The big read: Ireland’s record on climate action is among the worst in the world – and our children are about to protest – Irish Independent, March 9 2019

It’s the first day in March and exactly one year since heavy snowfall buried the country beneath a heavy white blanket. Today’s view is a stark contrast. Sun beats down on those basking in St Stephen’s Green park, many of whom are sporting T-shirts in the unseasonably mild weather.

I sit flicking through a book called The Children’s Fire written by author and environmentalist Mac Macartney, who recently visited Ireland to talk on sustainable leadership and reclaiming the future for the generations to come. In the opening chapters, he describes a concept called The Children’s Fire that was shared with him by some Native American mentors. This refers to an ancient pledge which said that, when governing the people, “no law, no decision, no commitment, no action, nothing of any kind will be permitted to go forth that will harm the children”.

Across the globe, it appears that this fire has been extinguished for a long time. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions through activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, agricultural activities and changes in land use are leading to the warming of our planet, and we are witnessing the effects. Last year’s special report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the global temperature rise must be kept below 1.5°C by the end of this century in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. According to the report, achieving this would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.

The threat of climate change is something that today’s youth are acutely aware of and, from the student movement sweeping the globe, it’s clear they’re not willing to stand for inaction. Ireland’s young people are no exception.

The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) 2019 ranked Ireland’s performance on climate action in response to global warming as the worst in the EU and among one of the worst in the world. The report acknowledged that existing climate mitigation efforts will not enable Ireland to achieve either its EU 2020 or 2030 targets domestically.

Outside the Dáil, dozens of young people of all ages stand together in their school uniforms, waving placards and calling on the Government to reverse this trend.

“We’re out of school to make the world cool,” they cry. The protest is part of the Fridays for Future movement, which has seen young people across the globe miss school on Fridays to protest about climate change inaction. Today marks the 14th consecutive week of the Dublin protests.

One of them is environmentalist and blogger Flossie Donnelly (11), who has garnered much attention for her environmental work in recent times. “I’m here today to show the Government and anyone in the world who thinks that we must be in school and not care about the problem, that we do care,” says Flossie, who organises regular public beach cleans around her hometown of Sandycove, Co Dublin.

“It’s our future that we need to fight for and it’s really important that we all fight on this because if it’s just one of us fighting, nobody will take us seriously.”

Also striking is Peter Reid (12) from Dublin 8, who is supported by many of his classmates from St Catherine’s National School.

“Climate change is a big issue and this seemed like one of the biggest ways that children can get involved,” says Peter.

The strikes are not limited to Dublin alone, with others being held in Cork, Kildare, Limerick, Tipperary and elsewhere in recent weeks. Largely inspired by Swedish student activist Greta Thunberg, Saoi O’Connor (16) from Skibbereen began weekly protests outside Cork’s City Hall in January.

“We want international governments to align themselves with the terms set out for them in the Paris Agreement, we want our world leaders to unite behind the clear scientific truths of climate change and take radical action to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels on global average before it is too late,” says Saoi when asked about the young protesters’ motivations.

Momentum is building for this Friday, when pupils across the globe will strike in response to the failure of adults to address climate change. Student-led group School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C) Ireland is encouraging students from around the country to get involved, and says that interest is high.

While saying that he has been aware of and interested in the issue of climate change for several years, group representative Theo Cullen-Mouze says it was Greta Thunberg who inspired him to take more radical action.

Manifesto of demands

“I’m someone who has dreams for the future. These dreams cannot be realised if we don’t take action now because the future will only exist if something is done within the next 12 years,” says the Mayo student. “Sometimes you have to stop looking around for someone else to fix problems. You have to start fixing them yourself.”

The group has published a 15-page manifesto of demands online, covering areas such as public awareness and media coverage, EU elections and Government action. In the case of the latter, the group calls for a “combination of aggressive legislation surrounding fossil fuel usage, a Government-backed complete transition to sustainable energy and a very heavy carbon tax”, stressing that climate action must be taken in a way that does not hinder lower-income families.

“We believe that the issue is no longer about targeting individuals and their actions, but about the Government taking hard action on corporations and the real roots of climate change,” Dublin-based member Beth Doherty (15) tells Review.

“The majority of climate change is caused by corporations, and as such we want to see a GND (Green New Deal) as well as tax breaks for corporations with low emissions. Overall, we want the Irish Government to work towards Ireland becoming a leader in climate action,” she says.

Member of the SS4C group Chaya Smyth (14) from Dublin says the movement gives a voice to young people like herself who cannot vote. Theresa Rose Sebastian (15) echoes this view.

“This has given us the steering wheel to try and make change right now instead of waiting for us to get into government in years to come and make the changes,” says the third-year student from Cork. “We want action so that in the years to come, we can still celebrate and enjoy the life on this earth in a way that we don’t have to be continuously looking over our shoulder to see if we can make it to the next day.”

According to the many young activists, there’s a mixed response from schools and teachers to the March 15 strike. Some schools are fully on-board. Many say they have requested permission from principals to get their school involved and await a response. Others say that regardless of school permission, their parents support their involvement in the cause. Some are not seeking permission at all. While adult support may vary, they all share the same determination to take part.

On a global scale, the movement has attracted criticism from some politicians. A statement from UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesperson criticised the thousands of participants of a February 15 school walkout, saying that their action increased the workload for teachers and wasted lesson time. In New South Wales, education minister Rob Stokes warned students in Australia against participating in the strikes.

Greta Thunberg subsequently labelled such statements as something that “belongs in a museum”.

Fight for the future

The Irish participants seem equally unfazed by any such criticism. “We want to be educated. We want to have that future where we can use our education to the full. But if we don’t take action now for climate change, we might not have that opportunity,” says Theresa.

Beth agrees. “The idea of the strike is that there is no point in going to school to memorise facts if the politicians will not listen to these facts,” she says. “If school is preparing us for a future, we should fight in order to maintain that future and not have it destroyed by the reality of climate change.”

Theo says criticism from the politicians is an “arrogant response” from people who don’t understand the problem and who won’t have to live with the consequences.

“Under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, every human being is given the right to peaceful assembly. I think what we are doing qualifies as peaceful assembly,” he says. “We feel that something is inherently wrong with what is happening now and we don’t see other people doing this for us.”

In Fermanagh, 14-year-old blogger, naturalist and conservationist Dara McAnulty has been working tirelessly to raise awareness about environmental issues, particularly the threats to biodiversity. He recently became involved in the climate strike movement and took part in a school strike alone, leaving his classroom to sit outside in “50-mile-an-hour winds”.

“I had been trying out lots of different methods to try and get people to realise all the devastation that was happening around them. I tried my blog, Twitter, doing stuff round my community and then I just thought, well this is going to make them listen, won’t it?” says Dara, whose blog Young Fermanagh Naturalist was runner-up in the BBC Wildlife Magazine Blogger Awards last year.

“I also wanted to make a wave of realism about climate change with other kids because most of us are not educated about this.”

Dara’s passion for the planet has spurred on his involvement in environmental activism.

“At this point, I don’t see myself as separate from nature,” he says.

“I see myself as a part of nature and it’s all a part of me. I’m not exactly going to want to bring hurt to any part of myself.

“What is happening now is this beautiful giant web is starting to crumble and I can’t actually let that happen. I won’t allow myself to let any more of this beautiful web of life crumble away.”

Dara, whose debut book is set for release in 2020, was invited to speak about environmental and youth issues in the UK Parliament this week.

“They were pretty brave and decided to let me in to speak,” he joked several days prior to the meeting.

Decimation of our planet

With the constant barrage of news about the ­decimation of our planet’s biodiversity and a changing climate, it’s no wonder many people feel disempowered.

However, Ireland’s young ­environmental activists hope to empower other young people and show them that they can make a difference.

“Look into what is already going on. If there are younger people doing things, see if you can get involved there,” says SS4C member Tara O’Neill (14) from Galway. “If there isn’t anything going on, try and get some creative ideas going. Participate in strikes, create your own marches, do whatever you can.”

“Take action in any way you can if you want to ensure a future and habitable planet for yourself, your children and every other living thing,” echoes Beth. “Nothing will ever change if it isn’t challenged.”

For young people interested in the climate action movement, Theo says the best first step is to inform yourself.

“Make up your own mind and don’t let anyone tell you what you should think. Do the research for yourself. Don’t listen to those that say climate change is a hoax. They belong in the same box that we put flat-earthers in,” he says.

“After that, if you’re interested in striking, there’s a number of Instagram and Twitter accounts that you can follow.

“These will provide you with information on the climate strike movement, details, times and locations and so on.”

Dara says that everyone can make a difference and while ‘petrified’ that change won’t happen, he remains hopeful. “There’s always a chance. We’re not at the tipping point yet, though it’s coming and it’s very close,” he says.

“The scientists have the answers that we need. We know what we need to do.

“We have the answers to solving this massive problem and it’s just getting the people who can implement these changes to ­actually listen to sense.”

(First published in the Irish Independent on March 9 2019. Available online at:


IWDG bringing Iceland expedition stories to libraries – Irish Examiner, February 19 2019

You don’t need to be a marine biologist or the next David Attenborough to witness the many great wonders of our oceans.

That’s the message that the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) hope to get across as they share their stories from last summer’s Iceland expedition. Thirty IWDG members of all ages spent time aboard the Celtic Mist during the seven-week research trip, which saw them sail 4,500 km around the Icelandic coast, into the Arctic Circle and home again. The primary purpose of the expedition was to gather more information about the humpback whales that share Irish and Icelandic waters. Now, back on land, the crew are bringing their On the Trail of the Whale tour to libraries nationwide.

“Through the tour, we want to encourage people to get involved,” explains Dr Simon Berrow, IWDG’s chief science officer. “If even one person at every event we do gets interested [in marine life] and gets motivated, that’s fantastic.”

Humpback whales are returning to feed in Irish waters in increasing numbers every year. The IWDG have catalogued 92 individual humpback whales in Irish waters since 1999, each which can be recognised by unique markings on their tail flukes. Through the use of photo identification images and collaboration with colleagues in Iceland and the USA, the IWDG identified some of the same individual whales in both Irish and Icelandic waters. The aim of the expedition was to gather additional images and try to increase the number of matches between the two nations.

The trip was a great success, according to Berrow. A total of 55 fluke images were collected, seven of which were known individuals. While no new Ireland-Iceland matches were made, the crew could reconfirm a match between a whale identified in both Húsavík, Iceland, and the Blasket Islands. During the whole expedition, a total of 13 cetacean species were recorded, including minke whales, white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises.

“I was blown away by the amount of species that we saw,” says Berrow.

Preparation began months before the Celtic Mist research vessel departed from Dublin Bay on May 24. Although the journey itself held many unknowns at that stage, what the IWDG could rely upon was the dedication of their volunteers.

“You don’t go to Iceland unprepared,” says skipper Liam Quinn, who explains how both crew members and other volunteers met throughout winter to prepare the boat for the voyage.

From farmers to IT specialists, teachers to scientists, the crew brought a diverse range of experience and skills on board. One thing they all had in common was a fascination and appreciation for marine life. While the expedition proved both enjoyable and worthwhile, it was not without challenges. Indeed, some aspects of sailing are far beyond human control, as the crew confirmed when pack ice and strong winds delayed their voyage from Ísafjörur for several days. Rough seas and 24-hours of daylight were other things they had to contend with.

Quinn was one of five skippers responsible for keeping everything afloat. Speaking in his hometown of Arklow during the recent library event, he says his biggest challenge was worrying about keeping everyone safe.

“You’re always nervous as a skipper, you know. The ocean is so big and my boat is so small, but we got there.”

The expedition was funded by Wicklow-based cosmetics company Inis the Energy of the Sea, who have been core sponsors of the IWDG since 2001. Inis marketing director Karen Wilkinson hopped aboard for some of the journey.

“I personally have a lot of interest in marine animals and I have been lucky enough to be a sailor and diver my whole life,” she explains. “For me, it was a privilege to go on the boat with everyone. I enjoyed every second.”

Wilkinson planned to spend one week on Celtic Mist, but when that first leg resulted in few whale sightings, she returned a fortnight later. She describes this as “an unbelievable treat”, reminiscing on a particular moment off the coast of Húsavík when they witnessed up to 60 humpback whales feeding in calm waters.

“We turned the engines off and just sat there watching. We were surrounded,” she says. “When you see one of these animals, it really does take your breath away.”

To experience the stories and breath-taking footage shared in the library tour may seem just a dream, but Wilkinson says anybody can get involved in such an expedition.

“The IWDG is made up of everyday regular people who are interested in marine biology and in protecting the oceans,” she says. “You don’t necessarily have to be a marine biologist or have a scientific background to get involved. I don’t. I do it for fun. It’s just such a great group.”

For those who weren’t lucky enough to be on board this time, Tony Whelan’s footage offers a vivid insight into the experience. The filmmaker and owner of Canola Pictures embarked on the entire seven-week trip to film marine life and interview the Icelandic people they met on shore. These videos, snippets of which are shared during the library events, will form the basis of a documentary due to be released this year.

Owing to lack of time before the expedition, Whelan didn’t secure funding for the documentary in advance, but he hopes to do so through the Patreon platform.

“With Patreon, you build a community of funders. My ambition is that over a period of time, I will get enough people supporting it so that I won’t have to worry about funding from corporations, because fashions come and go. I want to just keep making my films,” he says. “For each film, patrons have ownership of them, they come to the openings, they all get to see them.”

Through this experience, Whelan hoped to explore the relationship that Icelandic people have with the sea and compare it with our own.

“The interviews will be the backbone. The idea is to explore our world and the Icelandic world through their eyes,” he says. “We have turned our back on the sea, whereas the Icelandic embrace the sea. It’s completely different.”

A key aim of the expedition was to build relationships between Ireland and Iceland and promote the idea that we have a shared responsibility towards whales. While humpback whales are the focus of the country’s whale watching industry, Iceland allows the hunting of minke and fin whales, but Berrow and the crew did not embark on the journey to preach to local people.

“We have to treat people with respect,” says Berrow. “If we don’t listen to their stories and try to understand where they are coming from, we have no chance to try and work together.”

Berrow and Whelan say whaling is a red herring; while it can be seen as a welfare issue, it doesn’t threaten populations in the way that overfishing, pollution, marine debris and other key issues do, says Berrow.

There are a growing number of humpback whales feeding off Ireland’s south and west coasts. Berrow says this increase is likely as a result of protection measures and, in the case of whale sightings in new geographical areas, a change in oceanography. Twenty-five species of whales and dolphins have been recorded off Ireland. Considering this, our responsibility towards the ocean is clear. So how can people help?

“I think it’s a case of trying to encourage people to take ownership of their local patch,” says Berrow. “Then you’ll find the issues that need resolving.”

The IWDG will run library tours until the end of March. If that leaves you wanting more, there’s no need to go to Iceland for a front-row seat. The group will also run a series of week-long humpback whale surveys around Ireland this summer. Places are open to IWDG members.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on February 19 2019. Available online at: )

Inside the world of coursing – Irish Independent, February 2 2019

On a damp winter morning in Camolin, makeshift signs direct vans and jeeps to an isolated field where many hope to edge closer to their dream. On arrival, the muddy plot already has several dozen vehicles in a row. At almost every car is a greyhound, who waits as coats are fastened, muzzles are secured and pep talks are given. Many – but certainly not all – of the owners are men, and in some cases, families unload dogs from their vans.

It’s the 86th Annual Gorey Coursing Meeting and approximately 100 participants have travelled from around Ireland to attend. Run over two days, it’s one of approximately 90 coursing meetings held during the September to February coursing season. These local meetings are all leading up to the main event, the 94th National Coursing Meeting in Clonmel in February, where the top prize is €40,000.

Of course, dogs aren’t the only animals involved in coursing. On wading towards the coursing field, we catch sight of some of the 66 hares in the hare park which have been netted from surrounding areas in recent weeks.

The Irish hare, an endemic subspecies of the mountain hare, is legally protected at European level and also in Ireland under the Wildlife Acts. Under the same legislation, licences to net hares for coursing meetings are issued to clubs affiliated to the Irish Coursing Club (ICC) by the Department of Culture, Heritage and The Gaeltacht. Eighty-seven licences were issued for the 2018/19 season. While numbers for the ongoing season have yet to be finalised, a total of 5,044 hares were captured for coursing last season according to ICC figures; 5,017 of these were released back into the wild.

The event has already begun. Over a loudspeaker, the names of the next two dogs to course are called. The pair of muzzled dogs are held back by a person known as a ‘slipper’ as a hare is released on to the approximately 320-metre field and allowed to run. Once the hare runs for several seconds, the slipper releases the dogs who bolt after the hare.

The first dog to make the hare change direction – known as ‘turning’ the hare – is the winner. Some courses are relatively quick, with the hare turning and finding its way through the escape into the hare park. Others see the hare zigzag around the field, sometimes into the netting that borders it as it attempts to evade its pursuers.


Among the participants today is Leinster representative of the ICC executive committee Glen Healy.

“I first got involved locally with a club in Newbridge. It was tradition there on Stephen’s Day to get out and about and everyone after the Christmas dinner was starving for a bit of air,” says Healy, who has eight dogs competing during the 2018/19 season.

Healy says that his parents are now passionate about coursing, as are his three kids.

For Chairman of the Gorey Coursing Club and owner of today’s venue John Doyle, coursing is also a family affair.

“We used to go to meetings with the four of them [children] in the back,” says Doyle, whose sons and daughters have remained involved in coursing. “Talk about bonding! A sport brings everyone together as a family.”

Secretary of Old Kilcullen Coursing Club and former ICC President Tony McNamee later tells me that he has been involved in coursing since 1960, saying ‘it’s like a religion’. His children and grandchildren also take part. For him, coursing is a past-time that gets him away from work on his farm.

While she no longer enters, Yvonne Harrington still attends approximately 40 meetings a year as a photographer. Originally from England, the family ties, social aspect and unpredictable sport are what initially attracted her to coursing.

“People that course are often doing it from five or six-years-old,” she says. “They go [to meetings] with their fathers, join in on everything and they grow up around it. It’s like a huge social club.”

Another common interest among the competitors is to have a dog qualify for the National Meeting in Clonmel.

“That’s the dream,” says McNamee.

CEO of the ICC D.J. Histon says tradition and the social aspect are major draws for coursing club members, of which there are between 15,000 and 20,000. He adds that some club members don’t enter greyhounds into the meetings but instead, spectate and carry out land maintenance.

“The club may run their meeting over two days but for the other [days of the year], they’re working with farmers, policing preserves where hares have been released and doing their best to deter illegal hunting.”


For many who haven’t grown up with hare coursing, the idea of it doesn’t sit well. For decades, individuals and organisations alike have been protesting and calling on the government to ban coursing on animal welfare grounds. Hare coursing has been banned in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland since 2010, 2004 and 2002 respectively. The Republic of Ireland is one of three European countries where coursing remains legal, alongside Spain and Portugal.

Although I witness no injuries while in Gorey, that isn’t to say they don’t happen. In the 2017/ 2018 coursing season, 32 hares were injured,​ three of which were euthanized.

In 1993, the late Tony Gregory introduced a Private Member’s Bill calling for a coursing ban. While defeated, it lead to the introduction of compulsory greyhound muzzling during meetings.

However, opponents say this didn’t eliminate cruelty. In 2016, Maureen O’Sullivan introduced another Bill to render hare coursing illegal, which was defeated by 114 to 20 votes.

“Hares are being mauled and tossed and some have to be killed afterwards,” says O’Sullivan when asked about her reasons for the Bill. “That’s not taking into account what happens in the netting of the hares beforehand.”

Many animal welfare organisations have been actively campaigning for a ban including the Irish Council Against Blood Sports (ICABS). Spokesperson Aideen Yourell joined in the 1980s after watching a programme about hare coursing.

“I was just so horrified about this idea of hounds chasing a hare. I thought it was something from the dark ages,” says Yourell. “It’s 2018 now and I can’t believe it’s still going on.”

John Fitzgerald of the Campaign for the Abolition of Cruel Sports views coursing as a ‘completely unnatural’ activity.

“You may have more hares getting knocked about and mauled and injured at one event than another but overall it does happen. Our point is, there’s no need for that.”

The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA) have also been outspoken about their opposition.

“The ISPCA has a policy that we are opposed to the use of animals in sport for such uses contrary to their nature or may involve suffering or may adversely affect their welfare,” says CEO of the ISPCA Dr Andrew Kelly.

Kelly points to the exemption of hare coursing under Ireland’s Animal Health and Welfare Act, saying that such an exemption is recognition that it is cruel.

The ISPCA also views the use of greyhounds in racing and coursing as problematic as dogs are often unwanted once retired. The Irish Retired Greyhound Trust, funded by the Irish Greyhound Board and greyhound owner contributions, partially funds the rehoming costs of dogs and many are rehomed abroad. However, Kelly says they would like to see the industry cover the full costs.

The Irish Wildlife Trust has also expressed its views.

“People are very exploitative of the things that are useful to them,” says IWT Campaign Officer Pádraic Fogarty. “We need to value the hare, as everything else, for its intrinsic value and not exploit them.”


The control of hare coursing, including the operation of meetings and managing the use of hares, is carried out under the Greyhound Industry Act 1958 and administered by the ICC. The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht issues annual club licences containing 25 conditions, including a requirement that veterinarians attend all meetings and trials and a prohibition on the coursing of hares more than once a day. Following every meeting, a report must be filed to the NPWS.

Subject to resources, National Parks and Wildlife Service Conservation Rangers attend coursing meetings to monitor compliance. According to the Department, some 35 coursing events were monitored last season. Department of Agriculture vets also attend meetings to make observations; they visited 12 last season. The ICC appoints stewards and executive members to attend meetings.

However, O’Sullivan doesn’t see this as enough.

“When it comes to anything about animal welfare, we have the regulations and the conditions but the other side of that is, we don’t have the staff to enforce them,” argues O’Sullivan. “The bottom line is the cruelty to the animal and the conditions won’t eliminate that.”


Replacing hare coursing with lure coursing is often proposed by those against current practice. However, Histon and Healy say that coursing dogs have a different bloodline to track-bred greyhounds and wouldn’t follow a lure.

Either way, Histon says it’s a ‘short-sighted’ proposal. He believes that, if hare coursing is banned, the hare will be a ‘forgotten species’.

“Our organisation is made up of voluntary members who, on a daily basis, are out there ensuring that the habitat is in place for the hare,” says Histon, who also notes their annual Hare Husbandry conferences and the health benefits of clubs deworming and inoculating captive hares.

Club members also help to detect and report illegal hare hunting, adds Histon, who says this is a great threat to hares. Indeed, Kildare Superintendent Martin Walker, who says they generally have a good relationship with licenced coursing clubs, says that illegal hare poaching using non-muzzled dogs is prevalent nationwide and is often associated with ancillary crime.

A 2006 study conducted by Queens University comparing hare abundance in coursing club preserves with the wider countryside is often cited by ICC members. After controlling for variance in habitat, it concluded that hare numbers were three times higher within preserves than the wider countryside. It’s noted that the role of habitat cannot be ruled out.

Lead author Dr Neil Reid is now involved in conducting the NPWS Hare Survey of Ireland 2017-2019. While saying that hare populations tend to fluctuate, their preliminary data suggests that the population is ‘relatively stable’.

However, the conservation biologist doesn’t think research like his 2006 study is useful in informing debate about banning or continuing coursing. While his studies focus on population and conservation, arguments for a ban are centred on individual hares and animal welfare.

“[My studies] don’t really answer the questions the anti-coursing lobby want answered which is about the impact on individual hare welfare. That’s a very difficult question to answer scientifically.”

Further research on stress hormones in coursed hares would be more applicable to the animal welfare debate, says Reid.

Kelly would also like to see this research being conducted.

“I think if research showed [coursing] has a detrimental effect on the hare’s welfare, that would be the evidence we needed to produce a ban.”


Histon says the ICC is willing to speak to anyone with ‘constructive ideas around the hare and hare conservation’. Meanwhile, both Healy and McNamee say that they’re happy for anybody to attend a coursing meeting and get a first-hand perspective of what goes on.

However even with this, it is unlikely that anti-coursing campaigners will change their views. It’s clear that both sides see the issue through a different lens and with this in mind, finding a middle ground anytime soon appears impossible.

(First published in the Irish Independent on February 2 2019. Available online at:

Researchers Explore the Genetics of Eating Disorders – The Scientist, January 2019

Large-scale genomic studies of anorexia and bulimia are turning up clues about the conditions’ development and persistence.

Cynthia Bulik began her scientific career studying childhood depression. But while she was working as a research assistant at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1980s, psychiatrist David Kupfer asked her to help write a book chapter comparing electroencephalography studies in depression and anorexia. As preparation, she shadowed a psychiatrist at a hospital inpatient unit for people with eating disorders.

Bulik was intrigued by what she witnessed there. “These people were my age, my sex, and weighed half as much as I did,” she says. “They seemed very eloquent and interactive, but at the same time, in this one area of their psychology and biology, they occupied a completely different space.”

Now the founding director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Bulik has been unraveling the biology behind eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa (AN) ever since. Characterized by extreme caloric restriction resulting in weight loss, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Death can be a result of various risks associated with the condition, from suicide to heart failure. While many AN sufferers go undiagnosed, making incidence rates hard to pin down, some researchers estimate that up to 2 percent of women and 0.3 percent of men are affected globally.

Through studying twins, Bulik and other researchers have established that AN is 50 percent to 60 percent heritable. Bulik and colleagues have also been involved in multiple projects aiming to identify possible genetic bases of AN and other eating disorders. In 2017, for example, a genome-wide association study (GWAS) conducted by UNC researchers and other members of the Psychiatric Genetics Consortium Eating Disorders Working Group (PGC-ED) turned up a connection between AN and a locus overlapping six genes on chromosome 12 (Am J Psychiatry, 174:850–58). Researchers had previously linked that same region to various autoimmune disorders, including type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

The 2017 study also confirmed strong genetic correlations between AN and neuroticism, schizophrenia, and, less expectedly, various metabolic features including body mass index (BMI) and insulin-glucose metabolism. Bulik says that the finding of a possible genetic basis for the condition has been well-received by families and patients, who have long sought recognition that AN is a serious medical disorder, not a dieting choice, as was historically believed. She views the study as the “first step to rewriting the book on AN.”

In the coming months, Bulik also expects to publish the results of the largest genetic study on eating disorders to date. Funded by the Klarman Family Foundation, a charitable organization that donates to medical and other causes, the Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (ANGI) connected researchers in the US, Sweden, Australia, and Denmark, who collected clinical information and blood samples from 13,363 individuals with AN alongside ancestrally matched controls with no eating-disorder history. The results will be combined with the 2017 samples and others to look for genetic loci associated with the condition.

But it’s not just AN that the team is focusing on. UNC’s Binge Eating Genetics INitiative (BEGIN) aims to understand genetic factors associated with binge-eating disorder, a condition characterized by frequent episodes of uncontrollable eating coupled with negative emotions, and bulimia nervosa, which involves episodes of binge eating and subsequent action to eliminate consumed calories. Over the next few months, approximately 5,000 participants in the US and Sweden will provide both genetic and microbiome data, which researchers will analyze in partnership with the consumer microbiome company uBiome to determine if changes in the microbiota are associated with clinical features of the disorders.

In addition to influencing how eating disorders develop, genetic factors could play a part in determining why some people experience chronic illness while others recover, notes Walter Kaye, director of the Eating Disorder Treatment and Research Program at the University of California, San Diego. For example, a study that he and his colleagues carried out on almost 2,000 women with eating disorders, including AN and bulimia, found single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) within GABRG genes—which code for receptors involved in neural signaling—that were associated with whether patients recovered.

Studies such as these are revealing that, like many psychiatric conditions, eating disorders are influenced by many biological pathways, says Kaye. “There was a hope that behavioral disorders would be related to relatively few genes,” he says. “But it doesn’t turn out to be that way. There seems to be many genes involved, each with relatively small effect.” Nevertheless, he notes, “We have learned an awful lot about traits and vulnerability for people who develop eating disorders”—traits that often include anxiety, perfectionism, and harm avoidance.

Although results from genetic research have yet to be translated into therapies, just understanding that anorexia runs in a family could be beneficial in treatment, says Jehannine Austin, a neuropsychiatric geneticist at the University of British Columbia and psychiatric genetic counselor. “Psychiatric genetic counseling is about using the evidence base we’ve accumulated in terms of our understanding about what actually contributes to the development of [psychiatric] illnesses,” she says, noting that the service can be provided even without a patient undergoing genetic testing. Counselors work “to get at that guilt, shame, fear, and blame and stigma and try to mitigate some of it for people by helping them better understand” the biological roots of their conditions.

Bulik underlines the importance of this science-based approach to treatment. “We must change how every physician and therapist learns about eating disorders and erase past false theories and hypotheses,” she says. While she acknowledges the role of environmental and sociocultural influences on the development of eating disorders, “we must anchor that in a clear understanding of the biology of these illnesses,” she says.

“The continuation of this research is so important,” agrees Sarah Blake, an eating disorder therapist who works with patients in Maryland. “When I started in this field, genetics wasn’t even being looked at. It’s interesting to see how far we’ve come and how far we might be able to go.”

(First published in The Scientist on January 1 2019. Available online at:

Why planting trees could be bad for Ireland’s hen harriers – Irish Times, November 15 2018

The twists, tumbles and turns of a hen harrier’s sky dance are a spectacle not everyone has been lucky enough to witness in recent times. Yet while it exists only in poetry or memory for many, for others, the species remains centre-stage.

Undertaken by the Golden Eagle Trust, Irish Raptor Study Group (IRSG) and BirdWatch Ireland on behalf of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the fourth and most recent National Survey of Breeding Hen Harrier in Ireland in 2015 estimates that 108 to 157 breeding pairs remain. This represents an 8.7 per cent decline in confirmed and possible pairs since 2010.

Survey data, along with other research and the views of relevant sectors, have helped to inform a draft Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan (HHTRP), which aims to outline actions for securing the bird’s future. Prepared by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in cooperation with three other departments and a stakeholder consultative committee over five years, the draft plan was scheduled for public consultation in October.

However, the IRSG and BirdWatch Ireland – who are on the consultative committee – have expressed concern with the draft in its current form, saying it does not acknowledge scientific research. Chairman of the IRSG Ryan Wilson-Parr says their primary concern is a proposal to consider further afforestation within hen harrier special protection areas (SPAs).

“Habitat loss due to forestry is detrimental to the hen harrier so any further afforestation in protected areas, which already have 52 per cent forestry cover, isn’t going to help the hen harrier at all.”

Hen harriers breed in open, upland habitats including heather moor, bog and scrub. While they can use young conifer plantations for nesting and foraging, as plantations mature and the forest canopy closes, this habitat becomes unsuitable for nesting and hunting. There are also concerns over increased risk of predation for forest-nesting harriers. Forest maturation since SPA designation could explain why there are now more breeding harriers outside SPAs than within them.
‘Appropriate mechanism’
While saying a threat response plan is “an appropriate mechanism to implement effective conservation strategies for hen harrier”, raptor conservation officer with BirdWatch Ireland John Lusby outlines similar concerns about non-native forestry. “In [the draft’s]current form, it leaves the door open for further afforestation and from a conservation point of view, that absolutely cannot happen.”

Both refer to research conducted by UCC, which found that hen harrier breeding success can decrease noticeably when the percentage of second rotation pre-thicket forest in the surrounding landscape is above 10 per cent. Another UCC study concludes that a maximum threshold of 40 per cent total forest cover within the SPA network is required to keep second rotation pre-thicket forest at this level.

Therefore, while forest removal and connecting foraging habitat can be beneficial, Lusby says forestry within SPAs is already too high to consider further planting.

Chair of the HHTRP, Dr Ciaran O’Keeffe of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, says feedback received from all of the players involved in the plan is currently under review.

“What we have to do is work our way through them to do a complete reply to the committee. Where we have things we can do, we will do them,” says O’Keeffe, who underlines the plan must be science-based.

While he says it would be “premature” to comment on individual aspects of the draft version of the plan, O’Keeffe stresses that no submissions will be ignored, whether from landowners or environmental NGOs. However, he does note that the issue is complex and that accommodating everyone’s interests can be difficult.

Indeed, balancing all interests has been a notoriously hard task, as widely highlighted within the agricultural sector.

Since the designation of hen harrier SPAs in 2007, many of the approximately 4,000 farmers with designated land have been outspoken about their grievances. The reallocation of funding originally designated for landowners in Natura 2000 sites, and the later ban on new forestry within these areas, meant that their land was considered worthless.

Shane McAuliffe, who has farmland within the Stack’s to Mullaghareirk Mountains SPA, on the Limerick, Cork and Kerry borders, says farmers like himself have been left with no options. “We have this land and it just sits there, it’s worthless. In the past, I have applied for afforestation grants and it has been declined. We don’t even graze cattle on it, the land is so bad.”

Native forestry
McAuliffe notes the association between non-native forestry and hen harrier decline and says if permitted, he would only consider native forestry.

“I’d love to plant native oak or alder to give a bit of biodiversity to the area,” he says. “We have 20 acres of Sitka spruce on our land and I hate it. You go through it and there’s no wildlife, there’s nothing going underneath the forest canopy, it’s just dead.”

He feels the European Innovation Partnership locally-led Hen Harrier Project may provide hope to both farmers and the hen harrier. While he wasn’t accepted into the first round, he hopes to get into the next.

“What farmers would like to see is that the role that they play in enhancing the environment is properly rewarded,” says Gerry Gunning of the IFA, who’s also hopeful about the new project.

The €25 million pilot project, compatible with GLAS and GLAS + and funded under Ireland’s Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, financially rewards farmers who manage their land in a manner that benefits the hen harrier.

Just under 700 farmers have been offered contracts since it opened in December 2017, with up to 1,200 participants expected by next summer. The project is universally welcomed, though Lusby notes such schemes would provide greater landowner security and conservation benefits if it were long-term.
Discussion around hen harrier conservation isn’t limited to scientists, conservation groups and private landowners. Additionally, habitat change due to afforestation is only one known pressure, alongside agricultural intensification, upland burning, peat extraction, disturbance from wind turbines and illegal persecution, and pressures vary by region.

There’s also still plenty we don’t know. While the focus within SPAs is breeding hen harriers, O’Keeffe and Wilson-Parr both note we need more research on hen harriers in their wintering sites.

Looking ahead and working together is clearly what’s needed to increase hen harrier numbers but whether that’s possible remains up in the air.

Birds in bloom
On a visit to the Slieve Bloom Mountains, it’s quite possible to avoid seeing another being for miles. Forestry extends across the slopes; in fact, it covers 62.8 per cent of the SPA.

Considering what’s known about the hen harrier and forestry, it’s surprising to see in the 2015 survey, National Survey of Breeding Hen Harrier in Ireland, that breeding pairs in this SPA have increased. However, this is likely due to the existence of protected heather moorland habitat, where the majority of pairs have been nesting.

“This SPA has a nature reserve taking up a big part of it so it is managed optimally, whereas in many others, this is not the case,” says O’Keeffe.

Lusby echoes this, saying this SPA should be looked at in isolation.

“In one way, it does show that the population will respond to positive management but it’s not possible to compare like for like.”

(First published in the Irish Times on November 15 2018. Available online at:

Food waste and circular economies – The Ecologist, October 11 2018

The idea that one man’s trash is another’s treasure has been thrown around for decades, but could taking it literally help to tackle food waste?

Approximately 88 million tonnes of food are wasted in the EU annually and the consequences seep far beyond homes, businesses and landfill sites.

Along with associated economic losses, and the ethical matter of disposing food in a world where eleven percent of the population are undernourished, wasting food amounts to a huge squandering of natural resources.

Through committing to UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, the EU endeavours to halve food waste at consumer and retail level by 2030 and reduce food losses along production and supply chains. The establishment of the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste bolstered this goal, but novel approaches are needed to support a growing population .

Avoidable waste

This circular economy model aims to reduce waste streams by reusing waste as a resource elsewhere.

The EU aims to transition towards this in many areas and in their Action Plan for the Circular Economy, it’s potential for food waste mitigation is recognised.

The circular economy model can apply to food waste but it’s not a one-size fits all solution. Determining the type of food waste involved is key to deciding the most appropriate way to deal with it according to Eoin White, a Research Development Specialist with AgroCycle – a Horizon 2020 funded project addressing agri-food waste.

White explained: “Residue is used to define unavoidable waste, such as fruit skins. They’re a natural part of producing food. The other is wasted food and that’s very much leftovers; things that should and can be eaten but due to consumer behaviour, poor storage and management practices, end up becoming waste.”

While unavoidable food waste can have high value secondary uses, the focus for tackling avoidable waste should first be on prevention: “If the goal is just to utilise this wasted food elsewhere, there’s no incentive to reduce it.”

Loop logic

Hilke Bos-Brouwers, senior Scientist Sustainable Food Chains at Wageningen University and Research, said: “Once this distinction is made, it’s important to seek out the best possible new destination for a waste stream.”

Bos-Brouwers, a scientific coordinator for the FUSIONS (Food Use for Social Innovation by Optimising waste prevention Strategies) and REFRESH projects, said: “With unavoidable food waste, we must valorise it with the highest value possible. You can interpret value on many levels but it basically involves keeping it as close to food as you can.”

If not fit for human consumption, high value applications could include animal feed, biomaterials, and ingredients. While recognising the potential to convert food waste to bioenergy and compost, Bos-Brouwers says it shouldn’t be the first resort.

Prioritising high value applications forms the basis of the cascading principle ̶ an idea that prioritises material uses for biomass before energy uses to prevent raw materials being lost.

White explained: “You could take potato peel, burn it and get a little bit of energy. Technically that’s recycling. But there’s a lot of value in that potato peel. You should try to take as much as you can from it and when everything is taken out, then you can burn or compost it.”

Integrated approach

The circular economy model aims to mitigate waste by creating closed loop systems, but how wide that loop is drawn varies. Internal loops may be preferable as they can ensure resources are conserved with given product lifecycles.

Food waste occurs at production, retail and consumer levels and the circular economy approach can be integrated at all stages.

For example, AgroCycle is partnered with Fraunhofer in Germany, IPCF-CNR Institute in Italy, and Demeter in Greece to help develop innovative products such as straws and cups using potato pulp and rice bran fibres from the agri-food industry, notes White.

Bos-Brouwers noted that innovations also happen where supply chain partners meet up. Her Wageningen UR team provided the example of a retail franchiser and a catering expert who recognised the potential to work together and were supported with knowledge on supply chains, logistics, legislative issues and business models. They founded a company that repurposes retail and food processors surplus into marketable products. Based in the Netherlands, this successful initiative is now known as De Verspillingsfabriek.

Households generate over half of the EU’s food waste and while its inconsistent nature make it difficult to find high value applications, apps such as OLIO allow consumers to share their unwanted food.

Instilling confidence

The recently revised EU Waste Framework Directive now includes a definition for food waste but a level of ambiguity still remains.

Bos-Brouwers said: “In the definition, when something becomes waste, it’s with the intention or the action to discard. Yet, if some entrepreneurs want to collaborate using the sideflow of one company as a resource of the other, they could run into permit problems trying to transport the sideflow as they’re not a waste management company.”

Instilling trust in new approaches to food waste can also be challenging. White added: “I don’t think you get the multiplier effect if it’s only enforced. It’s important to find the right nudges or confidence levels with the [large groups involved] to get them on board.”

“The research community plays a vital role, not by making this more complex, but by investigating what can be done with a fresh look.”

Introducing standards for material passports would help to instil trust within producers and consumers, who may be uncertain how a material created from biomaterials compares to its traditional counterpart.

Shared responsibility

While finding new destinations for unavoidable food waste is celebrated, food waste prevention when possible is preferable.

A study conducted by Oldfield and colleagues at University College Dublin found that food waste minimisation results in the greatest reduction of global warming, acidification and eutrophication potential when compared with other food waste management approaches.

Lisa Ruetgers, who is currently doing a PhD in food waste and market solutions in Coventry University argued that “everybody is responsible food waste reduction.”

Checking the fridge before shopping, sharing or freezing leftovers and purchasing imperfect produce can help at consumer level, while retailers can offer imperfect items, avoid overstocking shelves and inform consumers of best storage practices. Legislation is also very important.

Ruetgers added: “All approaches are needed and need to be aligned, ideally top-down as well as bottom-up. I don’t think you can blame just one part or solve the problem by just one approach.”

(First published by on October 11 2018. Available online at:

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, 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: