Published, The Irish Times, science page, 24th October 2020
Click HERE to listen to report for Drivetime on RTE Radio 1
(Broadcast 5th June, 2017)
Butterflies, and bees provide a number of ecological services essential for any landscape – including pollination and – and their numbers and diversity in an area are considered to be excellent indicators of how well insects generally are doing in a landscape.
To see how they are getting on in the Irish landscape I visited Ballyannan woods near Midleton in Cork. This is an area where cultivated fields with neat rows of potato plants lie next to Ballyannan woods, a mixed woodland, containing sycamore, beech and natural oak trees popular with local walkers.
The diversity of the landscape here makes it an ideal location for the National Biodiversity Data Centre to carry out weekly butterfly monitoring, along the same designated route, for seven months per year.
I met Dr Tomas Murray an ecologist with the Data Centre and members of a diverse butterfly monitoring and counting group, which included students, older people and people working with local community groups.
It was an overcast day, and on days like these, it can be more difficult to catch butterflies, but after a little while we were in luck.
I also spoke to Dr Dara Stanley, a lecturer in Plant Ecology in the Botany and Plant Science Dept at NUI Galway has investigated how human activities are impact on bees in particular, but also butterflies and other insects.
One of Dr Stanley’s research projects focused on the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are used as seed treatments on crops.
Dr Stanley explained to me that the use of chemicals, herbicides and pesticides of all types is killing bees, but also affecting their behaviour and reducing the food that is available to them.
Over the years, many rare species of bumblebee have been migrating westward across Ireland to those areas where hay making, and hay meadows, which are full of flowers, is still common practice.
Changes in agricultural practice too have reduced the places where pollinating insects can live, and reduced the amount of flowers they can eat. The cutting of gardens in suburban landscapes has a similar effect, Dr Stanley said.
Certainly, changes in the landscape over the last half century of so around Midleton and many other parts of Ireland have been dramatic. Much of the change has come about as a result of more intensive use of the land.
The decline of butterflies and bees in Ireland has been dramatic, and the question is what can be done to stop or reverse the decline.
An All Ireland Pollinator Plan, a north-south initiative which began in 2015, set out some specific ways that farmers, gardeners and others can help halt or reverse the decline of our pollinators, butterflies and other insects.
The recommendations for farmers include allowing field margins to grow unmanaged encouraging wild grasses to grow, or to introduce wild flower strips.
For gardeners the message is don’t cut the grass too regularly, every six weeks is enough, and allow one small sunny spot to grow unimpeded.
For now, the decline in our biodiversity is reversible, scientists believe, but if ignore the red flags that nature is raising, we’re likely to pay a heavy price for our inaction.
Report on the curlew for Drivetime on RTE Radio 1The haunting cry of the curlew, the wading bird with the long-curved bill which has been written about in song and verse and was once common across the Irish countryside.
Sadly, there are just 120 breeding pairs of curlew left in Ireland, a bird that has been written about in song and verse and was once so common across the Irish countryside. Thousands of curlew flock to our shores in winter to escape harsh scandinavian winters, native Irish curlew, are now on the verge of extinction.
I went in search of the curlew recently, and began by meeting Alan Lauder, an independent wildlife conservation consultant, and Chair of the Curlew Task Force, set up by the government last November, in a desperate attempt to prevent the disappearance of our native Curlews.
I met Alan in Broad Lough, an estuary of the Varty river, near Wicklow town. It’s one of the many places around the Irish coastline where thousands of foreign-born curlews come to feed and take advantage of the mid Irish climate when they are not breeding. Many people in the conservation community had long suspected that all was not right with the curlew, but until recently nothing was done, Alan told me.
In November of last year, a meeting took place in Mullingar where experts and interested bodies gathered to discuss the plight of the native Irish curlew. The meeting decided that urgent action was required to save the bird, Alan told me.
The following day, still having not seen or heard a curlew, I travelled north in hope, to the village of Carrickroe, Co Monaghan, to meet Anita Donaghy and Joe Shannon of Birdwatch Ireland. Anita who is a project field officer for Birdwatch, gave me the background to the Curlew’s gradual, sad decline.
Joe, who is the local field officer for Birdwatch, travels around the north Monaghan countryside listening for the alarm call of the adult curlew, which indicates that curlew chicks are in the area.
He reassured me that earlier this morning he had found a breeding pair, with chick or chicks, in a newly cut field, in Drumlin country, a couple of miles north of Carrickroe village.
We had finally found a pair of native Irish breeding curlews, with one adult, probably the male, circling constantly, protecting at least one chick on the ground.
The curlew chicks are vulnerable to predators such as the fox, as they are exposed out in the centre of a cut field. The eggs are laid on the ground for one month, and then it takes a further five weeks for the chicks to gain the ability to fly, or fledge. In days gone by, sheer numbers of curlew meant the population remained stable, despite the vulnerability in early life.
Today, however, Birdwatch Ireland estimate that – just for the native curlew population to remain stable – requires each breeding pair to produce one chick, but surveys indicate curlews are only producing one chick for every five pairs.
The suspicion is that curlews are continuing to decline at perhaps a rate of 10 per cent per year, so unless something big is done, the cry of the native curlew will be lost to Ireland forever in a few short years.
The odds appear to be against the survival of the native curlew, but the National Parks and Wildlife Service is not giving up and has introduced measures to reduce the threat from predators,
If the curlew is to survive it will also require farmers to co-operate with conservation efforts in the areas where the curlew remains, and for the public to row in behind with active support through donations or volunteering their help.
Piece for Drivetime, RTE Radio 1
(broadcast, 6th July, 2017)The Atlantic Salmon is one of Ireland’s iconic species, celebrated on our stamps, coins and in the stories that we read to our children.
Yet the numbers of this powerful, tenacious migratory fish have declined by 60 per cent over the last 40 years and there are real fears that the conservation measures underway may not save the salmon from extinction in the long term.
Dr Niall O’ Maoleidigh, fisheries scientist with the Marine Institute, and was my host for recent visit to the Marine Institute Salmon Research Centre just outside of Newport Co Mayo. Niall told me that records are available that show how bad things have become for the native Atlantic salmon.
The Research Centre at Newport has been a base for research on the salmon since 1955. It lies lies just north of Clew Bay, and at the base of the Nephin Beg Mountain Range in an area of stunning natural beauty.
The site is located at the juncture of two connected lakes, a saltwater lake called Lough Furnace that connects to Clew Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and a freshwater lake, Lough Feeagh that provides access to the upriver salmon spawning grounds in the Nephin Beg Range.
This means that all fish movements upstream and downstream from sea to river, and river to sea can be precisely counted using salmon traps.
The adult salmon start to arrive back from their feeding grounds in the Faroe Islands or of western Greenland in the month of June. Some adult salmon may have migrated more than 4,000 miles across open ocean to get home to arrive back at the Burrishoole river.
I went for a walk with Ger Rogan, a researcher at the Marine Institute, who is in charge of the fish census, or counting, programme. Ger showed me the salmon trapping facility and explained how it works.
On the edge
The scientists at Newport know that there are some 600 adult fish associated with the Burrishoole river. That indicates a population living on the edge, as 600 is also the so-called conservation number for this river, meaning the number of adult fish needed to replenish the population.
The Burrishoole river is an index river for the other 144 Irish salmon rivers. This means that the trends affecting this river are seen as indicative for native salmon generally. This suggests salmon across Ireland are living on the edge too.
Pat Hughes, is the rod fishery manager of the Burrishoole fishery and a local man, and he is concerned about the fall in salmon numbers since he began as the fishery manager in Newport in the late 1980s.
I spoke to angler Brian Lovering from Bristol who has been coming for 20 years, despite the steady fall off in salmon numbers. He said he was attracted to the west of Ireland’s unique charm and the friendliness of its people.
Saving the salmon, will require adherence to the strict conservation plans for each of our salmon rivers, added to strong international cooperation to identify and deal with the problems this magnificent fish faces while feeding out at sea.