Intensive cattle farming causing severe damage to protected Wexford dunes

 

Conservation orders and local agreements to protect a valuable coastal habitat have been widely ignored

COASTWATCH HAS accused the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) of failing to protect one of the most important “grey dune” habitats in Ireland – the Tinnaberna Sandhills Special Area of Conservation (SAC) in north Co Wexford.

Tinnaberna, east of Kilmuckridge, contained 22 hectares (nearly 53 acres) of grey dune that had long been recognised as being important.

When it was first surveyed in 1993, the area was found to be “virtually undisturbed”, with a luxuriant growth of ferns, mosses and lichens – most notably Dog Lichen – on its low sand ridges.

But more than half of the original area – home to many other protected plant species such as scarce night-flowering Catchfly, Bee Orchid and rare Moore’s Horsetail – has been destroyed by a local farmer, stocking it with cattle, since Tinnaberna was designated as an SAC.

John Bailey, who owns the land, attended an information meeting along with other landowners in the area, held by the NPWS in February 2001 at the Hydro Hotel, Kilmuckridge. At that meeting, it was made clear that any changes in farm practice would need written consent.

In November 2001, Mr Bailey bulldozed four hectares of the SAC and began stocking the area with cattle; this happened during the “reference years” for calculating the EU Single Farm Payment Scheme.

The NPWS told him that this was a criminal offence under the habitat regulations; an internal note described it as a “very serious case of damage to priority habitat”.

The offences listed in the NPWS enforcement file included the construction of an access road into the protected area, the bulldozing of dunes and the storage of cattle on the site in high numbers – with concrete troughs for water and silage. At times over the past eight years, up to 800 cattle were reported to be on the Tinnaberna SAC site.

In June 2002, dune ecologist Karen Gaynor noted in a report for the NPWS that the damaged area then extended to 11 hectares, of which four hectares were used as a cattle compound while another seven were “severely overgrazed”. She recommended immediate removal of the cattle, recontouring and reseeding the site and leaving it to recover naturally over time.

In December 2003, NPWS officials met John Bailey, who was accompanied by Co Wexford officials of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA). They asked for a five-year period to “scale down” use of the SAC for cattle storage. Teagasc, the agricultural authority, was to study the Bailey operation and “recommend a timescale for cessation”.

An agronomy assessment carried out by consultant Philip Farrelly on Mr Bailey’s “commercial beef fattening unit” noted that the cattle had no shelter from rain or wind and that “no similar outdoor rearing facility is in operation anywhere else in the country”.

It found non-compliance with wildlife habitat requirements and good farm practice (because of the absence of silage effluent and manure collection) and saw “no justification for compensation, as the activity has been intensified recently and in a very opportunistic way”.

In March 2004, the Department of Agriculture sent a copy of the Farrelly assessment to the NPWS, asking it to investigate. A year later, having taken no action, NPWS representatives met the farmer and IFA officials again.

At that meeting, according to the file, it was agreed that Mr Bailey would “scale down” use of damaged dunes to less than 500 animals and cease using the site altogether by the end of May 2006. This agreement was not fulfilled by the farmer and, again, no action was taken.

During 2007, several hundred cattle were still corralled on the site, standing in pools of urine and faeces, with effluent flowing into a nearby stream and a bulldozer moving heavily soiled sand to dung heaps every so often, according to Coastwatch.

But despite the appalling conditions noted in the 2004 Farrelly report, Mr Bailey continued to receive EU farm payments (beef and slaughter premiums) through the Department of Agriculture, amounting to an estimated €800,000 over the past eight years – due to the high stocking levels. The damage to Tinnaberna Sandhills and the presence of cattle on the site were noted in a 2008 National Dune Survey, carried out by Tim Ryle and others for the NPWS. (A report to the European Commission classified dune habitats nationally as being in a “bad” state).

When Karin Dubsky of Coastwatch paid a visit last November, she described it as “one of the worst cases of damage” she had seen in terms of its scale, intensity, the quality of vegetation destroyed and the pollution risk.

Ms Dubsky sent her observations to the NPWS with a request for prompt action – “but initially there was confusion as to who knows what and what action might be taken”, she said.

After getting access to the enforcement file, she was told the site would be “visited promptly”.

The NPWS later told Coastwatch it was “concerned” that previous commitments by the landowner had “evidently not been fulfilled” and it intended to “take whatever action is appropriate to ensure protection of the integrity of the SAC, including legal action if necessary”. On February 26th, following another site inspection, the NPWS changed its tune, saying some of its concerns had been alleviated.

“It is acknowledged that the landowners have done some good work in keeping with previous conservation/site protection commitments. A letter will be sent . . .”

A week later, Ms Dubsky revisited Tinnaberna and found “no change of management”; there were still at least 100 cattle on the site. She met James O’Connell of the NPWS, and expressed “serious misgivings” over the lack of enforcement.

Jim Moore, another NPWS official, carried out a site inspection on March 29th. He reported that the presence of cattle on the site was “causing horrific damage. There is little doubt this is also causing serious environmental pollution . . .” A Geomap Ltd survey of the area, commissioned by Coastwatch, showed the dune habitat damaged or destroyed extending to 11.26 hectares (27 acres). By the time cattle were finally removed in late April, the once pristine dune habitat was in an “atrocious condition”, Ms Dubsky said.

“The view of the site from a distance has improved, but this is due to superficial factors such as the covering of dung piles with blown sand and a partial greening with thistles and other weeds. There is no improvement from a conservation standpoint”, she noted in May.

At that stage, Coastwatch hoped that restoration of the site would start in time for marram grass to re-establish itself this summer, but this didn’t happen.

Ms Dubsky said there were still “hundreds of tonnes” of cow dung on the site and water samples from nearby stream pools showed “very high” levels of pollution by faecal streptococci. A restoration order drawn up by the NPWS had to be redrafted before being given to the farmer, the IFA and Coastwatch for comment.

Coastwatch has since put forward amendments designed to ensure that the SAC would actually be restored – and it’s now a matter for Minister for the Environment John Gormley to decide what to do.

Parks service demanding ‘full restoration’ of important site

THE NATIONAL Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), a division of the Department of the Environment, has said it is determined to secure “a full restoration of this important site” – the Tinnaberna Sandhills Special Area of Conservation (SAC) – after eight years of abuse by a local farmer.

It said the NPWS had “a history of attempting to deal with this individual and have engaged with him on many occasions. In recent months, site visits have taken place, and two warning letters have been issued”; the second, dated April 15th, warned that it was now the intention of the NPWS to “cross report” his activities to the Department of Agriculture “with a view to financial penalties”.

He was informed it was proposed to serve a ministerial direction under the habitats regulations requiring him to restore the site “without prejudice to the Minister’s other remedies, including prosecution”. It was stated that failure to comply with such a ministerial direction “would constitute an additional criminal offence for which he might also be prosecuted”.

“As a result of this, it would appear that the individual in question is once again co-operating with NPWS to restore this site. It is the intention now to issue the ministerial direction as soon as the required restoration plan, which is complex, has been technically finalised. Prosecution will occur if further unauthorised activities are undertaken by the farmer in question, or if he fails to implement the restoration order in full and at his own cost.

“In all cases, it is the preference of the NPWS to educate and work with individuals and groups to prevent damage to SACs to and to restore SACs where damage has been caused. In most cases, this method has produced successful results and nurtured good working relationships with the farming community. It is unfortunate that in this case that the individual in question did not sustain his co-operation in addressing this unsuitable farming practice.”

John Bailey, the farmer involved, said he had no comment when contacted by The Irish Times.“It’s in negotiation, that’s all I will say,” he added.