The ecologist who gets locals to say yes to biodiversity
Janice Fuller has found that engaging with communities around Ireland at grassroots level helps to focus and harness goodwill
But the group she mentions most often, the local Tidy Towns committee, is also rather surprising at first sight. Many environmentalists think of this movement as obsessed with prettification, more likely to manicure the natural life out of a street, park or cemetry than to foster wildlife.
But Fuller says that Tidy Towns activists, in her experience, are motivated by a deep love for all aspects of their native places. She has found that this can translate easily enough into an appreciation of the habitat needs of local fauna and flora, even if that means accepting patches of unruly vegetation in urban settings. Her experience suggests that there is a great deal more potential for conservation in rural communities than stereotypes suggest.
When conducting a workshop in Abbey, in the foothills of the Sliabh Aughty mountains west of Lough Derg, she was presented with a plan for a 200-hectare wildlife sanctuary, complete with the signatures of 14 farmers who wanted their land to be part of it. The man who gave it to her was John Donnellan, a past president of the Irish Farmers’ Association.
Unsurprisingly, their project included schemes to foster duck and pheasant habitat for shooting. But it also invited a survey by, and advice from, BirdWatch Ireland.
Fuller says that far too many media reports focus on conflicts over environmental issues, but she fully acknowledges that interests can collide. Some gun clubs are keen (and very knowledgeable) conservation advocates. Others, she agrees, can be “completely reckless”.
She believes that much of the anger and damage could have been taken out of the turf-cutting controversy had the issues been thrashed out in small groups rather than at big public meetings. She has found local turf-cutters are often much more amenable to conservation arguments if someone knowledgeable about peatland plants meets them, literally, on their own ground and shares their thoughts while walking the bog. She is quick to add that she knows the National Parks and Wildlife Service lacks the resources to work like this.
The biodiversity plans she signs off on have no statutory basis, but developing them is one target of Galway County Council’s own biodiversity plan and its People and Nature project. Each one is a significant achievement in engaging or re-engaging communities with the natural world.
She stresses that she could not have achieved any of this without inspiration and support from Elaine O’Riordan, Galway’s county biodiversity project manager, and Marie Mannion, its county heritage officer, and that Miriam Stewart was invaluable in finding key contacts within communities.