Is it okay to remove Cowbird eggs from host nests? – Audubon.org, June 6 2018

It can be tempting to interfere with these brood parasites. But there are many reasons—legal and behavioral—to leave them alone.

No parent appreciates another meddling in their child-rearing efforts. Unfortunately for many songbirds in North America, meddling is the Brown-headed Cowbird’s modus operandi.

The species is our best-known brood parasite—organisms (like some birds, insects, and fish) that rely on others to raise their young. In birds, this typically describes a species that lays its eggs in a host’s nest and lets that other parent do the chick-raising, often to the detriment of the host’s own offspring. Cowbird chicks don’t directly harm their nestmates (by pushing them out of the nest, for instance, like some cuckoo species), but tend to grow faster and outcompete them for resources.

Due to a perceived sense of injustice, cowbirds are often vilified by humans, who occasionally take matters into their own hands by removing cowbird eggs from nests. These are usually well-intentioned attempts to “save” the chicks of other species—but is it a good idea to allow people’s drive to nurture interfere with nature?

The short answer: no. “The best solution is to leave cowbirds eggs alone,” says Steve Rothstein, Emeritus Professor of Zoology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has researched the effects of cowbird parasitism on endangered species. “It’s a natural process and we shouldn’t attach human values about killing or being sneaky to the natural world.”

The reasons are multifold, and encompass both the law and unintended consequences.

U.S. law already says that people should not interfere with cowbird eggs. As a native species, the Brown-headed Cowbird is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and taking eggs is illegal without a permit. While permits for cowbird control have been granted, it’s only done when they’re considered a threat to endangered birds. For example, in Michigan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service traps an average of 4,000 cowbirds every year to protect endangered Kirtland’s Warblers.

The law is only one reason to leave eggs untouched, Rothstein says; interference can have unintended effects. That’s because “most birds in North America don’t have egg-recognition abilities”—often not even for their own eggs. However, parents do keep track of the total mass of eggs in their nest. “Many seem to assume the cowbird egg is part of their clutch and will have a nest-desertion response if we remove a certain proportion of eggs,” Rothstein, who has examined this behavior in his research, says. They may even desert the entire area and find a new nesting spot.

“This response is universal among birds, as they have the option to re-nest,” he continues. “However, if it’s late in the breeding season, the bird might not have time to.”

Worse, egg removal can result in retribution by cowbird parents. A 2007 study, led by avian ecologist Jeffrey Hoover with the Illinois Natural History Survey, was the first to document what’s known as “mafia behavior.” In the experiment, scientists observed the effects of removing Brown-headed Cowbird eggs from parasitized warbler nests. In 56 percent of cases, cowbird mothers returned and ransacked the nest, destroying most or all eggs. Comparatively, six percent of nests were destroyed when humans didn’t interfere.

While no additional research has confirmed this behavior in Brown-headed Cowbirds, it highlights “a potential further complication to removing cowbird eggs,” says Matthew Louder, who studies cowbird brood parasitism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For Louder, the only instances where cowbird egg removal is justifiable is when it’s legally conducted to help one of three endangered species: Golden-cheeked Warblers, Black-capped Vireos, and Kirtland’s Warblers.

“Cowbirds aren’t the main reason for their decline, and probably not even a great contributing factor. The only factor in the decline of these species is humans,” he says. “Now numbers are so low that any other problems [such as brood parasitism] would push them over the edge.” If cowbird control is permitted, Louder says it must be done alongside habitat restoration measures.

Rothstein agrees that cowbird control and habitat improvement must go together. “Cowbirds have been in North America for a million years,” he says. “If a species needs help, it’s because we have damaged their habitat. Any species that would go extinct just because of cowbirds and not human interference would have gone extinct long ago.”

All this evidence points to a single conclusion: Cowbird eggs should be left alone. It can be disturbing to observe what looks like “cheating” at the expense of less common species—but it’s just nature’s way, even if it’s ugly. Sarah Winnicki, an avian ecologist at Kansas State University, has found a way to adjust her own perspective on the species to avoid moralizing their behavior.

“I try to convince people about how amazing [cowbirds’] evolutionary story is,” she says. “How did they learn to find nests, to lay eggs, and to re-find them later? How do they learn to time their reproduction to their hosts? As an ornithologist, this is incredible to me.”

(First published on Audubon.org on June 6 2018. Available online at: https://www.audubon.org/news/is-it-okay-remove-cowbird-eggs-host-nests)

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Stopping animal cruelty in its tracks – Zafigo.com, June 6 2018

Aaron Gekoski is an environmental photojournalist from the UK who has spent over a decade documenting human-animal conflict. He has recently garnered much attention for his photography project which highlights animal cruelty at wildlife tourism attractions in Thailand. He spoke with Zafigo about the issues with wildlife tourism, being a responsible tourist, and his own goals.

Why did you choose to document this in Thailand?

This is a worldwide problem. It’s not just Thailand, it’s happening in [the United States of] America, the UK, and other places in the west too. Thailand seems to be the epicentre [of wildlife cruelty] as a lot of animals are kept in captivity in a country that has non-specific laws regarding cruelty. The Prevention of Cruelty Act isn’t specific on how big a holding area should be, what you should feed animals, what constitutes cruelty, and how an animal should be trained.

There are things like orangutan boxing shows daily. The majority of people are laughing at it and don’t seem to notice anything wrong, but they don’t see behind the scenes and how the animal may be trained, for example. Also, in other places, animals may have been taken from the wild and then have to live the rest of their lives in captivity.

What did you witness on your trip in Thailand?

The boxing orangutan shows were very bad. There were elephant rides being offered at Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo, and the elephants were not in a good state. They were skinny, swaying around and didn’t look healthy. Crocodiles there were in poor conditions.

Pata Zoo has four orangutans, a gorilla, and some chimps kept in filthy small cells at this zoo at the top of a shopping mall. They have no stimulation and [live in] an unsuitable environment. At Phuket Safari ECO+, there was a monkey theatre and elephants being made to perform in small rooms. It’s not happening just in Thailand, I really want to stress that.

Are there some places branding themselves as fair and sustainable but not necessarily abiding by these practices?

It’s quite common for places to greenwash. A lot of places dress themselves up as conservation initiatives. They say they’re all about conservation and about reintroduction, but often, they don’t end up doing it. They are money-making schemes working to the detriment of animals. I’m not anti-captivity; there are many zoos doing good things for conservation. I’m anti-cruelty. That’s the goal of this project, to fight cruelty.

Can you name some wildlife tourism operations worthy of support and others to avoid?

In Thailand, Wildlife Friends of Thailand are doing amazing things and have an excellent reputation. Safari World [Bangkok] is the glitziest, the most Disney-fied. What we witnessed was orangutan boxing and a morbidly obese orangutan who sat in a holding area that was much too small, begging for food. It doesn’t fill you with much hope when at the most high-end attraction you witness some of these shows and alarming situations. Phuket Zoo wasn’t great either, and Pata Zoo has had a lot of bad press also.

On the other hand, places like Houston Zoo and London Zoo put a lot of money into conservation. I used to live in London and visit London Zoo. Seeing animals up close inspired me to get into this industry. Most people don’t have access to these animals, so zoos and aquariums are important, but they must be done responsibly. If they can’t be, they shouldn’t be allowed to operate.

Did you have any difficulty getting these shots?

I just paid for tickets and filmed animals as I found them. This is all imagery that’s available and open to the public at any time. Those cage images weren’t behind the scenes, these are conditions animals live in.

I don’t want to speculate, but everything I hear about how these animals are kept and trained is bad. For example, elephants go through something called the crush, which is the most horrific form of animal abuse possible. They are literally beaten; their spirits are broken by handlers and they’re beaten until completely submissive.

What reactions have you had to your project?

I’ve seen the worst sides of humanity, and on the back of this, also seen some of the best. People have been donating; someone’s buying me a new camera and a guy is building me a site for free. The idea is to set up a platform so people can flag certain operations. It’ll be called Raise The Red Flag. People can log on to the website and make a report with photos. Once there are enough reports, we will speak to relevant authorities and try to make as much noise as possible.

Do you have any tips for those when choosing wildlife-related tourism options?

That’s why I’m setting up this platform, because there isn’t enough info out there. In general, if it involves animal shows and performances, there’s a red flag there right away. I don’t think animals should be made to perform for people because the way animals have been treated in order to make them perform is quite worrying. You can always do research on a place you are going to, check whether they have conservation initiatives, look at TripAdvisor and find out where they got the animals from.

(First published on Zafigo.com on June 6 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/stopping-cruelty-in-its-tracks/ )

The clock is ticking to save the curlew – Irish Times, April 23 2018

The haunting cry of the curlew has long been embedded in Irish literary culture as well as in individual memory. Yet, with the breeding population dropping by a staggering 96 per cent since the 1980s, we are left to wonder whether Ireland’s future generations will have any more than these tales to rely on when learning about this iconic bird.

With the inaugural World Curlew Day held on April 21st, the focus was on the plight of the Eurasian curlew in Ireland, as well as that of other curlew species worldwide.

In 2011, BirdWatch Ireland carried out the first survey in Ireland specifically focused on breeding curlew populations. These were conducted in Donegal and Mayo as part of the Halt Environmental Loss Programme (Help), a cross-Border initiative funded through the EU Interreg IVA scheme. Just eight pairs of breeding curlew were found and it was estimated that there were fewer than 200 pairs nationwide compared to an estimation of 5,000 in the early 1990s. The first national survey was commissioned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2015 and 2016. It found numbers to be lower than estimations, with fewer than 150 breeding pairs discovered. Without action, it was predicted that the curlew will be extinct as a breeding species in Ireland within a decade.

This may surprise those who see curlew flocks between late July and early spring. However, these birds are likely to be wintering from Britain and Scandinavia whereas the breeding population can be found between April and early June.

“Without a doubt, the primary cause of population decline is habitat loss and degradation. This mainly occurred in the second half of the last century with things such as widespread agricultural change, drainage and restriction of bogland, loss of marshy pastures and afforestation,” explains Senior Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland Dr Anita Donaghy. “As a result, curlew habitats have become more fragmented. This degradation and fragmentation has had a knock-on effect and the population are now more vulnerable to predation.”

BirdWatch Ireland established a year-long “Cry of the Curlew” campaign in 2011 in an effort to raise money to fund nationwide curlew research. Since 2012, they’ve also been calling on the Government to take action. These calls were finally heard in 2017 when Minister Heather Humphreys announced the establishment of a Curlew Task Force aimed at saving the curlew from national extinction.

Independent chairman of the Curlew Task Force Alan Lauder says their primary role is “to bring together all relevant stakeholders involved with curlew conservation across the country”. In total, 30 people attend Task Force meetings, including groups and individuals from farming, turf-cutting, conservation, governmental, research and various other backgrounds.

“Our aim is to form approaches to first, halt their decline and then restore populations as quickly as possible,” says Lauder, who chairs the task force on a voluntary basis.

The Curlew Conservation Programme was established by the NPWS in 2017. This action programme is currently focused on seven areas: Stacks Mountains, Lough Ree, Lough Corrib, north Roscommon, Leitrim, Monaghan and Donegal.

“In each area we have a “curlew action team” with a “curlew champion”. These teams are liaising with local communities and landowners. Most of the people we have employed are local people themselves, with a blend of backgrounds including farming, hurling and tourism,” explains head of the Agri-Ecology Unit with NPWS Dr Barry O’Donoghue, who manages the programme.

Tasks carried out by action teams include field surveys and working with landowners to protect nests from predation. Habitat improvement measures such as the removal of gorse and blackthorn scrub from the Lough Ree area were also carried out.

For such a programme to be successful, O’Donoghue says it must be appropriate for curlew and farmer needs, offer supports to landowners, promote local pride and ownership in our natural heritage and ultimately, lead to results.

Researchers from UCD are currently monitoring the Curlew Conservation Programme to evaluate what measures are positively affecting curlew productivity. The benchmark figure for sustainable curlew population growth is 0.5 chicks per pair.

“Our aim is to ascertain what aspects of land use are leading to success,” explains UCD lecturer in wildlife conservation and zoonotic epidemiology Dr Barry McMahon. “Areas around the lakes such as Lough Ree are showing productive signs but we don’t have the data to go with this yet so it’s too early to say for sure.”

McMahon, who is principal investigator for the research project, says productivity is likely due to the lower levels of predation in these areas. As a ground-nesting bird, curlews are highly vulnerable.

The Department of Agriculture introduced a specific curlew conservation option in the agri-environment scheme Glas in 2015, while a curlew conservation project granted funding under the European Innovation Partnerships (EIP) Initiative will soon commence in Galway.

While praising all positive moves, Donaghy says more needs to be done. This includes the provision of additional resources to establish additional Curlew Action Teams elsewhere, as well as better protection from development for the curlew at a national level.

“BirdWatch Ireland regrets that the government didn’t take action when the problem was brought to their attention in 2012. The curlew population has declined even further since then. Now it makes it very difficult to build a sustainable population,” she adds.

Though not directly involved with the projects, birding expert Eric Dempsey has been keeping a close eye. While fully praising the establishment of the task force, he says it’s “hard not to view the Government’s move with cynicism”.

“It was such a hypocritical thing for Humphreys to do because she was simultaneously pushing the section of the Heritage Bill allowing farmers to burn randomly in the uplands,” he says. “On one hand she was launching a wonderful curlew campaign and on the other, pushing legislation that puts birds on the brink of extinction.”

He adds: “We must stop the Heritage Bill to allow the task force to do its business.”

World Curlew Day

The Eurasian Curlew is one of eight curlew species worldwide. At least three of these are seen as endangered or near threatened, while the Eskimo curlew and the slender-billed curlew are considered likely extinct. To highlight the importance of these birds, manager of the Curlew Conservation Programme Dr Barry O’Donoghue established the idea of a World Curlew Day which took place on April 21st – the idea has quickly taken flight internationally, with events arranged as far away as Australia.

“It’s so important that it is community-led,” explains O’Donoghue. “The aim is to mainstream conservation issues and have them tie in with something that is well known in the locality. One of the key focuses from the day is that local people realise how important their area is on a national and international scale to this bird.”

Events in Ireland included talks, art competitions and even football tournaments such as the Curlew Cup in Stack’s Mountains – all of which are featured on the World Curlew Day Facebook page.

(First published in the Irish Times on April 23 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/the-clock-is-ticking-to-save-the-curlew-1.3470968)

The Eskimo Curlew hasn’t been seen for 55 years. Is it time to declare it extinct? -Audubon, April 22 2018

Scientists hope the plight of this shorebird, once among the most common in North America, will spur conservation for other troubled curlew species.

Victor Emanuel will never forget the day he saw his first Eskimo Curlew. It was around 60 years ago, in Galveston, Texas, when the foot-long, brown-speckled bird poked its down-curved bill through the grass—a rare gem nearly invisible among a field of other mottled shorebirds. At first, Emanuel and several others believed it was a runt Whimbrel. But after checking all possible field marks and consulting guides, they confirmed that what they saw was the rare Eskimo Curlew. They were among the last people to see the species alive.

“There’s a chapter in my memoir in which I call it the bird of my life,” Emanuel says. “For a birder who had seen this bird in field guides, which said it was possibly extinct, it was like seeing a dinosaur. It had a huge effect on me.”

At one point, the Eskimo Curlew may have been one of the most common shorebirds in North America, with a population numbering in the many millions. Flocks once migrated from wintering grounds in South America, through the Great Plains, to breeding territories in Alaska and Canada—and back south off the Atlantic Coast.

For most people today, though, the species is merely a legend, fueled by old stories and the highly regarded 1954 book Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth. Photographer Don Bleitz took the last known photo of the shorebird in Galveston in 1962, and the last confirmed sighting was in 1963, when a lone bird was shot in Barbados. In 1983, a reported sighting of 23 Eskimo Curlews in Texas stirred up much excitement, but it was not accepted by the state bird records committee.

“It seems quite unbelievable to me that so many birds would show up on a single occasion, and not be seen ever again,” says Jon McCracken, director of national programs at Bird Studies Canada. “It’s like verifying that there are UFOs out there without good solid physical evidence.”

Though most cite the Barbados record as the last true sighting of the Eskimo Curlew, reports are still occurring—but they’re mostly wishful thinking. “Every season starting in June or July, I get a call with someone reporting an Eskimo Curlew,” says Bob Gill, a shorebird biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center in Anchorage who co-authored a detailed account of the species in The Birds of North America. “Invariably they are juvenile Whimbrels.”

What happened to this once-widespread species, you ask? They were hunted in large numbers through the 1800s; hunting migratory birds, except for those species approved by the government, largely ceased in 1918 with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Yet hunting is not the sole cause of decline, Gill says.

“Was it a contributing factor? Absolutely. Was it the only factor? No way,” he says. “As this bird was being hunted, the prairies were being plowed under and a principal food source, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, was going extinct.” These grasshoppers once had population booms in the billions; in 1875, they formed the largest recorded locust swarm: 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide, blanketing Plattsmouth, Nebraska for five days. As grasslands were converted to cornfields, the locusts vanished—and grassland birds, like the curlew, did, too.

“Hunting is an easy thing to blame,” Gill continues. “I just hope people can be more objective and look at the big picture.”

That’s particularly important given the threats to the seven other curlew species. This genus of wading migratory shorebirds, distinguishable from others by their down-curved bill and mottled plumage, faces threats in regions across the globe. The Eurasian Curlew, for example, has seen its European breeding population decline by at least one-third in 30 years due to loss of its grassland habitat, and significant declines have also been recorded in central Asian populations. The Bristle-thighed Curlew, with 7,000 individuals, is currently classed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, with drops in numbers largely attributed to predation by introduced predators on its wintering grounds in tropical Oceania; considering that more than 50 percent of adults are flightless during autumn molt, they are particularly easy targets.

Then there’s the Far Eastern Curlew, with a population of 32,000 birds in 2006, according to Wetlands International estimates. Habitat loss on the Yellow Sea staging grounds is considered the primary threat to the species and, with the rate of intertidal habitat loss averaging over 1 percent annually, this trend is expected to continue. While the Long-billed Curlew, Whimbrel, and Little Curlew are not currently a cause for concern, due to their relatively stable populations and wide range, ongoing climate change and habitat degradation could threaten them in the future.

Finally, there’s the Slender-billed Curlew, which hasn’t been spotted since 1995. Similarly to the Eskimo Curlew, historical hunting and habitat loss are believed to be key to their disappearance.

The Eskimo Curlew has not been declared extinct—yet. It is currently considered “critically endangered (possibly extinct)” by the IUCN. The latest report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada again declared the bird endangered in 2009. In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a five-year status review of the bird, which upon completion continued to list it as endangered.

Despite there being no confirmed sightings since 1963 and no evident breeding in more than 100 years, it’s difficult to definitively say whether the Eskimo Curlew is extinct.

“It’s a case of trying to prove a negative; absence of evidence isn’t proof of absence. If you can’t prove an absence, is it extinct or not?” says McCracken, who authored Canada’s 2009 report. “I personally believe that it probably, almost certainly, is extinct, and I think that’s the general consensus.”

Canada plans to reassess the Eskimo Curlew’s status in 2020, with no confirmed date yet for the U.S. review.

Regardless, circumstances remain dire for other curlews and birds that breed or migrate through landscapes that have been transformed. And based on the lack of optimism Gill hears at shorebird meetings, he’s not sure how much can be done to reverse the damage. For decades, scientists have sounded the alarm about the wildlife impacts of land fragmentation and the conversion of prairies and forests to farmland. At this point, he says, it might be too late. The changes people have made are vast; there’s no converting all of that farmland back to grassland.

Still, Gill maintains some hope that people might be convinced even quirky birds like curlews are worth the effort. And the story of the Eskimo Curlew could help.

“If we declare this bird extinct, let’s use it to our advantage and prevent others from becoming extinct,” he says. “I think anything we can do to raise public awareness will help [to protect other species]. We need to get people to get in touch with their concerns they may not have even known that they had.”

(First published on Audubon on April 20 2018. Available online at: http://www.audubon.org/news/the-eskimo-curlew-hasnt-been-seen-55-years-it-time-declare-it-extinct)

Sustainable Watersports: Diving without Destruction – Zafigo.com, April 20 2018

Even while adventuring in new places, many of us are keen to see what’s literally below the surface. Recent research shows that marine tourism is one of the most rapidly growing tourism sectors globally, and with some of the world’s most beautiful reefs situated in Asia, you’re missing out if you don’t take a closer look.

It has to be said, however, that scuba diving and snorkelling come with a high price, and I’m not just talking about the cost of a PADI licence. There’s a growing awareness of how human activities impact our marine ecosystems, and these popular hobbies are certainly not exempt from the conversation.

Thankfully, several organisations and individuals worldwide have made it their goal to protect what remains of these precious underwater worlds. Established by the United Nations Environmental Programme and currently supported by The Reef-World Foundation, Green Fins is an ever-expanding network that focuses on improving the marine tourism industry through liaising with governments, NGOs, dive centres and individuals in their established countries.

“The overall aim of Green Fins is to protect and conserve coral reefs by establishing and implementing environmentally-friendly guidelines to promote a sustainable diving and snorkelling tourism industry,” explains Green Fins assessor for the Green Fins Malaysia network Nadhirah Mohd. Rifai.

Along with educating industry players on best practice, Green Fins aims to encourage tourists to take heed when taking the plunge. Here’s a summary of their suggestions:

Support positive change

Green Fins is working to ensure that all of its members serve as guardians to marine life by adopting eco-friendly and sustainable practices. The environmental standards of all dive and snorkel centres who have adopted the Green Fins Code of Conductare assessed annually.

“We recommend visiting Green Fins certified dive operators that can be found in Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, The Maldives and Palau,” says Nadhirah.

For the ultimate eco-friendly dive centres, Nadhirah recommends choosing from their top 10 Green Fins Members on this list; these centres are ranked the best among other Green Fins-certified dive operators.

Look with your eyes

While the rainbow of coral and seashells in our oceans may tie in perfectly with your household colour scheme, you must remember that the natural world is not a free-for-all gift shop. Whether dead or alive, don’t remove any coral or other marine life while diving or snorkelling. Besides causing environmental damage, removing coral from the ocean is illegal in many places. So why risk it? Let your memories will serve as the best souvenir. Additionally, be sure not to touch or step on coral, which is very fragile and takes a long time to grow.

Capture moments with care

It’s understandable to be eager to capture moments so you can share with loved ones back home. While underwater photography is certainly permissible, it’s important to take steps to prevent harm. Green Fins recommends that divers take care not to drag photography equipment against the reef as this can cause irreparable damage.

It’s also recommended that you practice your underwater photography skills prior to venturing out on a diving or snorkelling trip. This will ensure you are confident in carrying the equipment underwater and so, are less likely to cause an accident. Finally, as tempting as it can be, photographers are urged not to touch, move, chase or disturb any marine life in the quest for the perfect shot.

Leave no trace

You wouldn’t carelessly dump trash in your friend’s home so why do it to our underwater neighbours? We’re becoming increasingly aware of the impact that plastic is having on our oceans’ ecosystems and while the problem won’t be resolved overnight, you can play your part by ensuring that you don’t add to it. Make sure to bring any plastic bottles, food packaging and other waste home with you after the trip. What only takes a few moments to gather up can have long-term consequences for the ocean if left behind.

Additionally, while it is perfectly acceptable to feed yourself (a day at sea can leave you famished!), share leftovers only with fellow land-dwelling divers. Marine creatures have plenty of grub to keep them satisfied and eating human food could result in illness, aggression towards divers and an imbalance in ecosystems should fish choose to eat human food over algae.

Practice

It’s important to ensure that you know what you’re doing before taking to the water, both for your own safety and the safety of marine life. “Bad buoyancy may cause coral damage when divers kick the corals, as well as coral mortality due to sediments being stirred and then landing on nearby corals, choking them and blocking the sunlight,” says Nadhirah. The best way to practice? Keep diving! Just be sure to keep yourself, and the environment, safe from harm.

(First published on Zafigo.com on April 20 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/diving-without-destruction/ )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We depend two times more on animal feed than our neighbours – Irish Examiner, March 15 2018

Ireland is renowned for rolling green pastures and sought-after food products.

But annual imports of 3.47m tonnes (mt) of animal feed are also part of the picture. Ireland is especially dependent on feed imports because of our high proportion of livestock production compared to tillage area.

About two thirds of the animal feeds marketed here are imported, compared to 37% in the UK, 27% in France, and 26% in Germany.

The main commodities imported are maize and maize byproducts, soyabean meal and soya hulls, and rapeseed meal. Up to 90% of the soyabean and maize products are imported from Argentina, Brazil, and the USA.

Our pig, poultry, and dairy sectors are particularly dependent on imports of GM soybean and GM maize by-products. Almost 1.7mt of soya and maize genetically modified (GM) products were imported into Ireland for animal feeds in 2017, constituting approximately 50% of total feed imports.

Significant quantities of non-GM maize and oilseed rape meal are also imported, from continental Europe, including Ukraine.

About 5m EU farmers raise animals, requiring 450mt of animal feed annually.

Recognising the EU’s over-dependency on imported proteins for animal feed, the EU Commission will publish a plan by the end of this year, with proposals to reduce over-reliance on imports.

Apart from dependence on getting feed from around the world, and the pollution and emissions associated with its transportation, soya is a particular cause for concern.

The worldwide growth of the soybean crop has caused large scale loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitat in already vulnerable places such as the Amazon rainforest.

The World Wildlife Fund recently focused on “hidden impacts that animal feed has on our planet”, and concluded that a reduction in meat consumption could alleviate these impacts. That is a shock for farmers, and others whose livelihoods are rooted in agriculture. But what role can they play?

Soybean production isn’t possible in Ireland, but growing other protein crops on our home soil can reduce demand for imported feed.

Ireland’s EU-funded Protein Aid Scheme, introduced in 2015, subsidises farmers for growing beans, peas, and lupins. Last year, the payment rate was set at €215 per hectare, and 1,200 people applied.

“The area of pulses, primarily beans and peas, grown in Ireland is 12,500 hectares. This is up from 3,500 hectares in 2012,” says head of crops science at Teagasc John Spink. “In terms of bean production, they would be grown on existing tillage land in a rotation with cereal crops.”

“From an environmental standpoint, they provide an important flowering crop of value to bees. They also fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil.”

However, as noted by animal and grassland researcher at Teagasc Laurence Shalloo, growing these crops domestically can only get us so far.

“In terms of potential production, we could only produce a fraction of the protein requirements of our livestock industries. If we absolutely maximised bean production on our existing tillage area, we could produce 360,000 tonnes per annum.”

Increasing the number of grazing days for livestock could be a way of further bringing down the reliance on imports, says Shalloo.

“Grazed grass obviously has sufficient protein to meet the requirements of dairy and beef animals and sheep. Maximising the grazing days in livestock production systems will reduce supplemented protein requirements.”

Co Cork dairy farmer Peter Hynes operates a grass-based system. But the 90 tonnes of animal feed he uses annually contains soya, something he’s trying to change.

“One of the big issues we are all well aware of is that the price of soya can fluctuate greatly, and can drive up the price of dairy rations overnight, so we definitely need to steer away from it,” he says.

The fact that most imported soya is genetically-modified (GM) is another incentive to seek out alternatives, according to Hynes, who says there is growing consumer demand for GM-free products in some of Ireland’s biggest dairy markets, such as Germany.

When it comes to reducing soya imports, he says this is likely to be a greater source for concern to Irish farmers than deforestation abroad.

“I do think we need to look at the carbon footprint of our milk, and that includes what we put into the feed, the haulage process and everything else,” he adds. “We can’t discount where our feed comes from. The carbon footprint of soya is huge, and it’s only going to get bigger.”

Professor emeritus of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Alan Matthews does not regard our reliance on imported soya as a large worry, and has no personal worries about the safety of GM soybeans. However, he does recognise the reality of “asynchronous approval” problems.

“A high share of soybeans are GM. In the EU, there’s no legal problem with that, except that each particular GM needs to be approved, before it can be brought in. This is quite a complicated and time-consuming process.”

Matthews says that this can be problematic if a supplier country introduces a new GM variety of soybean that has yet to be approved in Europe.

“They may try to ensure that shipments to Europe are separate, but it’s inevitably going to get contaminated somewhere along the line. You end up in a situation where you have a shipment from somewhere with this new GM variety, it’s detected at entry and then refused,” he says.

“That’s a concern for the European livestock sector, that they could find themselves inadvertently unable to import feed.”

Matthews believes that growing more protein crops in Ireland may have other consequences, saying we will either have to substitute other forms of production or clear more land to facilitate it.

“Are you therefore protecting the environment, by increasing the area granted to protein crops in Ireland, if the objective is to reduce land usage overall?”

However, he also recognises that deforestation and biodiversity loss occur elsewhere. In order to conquer this, he says we should “use our market power as an importer” to insist on the countries we get the feedstuffs from protecting their vulnerable habitats and raising their standards.

Secretary of the Irish Pig Health Society Shane McAuliffe, from McAuliffe Pig Farms in Co Kerry, has worked with nutritionists from Cargill to reduce the amount of soya protein in his pigs’ diets by 20%, subsequently reducing his pigs’ ammonia emissions by 15%. He also incorporates seaweed into the diets, which he says is reducing his costs and need for antibiotics, while maintaining the health and growth-rate of his animals.

As technology advances, he’s positive we can “significantly reduce” our reliance on imported feed. “Science and technology are moving forward rapidly and more sources of feed are available. It’s up to the government to provide incentives and make policy to use more sustainable practices,” adds McAuliffe, who says he sees promise in new feed sources such as algae and insect protein.

 

PANEL

There has been much abuzz about the potential for insect protein to feed the humans and animals of the future and a pair of Meath-based innovators are getting involved.

The brainchild of Alvan Hunt and John Lynam, Hexafly was established with the aim of developing sustainable feed for the agriculture and aquaculture industries using insects. Using biomimicry techniques, Hexafly takes black soldier flies into the lab, breeds them and hatches the larvae. The larvae are then fed with by-products from the brewing industry which they convert to a higher quality protein source before being used in feed.

“I looked at the production figures several months ago and on a per tonne basis, our method produces 90 per cent less greenhouse gases than one tonne of soy for example,” explains CTO and co-founder John Lynam. “In terms of space efficiency, on a good year on a soya farm you get one and a half tonnes of soya protein per acre. We are using one third of an acre and can produce 2,000 tonnes within one year.”

Hexafly is currently finalising the completion of their commercial pilotfacility and soon after will begin exporting their product. At present, EU legislation only permits the use of insect protein in the aquaculture industry and as Ireland has no compound fish feed manufacturing facilities, they will be focusing on exports in the beginning. However, once they receive the green light to supply to the pork and poultry industries, they envision being able to provide a local feed source to farmers on their home turf. “While we may not be able to replace traditional feed completely, we will be able to produce insect meal in addition to soya and fish meal to ease the demand on the food supply chain,” says Lynam.

(First published in the Irish Examiner on March 15 2018. Also available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/farming/we-depend-two-times-more-on-imported-animal-feed-than-our-neighbours-832683.html)