The ecologist who gets locals to say yes to biodiversity

Janice Fuller has found that engaging with communities around Ireland at grassroots level helps to focus and harness goodwill


‘Too much about nature conservation is about ‘No’,” says Janice Fuller, an ecologist who has had remarkable success in persuading people in east Galway towns and villages to say yes to biodiversity.

She has worked on the consensual development of 19 local biodiversity plans over the past three years, in an area which is, unfortunately, probably better known environmentally today as a flashpoint in the row over turf-cutting.

The key to her success, she believes, lies in asking people how they would like to improve their communities rather than in telling them what they should – or should not – be doing to preserve or enhance biodiversity. She also credits the collaboration of energetic and imaginative county-council officers who share her innovative approach.

“I find the top-down approach to nature conservation in Ireland incredibly patronising, depressing and frustrating,” she says. “When people understand the numerous benefits of living in a healthy natural environment, then they want to cherish and enjoy it. But when they are constantly being told what not to do, with little explanation of why, they become alienated and annoyed.”

Instead of “helicoptering in as an ‘expert’ ” to a community, she treats the people of each place she works in as the local experts, who may already be doing a lot of good things for their natural heritage but might like to do more.

“People may say they don’t give a toss about biodiversity as such,” she says, “but if you ask them what they like to do, what matters to them, you will find that they are almost always passionate about something in their community.”

And that something very often connects to the natural world. It may be their school, which could be enhanced with a wild-flower meadow. It might be angling, in which case projects that improve water quality or reduce bank erosion could be welcome.

She says the first step towards bringing people together is to find that person (or group) in a community who knows everybody else, and is widely respected. Leafletting is no substitute for phone calls from a trusted neighbour.

At first sight there are a surprising number of references to built heritage – to cemetries, historic buildings, moats or walls – in the biodiversity plans she has developed. But she points out that these places are not just useful for engaging local interest but are often rich in plant and animal life.

“I want to get across to people that ‘nature’ doesn’t have to be found in Connemara, or in the Burren. It can be right under your nose, wherever you are.”

Fuller has worked with many community organisations to workshop the plans. Her biodiversity training sessions have involved gun clubs, sports groups, Fás and Rural Employment Scheme workers, group-water-scheme committee members, heritage groups, angling clubs and community development associations, and “a few” local councillors.

But the group she mentions most often, the local Tidy Towns committee, is also rather surprising at first sight. Many environmentalists think of this movement as obsessed with prettification, more likely to manicure the natural life out of a street, park or cemetry than to foster wildlife.

But Fuller says that Tidy Towns activists, in her experience, are motivated by a deep love for all aspects of their native places. She has found that this can translate easily enough into an appreciation of the habitat needs of local fauna and flora, even if that means accepting patches of unruly vegetation in urban settings. Her experience suggests that there is a great deal more potential for conservation in rural communities than stereotypes suggest.

When conducting a workshop in Abbey, in the foothills of the Sliabh Aughty mountains west of Lough Derg, she was presented with a plan for a 200-hectare wildlife sanctuary, complete with the signatures of 14 farmers who wanted their land to be part of it. The man who gave it to her was John Donnellan, a past president of the Irish Farmers’ Association.

Unsurprisingly, their project included schemes to foster duck and pheasant habitat for shooting. But it also invited a survey by, and advice from, BirdWatch Ireland.

Fuller says that far too many media reports focus on conflicts over environmental issues, but she fully acknowledges that interests can collide. Some gun clubs are keen (and very knowledgeable) conservation advocates. Others, she agrees, can be “completely reckless”.

She believes that much of the anger and damage could have been taken out of the turf-cutting controversy had the issues been thrashed out in small groups rather than at big public meetings. She has found local turf-cutters are often much more amenable to conservation arguments if someone knowledgeable about peatland plants meets them, literally, on their own ground and shares their thoughts while walking the bog. She is quick to add that she knows the National Parks and Wildlife Service lacks the resources to work like this.

The biodiversity plans she signs off on have no statutory basis, but developing them is one target of Galway County Council’s own biodiversity plan and its People and Nature project. Each one is a significant achievement in engaging or re-engaging communities with the natural world.

She stresses that she could not have achieved any of this without inspiration and support from Elaine O’Riordan, Galway’s county biodiversity project manager, and Marie Mannion, its county heritage officer, and that Miriam Stewart was invaluable in finding key contacts within communities.

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