Minister almost too good to be true for nature conservation


ANOTHER LIFE:IRELAND MUST GO ON. It can’t go on. It’ll go on. So too, we must hope, will our thought and effort for nature.

In that Beckettian spirit, my new year’s resolution is to learn to love the word “biodiversity”. Half a century ago, the first, deadening official label for Ireland’s wildlife habitats was “Areas of Scientific Interest” – nothing to do with ordinary people. Then came the EU’s Habitats Directive, the SACs, SPAs and so on, and Brussels could be blamed for forcing nature conservation on Ireland. No native politician, with or without a farming constituency, would say it was actually a good thing in itself, or that he or she personally cared about flowers, birds or bees.

Then, 20 years ago at Rio, with the world alert at last to the pell-mell extinction of species under way, Ireland signed up to the Convention on Biological Diversity. “Biodiversity” was shorthand for all the myriad and multivarious life on the planet, from genes to whole ecosystems (and including Homo sapiens). Despite the word’s prolific publicity since, awareness of why biodiversity matters remains far too dim; no improvement here since 2007, says the Heritage Council. “What,” asked one writer to this newspaper memorably, “has biodiversity ever done for me?”

“Ecosystem services” is the new coinage (in every sense) for what nature does for people. Some of them are costed with impressive specificity in the Government’s plan, Actions for Biodiversity 2011-2016, published last November. Such striking totals – €1 billion from the invertebrates that keep the soil fertile, €20 million from nature’s baseline pest control, €220 million a year for pollination, €385 million for clean and drinkable water. Sustainable farming could yield at least €150 million a year in “public utility benefits”, and forestry a further €25 million a year with better ecological management and more broadleaved trees. This is, alas, the way we have to talk – cash values for nature.

The liberation of nature conservation from the Department of the Environment has been a welcome move. Its return to Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has sparked one good omen in the cover of the action plan – a spirited painting of bog-cotton dancing in the breeze, done by the Minister himself.

The Minister, Jimmy Deenihan, seems, indeed, almost too good to be true. He comes from near Finuge on the north Kerry road to Listowel. This is strong GAA country and Finuge is the first home of Siamsa Tíre, the national folk theatre. The Minister was a local PE teacher and GAA football star – but also organised nature walks for the children.” And – this in print – he “always had a strong interest in nature and [has] spent a lot of time walking in the mountains and bogs around [his] home”.

So, for once perhaps, the right man, with a political history in agriculture, tourism and rural development. With Europe twisting his arm, he is enforcing Ireland’s promises on peatland conservation – even, he claims, on his own family bog.

But the real test will come in co-opting his fellow ministers and departments to the wider care of nature.

The target of “mainstreaming” biodiversity issues into the broad activity of national and local government has been around for years: nearly identical declarations appeared in the first National Biodiversity Plan, launched by the then minister, Síle de Valera, in 2002. Departments and agencies were to prepare their own sectoral action plans, helped by an interdepartmental steering group that had been meeting, at least for coffee, since 1996.

That the same things “will” be done is pledged yet again, with the added thought that plans and programmes will need a “biodiversity duty” written into the relevant legislation. Deenihan himself will lead a watchdog group and assign “a skilled facilitator” to help other departments do their own thing.

Written in such determined tone, the action on targets and closing of loopholes could seem to promise rather more, this time, than mere aspiration. A saving reference to prioritisation does, however, acknowledge current realities, and there is a guide to the EU sources that might be tapped for “partnerships”. Unless I have missed it, no one has been pushing for the EU to help with compensation on the turf-cutting front – our bogs are, after all, Ireland’s most distinctive contribution to Europe’s Natura network.

With so many of its vaunted 102 actions rescued and revised from an unfulfilled past, it can be hard to know how much of the plan to trust. There seems a proper and encouraging assumption of a safe future for the National Biological Data Centre and the county councils’ heritage officers – both among the more outstanding initiatives of the Heritage Council.

The inspirational activities of this national agency are slated for absorption into Deenihan’s department. We shall see how many do, in fact, go on.

Eye on nature

Being a keen birdwatcher I was delighted and surprised to see a lesser spotted woodpecker close to Glenarriff Forest Park, Co Antrim, on December 2nd.

Peter Campbell, Cushendall, Co Antrim

I found a turtle washed up on Turbot Island, Co Galway, on December 16th. It was about a foot long.

Edward Horgan, Castletroy, Co Limerick

The turtle is a Kemp’s Ridley, the smallest of the sea turtles reaching only 60-70cm (24-26 ins). This one is only half grown, probably only three or four years old. They breed on a Mexican beach on the Gulf of Mexico and are rare visitors to Ireland.

On Christmas Day I watched a sparrowhawk devouring a beheaded pigeon in our garden. It left after 15 minutes with the remains in its talons, leaving only feathers.

Gordon Birch, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin

Two years ago one of the dogs appeared with a young raven in its mouth. The bird survived and after five months in captivity he was successfully returned to the wild. He still visits tall pines behind the hay barn and engages in protracted conversations with me while I make raven noises.

Stephen McCarthy, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo. Email: Please include a postal address.

The real test for

Deenihan will come in co-opting his fellow ministers and

departments to the

wider care of nature