Tuesday, 10 July 2018
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, who has been sent into the Seanad to do the work of other people but I appreciate her being here.
This matter concerns the lack of management, protection and development of the Gearagh conservation site in County Cork and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht's lack of leadership and action about this. The Gearagh national nature reserve on the River Lee in County Cork is a globally unique site of international importance, both for its primeval river forest and its wintering wildfowl. As a priority Natura 2000 site under the EU Habitats Directive, it has several different forms of legislation theoretically protecting it. It is a special area of conservation, SAC, a special protected area, SPA, a world Ramsar site, a biogenetic reserve and part of the Lee Valley natural heritage area.
Despite this raft of legislation and protections, the fact that it is the property of the State, under the control of the semi-State body, the ESB, means it is without any effective management plan. As a consequence, this State-led neglect has prevented the local community from developing the area as a significant recreational, educational and eco-tourism destination.
The Gearagh is a designated SAC to primarily protect its alluvial woodland. However, the lack of good water management in the river catchment upstream from the forest, as required under Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive, is causing the site’s islands to disintegrate. This is flying in the face of the intended EU protection enshrined under Article 6(2). The SPA status was originally designated on the site due to the thousands of wintering wildfowl that used the area. Today, however, the numbers of wintering birds are much reduced. Each winter the ESB allows access to the protected area by a local gun club. The hunting had been so substantial that it was claimed that the carcasses of the birds were ferried out in wheelbarrows. These are the very birds which are meant to be protected.
Although the site featured as a centre page spread in Cork County Council’s biodiversity action plan, not a single sign has been erected directing the public to the nature reserve, nor has any money been used to promote the Gearagh as a tourist site. One could pass the entrance to the site without noticing it. Nobody would see that it is such a special area and understand it is on a par with the Burren.
Having won the Young Scientist Competition in 1983 and the Ford European Conservation Awards in 1987 for a sustainable management plan to protect and develop the Gearagh, both as Western Europe’s last primeval river forest and as an international wetland wildfowl reserve, attempts by the local community to engage with the ESB and the Department in order to implement such a plan have been met with short-sighted dismissal. It is disappointing the Minister did not attend to take this matter today. That does not bode well for this issue being taking seriously. The apparent disregard of both the Department and the ESB is extremely disappointing. It would lead one to wonder whether the Government is true to its commitments to its environmental protection obligations at local and national level, as well as at European level where its obligations are enshrined under EU law.
What is the Minister’s opinion on the reports of violations by the ESB of Ireland’s environmental protection commitments in the Gearagh site under the EU Habitats Directive and other legally-binding principles? Why does the Department not appear to be active in empowering the local community to develop this spectacular site, as a major ecotourism boost for the region, creating jobs, protecting the environment and boosting the poor environmental image of the ESB and the Department? Why is the EU Habitats Directive not being actively enforced in the site by prohibiting the gun clubs and the sufficient and level-handed restoration of the Gearagh’s forest? Will the Minister establish an all-inclusive management plan, a plan that protects the Gearagh and allows the local community develop the site in a sustainable way?
During a recent Seanad debate on our oceans, we heard good and successful examples of community-led management plans about marine protected areas in Scotland by Dr. Ruth Brennan of Trinity College Dublin, which could act as a template for the Gearagh.
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Josepha Madigan.
Ireland, like all EU member states, is bound by the requirements of the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive. They are the cornerstone of the EU’s nature conservation policy and establish the EU wide Natura 2000 ecological network of protected areas. These directives aim to ensure the protection of habitats and species which have been selected for conservation within special areas of conservation and special protection areas.These directives have been transposed into national law by the European Communities (Birds and Natural habitats) Regulations 2011, the Wildlife Acts and the Planning Acts. In Ireland, 439 sites have been selected for conservation as special areas of conservation while 154 sites have been selected for conservation as special protection areas.
The Gearagh, which is located approximately 2 km south-west of Macroom, County Cork, comprises a stretch of the River Lee that was dammed in the 1950s as part of a hydroelectric scheme. According to the site synopsis, the principal habitat is a shallow lake or reservoir which is fringed by wet woodland, scrub and grassland that is prone to flooding. Alluvial forest occurs on islands within the site. The Gearagh was selected for conservation as a special area of conservation in March 1997. It was also designated as a special protected area in 1996. The site is a statutory nature reserve in the ownership of the ESB. The qualifying interests of the special area of conservation site are floating river vegetation, old oak woodlands, alluvial forests and the otter. Despite about half the original area having been destroyed, the Gearagh still represents the only extensive alluvial woodland in Ireland, Great Britain or west of the River Rhine in Europe.
In response to a complaint lodged with the European Commission and the subsequent pilot infringement case relating to concerns over apparent erosion on the River Lee downstream of Toons Bridge at the western extent of the Gearagh special area of conservation where there is an extensive area of alluvial woodland, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government convened a working group of key stakeholders for the Gearagh site in 2016, comprising representatives from that Department, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Cork County Council and the ESB. The group agreed that a scoping exercise was required to identify damage that appeared to be occurring within the alluvial woodland of the Gearagh. The ESB carried out this exercise and the report of the scoping exercise was published in 2017. It proposed a number of recommendations, including monitoring surveying and studies on the site to establish baseline data and for the development of a management plan. Work commenced on the implementation of these recommendations in November 2017. To date, terrestrial laser scanning of the main channel flowing through the Gearagh site has been completed. Locations for a hydrometric gauge and depth loggers have been identified with installation due for completion by the end of this summer.
The carrying out of these studies is to establish a baseline of robust data for the area. It is expected that the period of monitoring will be for a minimum of two years. The aim is to define the presence or absence of any erosive or other abnormal changes within the alluvial woodland of the Gearagh. If no such impacts are evident, it can be concluded that the objective of the conservation of the alluvial woodland within the area is being achieved and no further measures will be necessary. If evidence of erosive impacts is found, it is intended that a management plan will be developed with targeted physical restoration measures aimed at reducing the risk to the integrity and functioning of the alluvial woodland within the special area of conservation.
Based on ongoing consultation between the ESB and the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, further scientific studies are planned for the eastern section of the Gearagh site. These will encompass monthly bird surveys, botanical studies around the periphery of the reservoir and drone photography of the reservoir substrate revealed during low water. These studies are at the scoping and procurement stage.
The Minister of State did her best in coming here today but the Minister who is responsible needs to be here. Her failure to attend marks the disappointing and rather hopeless response to the Commencement matter. The Gearagh national nature reserve on the River Lee is a unique site of international importance both for its primaeval river forest and its wintering wildfowl. The Department can carry out all the bird surveys it likes but letting a gun club loose on the site is hardly the way to protect birds.
The ESB, the current owner of the Gearagh site, is flying in the face of EU laws providing for the protection and conservation of the Gearagh site as part of the Natura 2000 network. The Minister of State spoke about stakeholders but failed to mention the local community. I know every inch of the Gearagh. I know where Toons Bridge is, where the entrance is and where the islands are - these beautiful and amazing islands that are unique to Ireland - yet we are getting this very poor response, not from the Minister of State, but from the line Minister. While I am extremely disappointed, I am encouraged to pursue this matter further. I do not understand the hesitation to enforce the ESB's respect for the site and its obligations under the EU habitats directive. If the Minister and Government are to be true to their responsibilities at national and EU level, surely they will establish an effective management plan for the area. I would like the Minister to act with urgency and I hope she will look into this matter more seriously. I intend to follow through on this and make sure she gives it the attention it deserves and requires.
I, again, thank Senator Kelleher and acknowledge some of the difficulties she has raised that have not been addressed in the response. I apologise to the Senator for the Minister not being here. In saying that, I will convey to the Minister some the issues she raised, specifically the use of the site by a local gun club, the absence of signage and the lack of proper consultation with the local community. As the Senator stated, there is considerable interest in this issue and people are concerned about it.