Director of the Golden Eagle Trust concerned for the long term

No evidence of “urban prejudice” against small farmers as guardians of the landscape

An adult white-tailed eagle catches a fish to feed her chicks. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

An adult white-tailed eagle catches a fish to feed her chicks. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

Sat, Mar 15, 2014, 01:01

Optimism is an essential quality in Lorcan O’Toole’s profession.

As director of the Golden Eagle Trust, he has experienced many setbacks, not least the recent loss of one of the first two white-tailed eagle chicks to hatch here in over a century.

Confirmation that the young bird starved to death, unable to feed himself due to wounds inflicted by four dozen pellets, prompted an angry reaction from Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan, and the case has been referred to the Garda.

“We had an enormous response from the public,” O’Toole says, recalling the public excitement when the chick’s parents first nested on Lough Derg, near Mountshannon, Co Clare.

Fatality rate
Even though there has been a 25 per cent fatality rate to date for white-tailed eagles reintroduced here from Norway, it is that overwhelmingly positive response that sustains him and his team.

“We work with many many farmers who are really upset over this and we are delighted that the National Association of Regional Game Councils has condemned it so strongly,” O’Toole says.

However, what exercises him currently is the long-term sustainability of those same farmers, given recent research showing the rate of depopulation in rural areas such as Donegal.

At first glance, the Teagasc finding that 66 per cent of farms in Donegal are now classified as non-viable might appear to suit the aims of projects like the Eagle Trust. Surely the less interaction with humans, the more chance that wildlife will thrive?

However, as O’Toole and environmentalists such as Dr Brendan Dunford of the Burren Life project explain, farming in the west of Ireland is about far more than food production.

It is about biodiversity and pollination, access and management, and guarding the landscape.

Biodiversity loss
Abandonment of that upland landscape to scrub and heather had led to the loss of biodiversity and damage to archaeology that the Burren initiative is working successfully with Clare farmers to reverse.

O’Toole attended a recent presentation by David Meredith of Teagasc which highlighted how the construction boom during the Celtic Tiger years masked a “crisis” within rural areas, already affected by long-term emigration and urban migration.

Alternative employment opportunities in the building trade drew in young men from agriculture and commercial fishing sectors who then found themselves without work after the crash.

Drawing from the 2006 and 2011 censuses, there was a 9 per cent decline nationally in the number of 15- to 29-year-old males, and a 4 per cent decline in females of the same age, with a drop also in people of more than 40 years of age.

This latter category is the “canary in the mine”, in Meredith’s view, as people in this age bracket tend to have families.

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