Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Covid-19 (Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht): Statements


8:55 pm

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)

It is a little over a year since Ireland declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. We were one of the first countries in the world to do so and it was a significant milestone for our nation. It was a time when we made a public acknowledgement that we needed to place a much greater emphasis on our wildlife and nature and our place in it. At the time, I was a councillor on Wicklow County Council and Wicklow was the first county in Ireland to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. The momentum for that declaration came from the ground up. It came from ordinary people such as mothers, fathers and children in Wicklow. They wanted us to hear their concerns about how we were managing our environment. They wanted us to acknowledge that the approach we had been taking was wrong and that we needed to step up and start protecting our natural world.

At the time, I was conscious this could not just be a virtue signal but that this declaration had to be followed by action because action is what the environment needs. There has been a lot of action. There has been a lot of talk about biodiversity and the all-Ireland pollinator plan and there is a much greater awareness in our communities about how individuals can improve their local patch. That is to be applauded because a lot of good work is going on. At a national level, we need to work a lot harder, faster and smarter. We need to make decisions that are science-based, ecologically sound and have an environmental objective at their heart. When it comes to addressing biodiversity loss, one of the key things we need to do is to protect the biodiversity we have.

In recent weeks, we have seen a number of incidents where we have failed to protect our heritage, environment and wildlife. First, there have been a number of illegal fires burning across the country. At a time when the nation was in lockdown, huge tracts of land were destroyed by fire. In my constituency of Wicklow, there were six fires in April, mainly on State land in national parks. More than 400 ha of protected land was destroyed along with the wildlife therein. It also impacted heavily on the air quality in the area, the headwaters of the Liffey and the drinking water that feeds Dublin. It puts the lives of our firefighters at risk to deal with these fires. Unfortunately, these fires are not one-off events. In one area of commonage in the Wicklow Mountains National Park, there have been illegal burns on the same land for 11 years out of a 19-year period up to 2019. This land will take years to recover from an environmental perspective.

We can no longer tolerate these annual illegal fires and all efforts need to go towards ensuring they do not happen. I welcome the fact that the Department is going to use drones to monitor the affected areas. The National Parks and Wildlife Service and fire service have done considerable work on fire prevention but these services are stretched to capacity and need more resources.

Our national parks need active management plans. Currently, only two of our national parks have management plans and both of these are 11 years out of date. Our national parks have very few by-laws to enable the rangers to manage what happens within them so in many instances their hands are tied. These are problems that could easily be rectified and this should be a focus of the Government. What are the Minister's plans to update and develop the management plans for the national parks? Will she agree to create a series of by-laws to enable our rangers to protect these important natural resources?

In recent weeks, we have been made aware of the illegal killing, in January, of 23 buzzards in Cork, as mentioned in the Chamber. The enormity of this killing is shocking. Twenty-three birds of a protected species that until relatively recently were considered extinct in Ireland have been killed. It is also shocking that the public became aware of the incident, which happened in January, only in May, via social media reports. I understand there is an ongoing investigation but I would have believed a killing to this extent, which occurred without the landowner's knowledge and involved the use of a highly toxic, illegal chemical, would have resulted in a public safety issue. I acknowledge the landowner who notified the Garda and the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the crime and I thank him for his vigilance. It is great to see him working with the authorities.

This was one of the largest known killings of raptors in this country. I imagine, however, that many more such incidents occur regularly and that what is being reported is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the persecution of birds of prey. How, therefore, do we go about protecting these vulnerable species and environments? I strongly believe we need greater transparency and accountability where wildlife crime is concerned. Until the true extent of the issue is laid bare for all to see, it will be easy for it to go unreported, unacknowledged and unmanaged.

Will the Minister consider establishing a register of illegal fires, whereby they may be recorded as they happen in our national parks and special areas of conservation each year? A mapped register would be an important visual record of where fires are happening and how often they are happening. Once the true extent of this problem is known, we will be in a better position to manage it.

The Minister, in addition to holding people to account for illegal fires, which was mentioned, should consider establishing a wildlife crime unit within the Garda to assist the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I am aware there is already a good relationship between national parks and the gardaí at local level but it needs to be formalised and resourced fully through a specialised central Garda unit, as was done in the United Kingdom. This would assist in ensuring that those who perpetrate the crimes are held to account.

There are ways in which we can fix the problems but we also need to celebrate the positives. Many positives were talked about earlier. Many of us will have seen the amazing images and footage of the basking sharks swimming off the west coast over recent weeks. This species was once brought to the brink of extinction owing to commercial hunting but now, with that pressure having been removed and with NGOs working to monitor and protect the species, it would appear to be starting to recover. We are now being treated with the inspirational spectacles we saw online. We need to take this success and build on it with the creation of marine national parks, marine conservation zones and management plans to protect and enhance this still-endangered species. We need to resource properly the agencies and NGOs to undertake this important work. When we talk about rewilding our environment, we need to be talking about these success stories. We are giving a species some space and protection to find its ecological balance again, which means it can thrive. Ireland has the potential to have an amazing natural environment, one that we can connect with, enjoy and be proud of.

When Wicklow County Council declared the emergency last year, I was talking to two young boys in my constituency, Seán and Conn, who had been campaigning for the declaration. They were very worried about the environment and the direction we were going in. They asked me why politicians always say they will aim to do something and why they cannot just do it. When it comes to protecting our environment and biodiversity in Ireland, it is time we just did it.


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