Another Life: Remaking our ‘neglected garden’ of nature conservation

Michael Viney: Welcome reform of the National Parks and Wildlife Service takes shape

News of long-awaited reform of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Government's interface with the natural world, came with familiar obscurity from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

This is the sixth home of the NPWS since 1997, each move a severe disruption of its work. It is still just one division in a Government department and the title of the Minister of State for Heritage comes oddly lumbered with duties to "Electoral Reform".

Fortunately, as a Green TD, Malcolm Noonan was honour-bound to try to salvage this overworked, under-funded resource for nature. He commissioned an independent review of the NPWS, published its report in full, and, "in a day of hope for nature", has announced far-reaching strategic reform and €55 million to carry it out.

In their detailed review, ecologist Prof Jane Stout of TCD and Dr Micheál Ó Cinnéide, former director of the Environmental Protection Authority, see the NPWS as a "neglected garden" of the public service, its decades of underfunding part of a "dismal" national record of nature protection. Their verdict was supported by a second, highly critical report by a former Gaeltacht secretary general Gerry Kearney.

In the front line of the countryside and faced with a complex and challenging workload, conservation rangers of the NPWS are mostly graduates and many have postgraduate degrees. Yet, as the main review identifies, they are “amongst the lowest paid professional/technical staff in the civil service”.

Back at base in Dublin, conservation suffers lack of access to laboratories, equipment and laboratory staff – this with some 19,000 different insects alone to keep track of. Some habitats and species, including fungi, lichens and limestone pavements, still await specialist staff, and impossibly few face into the 880,000sq km of ocean, an area of complex marine life 10 times the landmass of the country.

All this compares with a country such as Denmark, far smaller and with far fewer natural sites, but giving conservation four times the budget and twice the staff.

The spread of invasive Rhododendron ponticum, now in such brilliant flower, makes it the most intractable weed in national parks from Kerry to Donegal

In its efforts to monitor Ireland’s protection sites, as the EU demands, the NPWS regularly commissions studies from ecological consultants, but it still faces pressure from the EU Commission for its lack of direct habitat management.

Losing staff

Even within its historical role of caring for the national parks, the NPWS has been losing staff at a time of huge increase in visitor numbers. None of the parks has a designated manager or scientific staff, despite the special ecosystems many are supposed to protect.

The spread of invasive Rhododendron ponticum, now in such brilliant flower, makes it the most intractable weed of the “neglected garden” in national parks from Kerry to Donegal.

This “great rhododendron disaster”, as TCD botanist Daniel Kelly has described it, threatens old native oakwoods at Killarney. A Paddy Woodworth report for this newspaper in 2019 was among submissions considered in the review. Last autumn, Ann Lucey described how the plant has colonised hundreds of hectares high in the Kerry mountains, where tourists and walkers have become hopelessly lost among its tangled scrub.

The review also singles out the rhododendron overrunning parts of the Wild Nephin national park in Co Mayo, where a former Coillte forest area is being allowed to "rewild" with self-sown lodgepole pine.

Treatment and clearance of the shrub is attracting many weekend workers of local voluntary groups. Their leaders were among more than 3,000 individual stakeholders who gave thoughts and suggestions to the review in last year’s public consultation.

Others came from interviews within the NPWS –“a cadre of over 300 dedicated, passionate and knowledgeable staff” as the review team describes them. Many urged more freedom and respect for science in a more effective organisation.

What should that organisation be? Along with many NGOs, I have argued for the NPWS as an independent agency for the natural world, matching that of the Environmental Protection Agency, or in a logical partnership under its wing. But this new status, it seems, would take too long to navigate the labyrinth of law, politics and unions.

Interim solution

The review’s interim solution, chief among its 24 recommendations, was moved by urgency and promptly adopted by the Minister. It is for a new Executive Agency for Nature within the current department.

Like Met Éireann, which also functions there successfully, the new agency will have its own, full-time director (like Met Éireann’s chief executive, a scientist) and an independent identity and strategy formulated with a strongly increased staff, including marine specialists.

The transformation is planned for completion by 2024. It coincides with the EU’s new Biodiversity Strategy, which is committed to protect at least 30 per cent of land and 30 per cent of the sea by 2030.

June 8th and 9th will see a national biodiversity conference in Dublin Castle, inviting solutions for repair of Ireland’s natural world. Reform and revitalisation of the NPWS will be a good step on the way.

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