The declining choughs of Dursey island need decision makers’ help

A beefed-up, independent National Parks and Wildlife Service would be just the ticket

Choughs. Illustration: Michael Viney

Choughs. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

At the far end of Dursey island, Co Cork, the choughs are gathering in new families to probe the ground for grubs, stabbing the wind-shorn grass with their sharp vermilion beaks.

As Ireland’s rarest and liveliest crow and a showpiece of the Wild Atlantic Way, their future is a test of care for biodiversity, a word mentioned 50 times in the new programme for government. But how well placed are Ministers from the Green Party to secure such hard-won coalition pledges?

The venerable cable-car that links the mainland to this sparsely inhabited island holds six people but attracts some 20,000 visitors a year. A €7 million tourist development by Cork County Council and Fáilte Ireland promises a new two-way cable car and a mainland visitor centre and restaurant that will boost the visitor numbers to 80,000.

The project has objections from BirdWatch Ireland, An Taisce and Friends of the Irish Environment, the project is now before An Bord Pleanála.

The island’s choughs have declined to some 10 breeding pairs, part of a substantial drop in the Special Protection Area for birds that covers Dursey and the cliffs of the Beara peninsula.

The project ecologist for Cork County Council, Dr Paul Murphy, found the decline still unexplained but agreed that “the potential impact of human disturbance as a result of increased visitor numbers cannot be ruled out”.

Most island visitors are drawn naturally to Crow Head at the island’s wilder western end. This is the hot spot for the choughs

This now concerns An Bord Pleanála. Last month, as detailed by Friends of the Irish Environment, it wrote to Cork County Council to question if proposed mitigation measures would be enough to cope with “potential likely significant effects” on the choughs and their foraging grounds.

The present proposals include peak visitor limits and a 50m “buffer zone” along well-marked paths supplied with “educational” signs. But most island visitors are drawn naturally to Crow Head at the island’s wilder western end.

This is the hot spot for the choughs, especially around the end of June. It’s here, too, that visitors spill out across the open land. They risk invading the crucial “flushing distance” of the crows, put at some 31m, at which they lift and fly away.

No census

In the response requested by the end of this month, An Bord Pleanála seeks clearer proposals for managing the numbers and behaviour of visitors. It may then decide to seek further public consultation.

The Special Protection Area for the island and mainland cliffs was defined by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) under EU nature conservation directives. The objecting NGOs criticised the NPWS for failure to carry out a crucial census of the choughs or to prepare a management plan.

The latter failure is common to the scores of conservation areas for which the NPWS is responsible. While sharply critical, the NGOs have also pointed to the agency’s lack of adequate funding and resources.

The Government programme has promised to “progress the establishment of a citizen’s assembly on biodiversity”

Such opinion, pressed by the Greens, resulted in the new Government commitment “to review the remit, status and funding” of the NPWS “to ensure that it is playing an effective role in delivering its overall mandate and enforcement role in the protection of wildlife”.

Before the change of government, the NPWS was held in the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, of which Josepha Madigan was minister. Now the portmanteau office has changed to the Department of Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, of which Catherine Martin, deputy leader of the Greens, is Minister.

Heritage, however, has gone, and with it the NPWS, to the new Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, of which Fianna Fáil’s Darragh O’Brien is Minister.

Death of Dúchas

The subsequent appointment of the Greens’ Malcolm Noonan as the Minister of State for Heritage did something to disarm the vocal dismay of NGOs. But it left them questions on the urgency of NPWS reform and the ultimate power of the agency’s enforcement role. The NPWS was established in 2003, succeeding the brief and controversial life of Dúchas, the Heritage Service.

Dúchas, with national monuments as well as wildlife in its brief, took its public outreach seriously, introducing a fleet of smart little vans to bear its name. But it upset a lot of people with its assertiveness and planning appeals, and its brave new public identity was snuffed out in reorganisation. An editorial in this newspaper saw this as “a step backwards into an uncaring past”.

The new present, when able to take its mind off Covid-19, is certainly less uncaring, and the Government programme has promised to “progress the establishment of a citizen’s assembly on biodiversity”. Urgent attention to the NPWS, and an independence like that of the Environment Protection Agency, has been urged by NGO leaders.

Like the glossy black choughs of Dursey Island, they need to keep prodding away.

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