Optimism is an essential quality in Lorcan O’Toole’s profession.
As director of the Golden Eagle Trust, he has experienced many setbacks, not least the recent loss of one of the first two white-tailed eagle chicks to hatch here in over a century.
Confirmation that the young bird starved to death, unable to feed himself due to wounds inflicted by four dozen pellets, prompted an angry reaction from Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan, and the case has been referred to the Garda.
“We had an enormous response from the public,” O’Toole says, recalling the public excitement when the chick’s parents first nested on Lough Derg, near Mountshannon, Co Clare.
Even though there has been a 25 per cent fatality rate to date for white-tailed eagles reintroduced here from Norway, it is that overwhelmingly positive response that sustains him and his team.
“We work with many many farmers who are really upset over this and we are delighted that the National Association of Regional Game Councils has condemned it so strongly,” O’Toole says.
However, what exercises him currently is the long-term sustainability of those same farmers, given recent research showing the rate of depopulation in rural areas such as Donegal.
At first glance, the Teagasc finding that 66 per cent of farms in Donegal are now classified as non-viable might appear to suit the aims of projects like the Eagle Trust. Surely the less interaction with humans, the more chance that wildlife will thrive?
However, as O’Toole and environmentalists such as Dr Brendan Dunford of the Burren Life project explain, farming in the west of Ireland is about far more than food production.
It is about biodiversity and pollination, access and management, and guarding the landscape.
Abandonment of that upland landscape to scrub and heather had led to the loss of biodiversity and damage to archaeology that the Burren initiative is working successfully with Clare farmers to reverse.
O’Toole attended a recent presentation by David Meredith of Teagasc which highlighted how the construction boom during the Celtic Tiger years masked a “crisis” within rural areas, already affected by long-term emigration and urban migration.
Alternative employment opportunities in the building trade drew in young men from agriculture and commercial fishing sectors who then found themselves without work after the crash.
Drawing from the 2006 and 2011 censuses, there was a 9 per cent decline nationally in the number of 15- to 29-year-old males, and a 4 per cent decline in females of the same age, with a drop also in people of more than 40 years of age.
This latter category is the “canary in the mine”, in Meredith’s view, as people in this age bracket tend to have families.
In a remote upland area, or on an island, such a change in the demographic balance is more keenly felt.
The Teagasc research has been submitted to the Commission for Economic Development of Rural Areas (Cedra).
For O’Toole, the national findings demand a national response.
“You take the Wild Atlantic Way, which Fáilte Ireland is investing €10 million in,” he says. “I think it’s a great idea, but it’s not sustainable if population levels along that route fall to such a critical level.”
O’Toole points out: “ Six of the seven worst unemployment blackspots – four in Donegal and two in Connemara – are along that driving route, and the socio-economic viability of our Gaeltacht areas is also under serious threat.”
He believes an incoherent approach by Government departments and agencies is exacerbating the situation, wasting both opportunities and funds, and he can cite many examples.
For instance, he recalls the inefficient use of €528 million in EU funds under a 2007-13 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) measure designed to support sensitive Natura 2000 sites.
“Only €93 million of that total sum was given to farmers in Natura 2000 areas, and the Government used the money elsewhere, as it was permitted to do,” he says.
“But the Government then had to give the National Parks and Wildlife Service [NPWS] money to provide farm plans, drawing 100 per cent of it from the Exchequer, and the NPWS had to pay out €5-6 million to farmers inside special protection areas for hen harriers,” he notes.
“Even if the Government had drawn from the original EU sum for hen harrier protection – covering 75 per cent of that cost – it would have saved approximately €4.5 million.”
Poor communication between the agriculture, wildlife and tourism sectors in government was recognised in a Grant Thornton NPWS organisational review as far back as 2007, O'Toole says.
He believes this is still at the heart of the issue, along with factors such as the Irish Farmers Association’s focus on the big food producers.
He is not convinced of an urban prejudice against small farmers – one which does not want to see them rewarded for environmental/tourism- friendly landscape management.
O’Toole believes that future Leader funding should be secured to clone the Burren Life project a dozen times over for upland farms and commonages in mountains.
Failure to adopt a national countryside policy that transcends food production could have drastic consequences, he says – reflected in bloated cities and towns and a very under-nourished and overgrown Wild Atlantic Way.