Star Wars: Habitats directive ‘breached’ on Skellig Michael

Birdwatch Ireland says lack of third-party consent for filming a ‘missed opportunity’

The Irish Film Board facilitated use of Skellig Michael - a Unesco world heritage site - for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2014 and 2015. File photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

The Irish Film Board facilitated use of Skellig Michael - a Unesco world heritage site - for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2014 and 2015. File photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

 

Birdwatch Ireland has said it will be pursuing changes to a “legal loophole” under which Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys approved use of Skellig Michael as a set for Disney Lucasfilm without requiring third party consent.

The non-governmental organisation (NGO) says Ms Humphreys made her decision under a “significantly flawed” environmental assessment procedure which was in breach of the EU Habitats Directive.

The assessment of potential impacts upon Skellig Michael bird populations which informed the Minister’s decision was “not compliant with Article 6 (3) of the EU Habitats Directive”, it says.

Birdwatch Ireland head of policy Siobhán Egan said the consent granted by Ms Humphreys was a “missed opportunity to put in place appropriate management, monitoring and decision-making processes for important sites such as Skellig Michael and the larger Special Protection Area (SPA)”.

“This is not about blocking or obstructing use of such sites, but about ensuring that all protections are in place, with adequate consultation,”she stressed. “Skellig Michael has provided a test case for this.”

World heritage site

The Irish Film Board facilitated use of Skellig Michael - a Unesco world heritage site - for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2014 and 2015.

Several archaeologists, along with a number of writers and artists, expressed concerns about the archaeological impact on the monastery, while Birdwatch Ireland was specifically concerned about a nesting and breeding site for several internationally important species.

Birdwatch Ireland senior conservation officer for seabirds Dr Steven Newton questioned why filming in July 2014 had been permitted during the nesting season.

During one reconnaissance helicopter flight in advance of initial filming last year, kittiwake chicks in nests on a ledge below were swept into the sea by the downdraught and devoured by gulls, and this resulted in further flights being curtailed.

Avoiding breeding season

To avoid the main breeding season, further filming this year on Skellig Michael was scheduled for September, but when storm petrels and shearwaters were still on the island.

Ms Egan explained that storm petrels are particularly sensitive as they only return from hunting to feed young under cover of darkness to avoid predators.

However, the NGO was given “no opportunity for consultation on the application prior the decision to grant consent”, she said.

“No documentation on the proposal was available and [there was] no opportunity for consultation on same prior to decision-making,”she said.

Ms Humphreys referred the filming application to State bodies, including the Office of Public Works (OPW) and National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

Ministerial consent was given subject to conditions under the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 (S.I. 477 of 2011) and the European Communities (Conservation of Wild Birds (Skelligs Special Area of Conservation 004007)) Regulations 2010 (S.I. 74 of 2010).

No archaeological consent was given under the National Monuments Acts 1930-2004, as “no works were contemplated or carried out that would have come within the scope of the consent framework”, according to her department.

Departmental supervision

The conditions for filming included supervision by representatives from her department, OPW and NPWS, with costs covered by the film company - but no overall fee for use of the location.

In a subsequent report, two incidents, described as “minor”, were recorded, including “disturbance” to stonework at the entrance to the Upper Monk’s Garden and a paint spill at the “Wailing Woman” natural rock formation.

The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht said Birdwatch Ireland was invited to send a representative during the film shoot, but “declined”.

However, Ms Egan said that “while we appreciate the opportunity to be on the island for monitoring purposes during filming, this doesn’t address the lack of proper assessment of impacts prior to consent being granted”.

Minister

A spokeswoman for Ms Humphreys said on Wednesday that it was “ completely inaccurate to suggest that the minister/department breached the Habitats Directive”.

“All proper legal procedures were followed,”she said.” The Minister takes her obligations under the EU Habitats Directive extremely seriously. The European Commission was informed about the filming and took no issue with how the matter was handled.”