supermarkets to highlight the need for businesses to act.

According to Coordinator of VOICE Mindy O’Brien, the campaign was a great success and just one of the many ways that individuals can play their part. Ditching single use plastics, buying goods with less packaging and voicing concerns to politicians are others.

“People are getting better with recycling at home; the government needs to bolster our infrastructure so that we can recycle on the go”, she adds.

Looking ahead, Dubsky is hopeful, particularly considering the European Plastics Strategy from the EU Commission; this promises that all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, that consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and the intentional use of microplastics will be restricted. O’Brien believes that we are making good strides in reducing plastic consumption but worries about historic damage.

“There’s so much in there now, how do we get that out?” she says. “The legacy issue is enormous”.

“We have known about this for twenty years and haven’t done anything about it. There is a movement and greater awareness now but unfortunately, an awful lot of damage gets done before change happens”, adds Slocum.

(First published in Village Magazine, May 2018. Also available online at: https://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2018/05/swimming-against-a-plastic-tide/)

US considers imposing restrictions on Chinese researchers – Asian Scientist, May 8 2018

The White House is considering a proposal to restrict Chinese researchers from carrying out sensitive research in US universities.

A proposal under consideration in the White House to prevent Chinese researchers from performing sensitive research at US universities has sparked concern within the scientific community. The move stems from fears surrounding intellectual property theft between China and the United States. If enforced, it could prove detrimental for many of the estimated 350,755 Chinese students in the country, as well as Chinese researchers.

China is proving to be a rising force in research and technology; the US National Science Foundation reported that in 2016, for the first time, China released a higher number of scientific publications than the US. The nation’s ‘Made in China 2025’ plan—a blueprint aimed at transforming China into a global leader in high-tech industries such as robotics and aerospace—illustrates the government’s intention to continue to advance. This move has not been welcomed by the US, primarily due to fears over theft of US intellectual property.

A probe into China’s policies and practices relating to technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation by the Office of the US Trade Representative, launched in August 2017, found that Chinese theft of American intellectual property costs between US$225 billion and US$600 billion annually. These findings were largely what prompted the Trump administration to announce plans to place tariffs of US$50 billion on Chinese goods, a move that provoked similar retaliation by China and ignited fears of an impending trade war between the nations.

The proposal to restrict Chinese researchers from carrying out sensitive research in US universities is the most recent manifestation of these tensions.

“[This proposal], in conjunction with some of the other policies that the administration has issued with respect to immigration reform and restricting foreign nationals, has raised concerns among academic institutes and scientists in particular that the US is being seen as an unwelcoming nation,” said Ms. Joanne Carney, director of government Relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine. “Rather than coming here to study, students will go to other places and those nations will benefit from their expertise.”

The AAAS has released an official statement, signed by its Chief Executive Professor Rush Holt, on the travel of Chinese researchers to the US, recommending that the administration “work with the scientific community to assess and develop potential policy actions that advance our nation’s prosperity.” While it remains unclear what kind of restrictions are being tabled, or how much traction the idea is gaining in the White House, Carney noted that universities in the US have been outspoken about their views on the proposal.

“[The universities] recognize that there are concerns and are open to working with the government in order to craft a positive solution that not only helps to protect national security, but still allows for openness and helps to maintain the US as a welcome nation in terms of research,” Carney said.

“Scientific progress depends on the free flow of ideas, openness and transparency. The US in particular has benefitted from the unfettered exchange of information between scientists of many nations. We are very concerned about the possibility of restrictions in terms of science research,” she added.

(First published on Asian Scientist on May 8 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/05/academia/us-considers-imposing-restrictions-on-chinese-researchers/)