Conservation in Ballycroy National Park in the West of Ireland

This is an extract of an interview with Sue Callaghan in the spectacular Ballycroy National Park at the end of July 2013 to talk about protection of biodiversity, habitat and landscape in County Mayo. Ballycroy is one of only six National Parks in Ireland and is home to one of the last intact active blanket bog systems anywhere in Western Europe. This article is part of a series exploring Energy and Landscape in Mayo.

Could you start off by telling me what your role is as District Conservation Officer?

I would cover the majority of County Mayo. I’m the District Conservation Officer for the Lagduff District. Our job within the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is very varied. I would be involved in the management of Ballycroy National Park, which covers approximately 11,000 hectares. This includes the Owenduff/Nephin Beg mountain range and blanket bog system, which are all very important habitats and landscapes. NPWS also has responsibility for Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs). The wider wildlife/countryside issues we would be responsible for whether that be anything to do with bats in people’s attics to deer. We also monitor the Wildlife Act and enforce the Wildlife Act that has to do with the hunting season. We’re involved in environmental education specifically here in the National Park. So the job is very varied but very enjoyable.

Is there a typical day or typical week even? What would you spend most of your time doing? How much time is office-based and how much time is outside?

It’s seasonal, very much seasonal. We have rangers and guides and general operatives – their work would be very much seasonal based – rangers wildlife survey work and I would help in that work. They would also be assessing different applications for consent within Special Areas of Conservation. I would be processing those applications for them, approving them. Summer tends to be the busiest time for the National Park itself because the Visitors Centre is open. The National Park (NP) itself is open all year round. The ranger’s work is very much based on survey work and law enforcement work.

I understand you worked in Wicklow National Park for 3 years as an education officer. How does your experience in Wicklow compare with your time in Mayo?

It’s very different primarily because of the numbers. This Visitors Centre opened in 2009 so the education programme here is very much in its infancy. The resource there [Wicklow] was different, the habitats there were very different. In Wicklow, there’s a huge catchment area with Dublin so there’s large numbers coming through and you also have that ‘honeypot effect’ with Glendalough where the education centre was based. There was a road and path system in place…so it was easily used…it was a great resource to have at our doorstep. Whereas here, it’s a little bit different, we don’t have the numbers firstly so we have to attract people in, we have to be more proactive with advertising. The resource in the Centre itself is brilliant. There’s a great interpretive centre downstairs, we have a café, there’s an education room and then outside the Visitor’s Centre site, there’s a 2-kilometre walking trail, pond-dipping area, and we’ve a lovely little meadow outside.

In the National Park (NP), some of the land is quite fragmented so we have a coastal section but you would have to drive to that and the main body of the NP itself is separate to the Visitor’s Centre site

It is quite fragmented.  Are there any efforts to join up these different parts?

The main conservation part of the NP, the valuable conservation part of the site is in one large tract of land, which is approximately 11,000 hectares and that’s the Owenduff/Nephin range and the blanket bog there with the Owenduff and Tarshaughan rivers running through and draining them. There’s commonage areas in between that the NP would have shares in. As far as pure conservation, that’s easily managed, but then as a NP we also have responsibility for interpretation, recreation and providing a spiritual resource for people…that’s what the Visitors Centre is here for. The larger part of the NP is inaccessible apart from the Bangor Trail. We are developing that [Bangor Trail]. And then there’s the Nephin Wilderness project in the Letterkeen area that’s also being developed so that would provide access on the southern section of the National Park. Then north of Mulranny, we’ve put in a car park and we’re building a boardwalk this year through the bog and back along the coastline. It’s beautiful there and it’s very accessible.

We’re going to be providing guided walks in some other parts of the NP where we are going to minibus people in. That’s a very sustainable way rather than providing car parking where people drive in. We’ll be organizing guided walks. Guiding a walk is the best way of interpreting a walk in my opinion. These are all things that are in train and that we hope to develop in the next few weeks actually.

One of the highlights of the US for me is visiting the National Parks there and I was lucky to visit the Southwest last year to see the likes of Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon. It’s good that you have this loop walk here that anyone can do because it’s boarded and easily accessible. But for me, a Visitor’s Centre should be directly connected to the bulk of the NP. Is there potential to do that?

No, no. Well not unless people sold us all their land and there was an endless supply of money to do that. But no, there’s large areas of commonage and privately owned properties between here and the bulk of the NP so no, that’s not going to happen.

But what would be the main obstacle to making that happen? Would it be finance or would it be consent from landowners to sign over their land?

If land is made available to the park, we have considered it in the past and we have purchased land. That would have been in the golden times I suppose. But at the moment, there isn’t a huge amount of money available for land purchase so if we were to do so there would have to be very important, strategic elements to it not just to have the comfort of owning the main body of land between the NP and here. We can still develop the NP without owning all of the land in between, by developing certain access points in the main part of the NP, whether that be via bicycle here from the Visitors Centre or you’re ‘minibussed’ in.

I’m interested in the Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs) because they seem to be quite extensive in the county (fifteen or so). What level of protection is afforded to NHAs?

It’s quite confusing. There’s PNHAs which are proposed NHAs and these go back a number of years to the ‘80s and ‘90s and they were the basis for many of the areas designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) if their quality was good. There’s nothing legislatively in place for PNHAs. The only thing that protects them is policy by the local authority. So they’re recognized as sites of ecological interest in the County Development Plan and the Forest Service would recognize them. Then there’s also NHAs, which are blanket bog sites, that were formally designated and they have a statutory instrument attached to them for each site. They are strongly protected under legislation.

What role do you see photography playing in raising awareness of the wild landscape that we have in Mayo? I’m specifically thinking of Ansel Adams, not that I’m trying to emulate him. He’s one of the most influential landscape photographer who was based in the U.S. quite some time ago and was instrumental in the expansion of some of the NPs on the west coast, for example, Yosemite. And it was through photography that he was able to achieve that. Do you think that here in Mayo that we’re communicating the value of landscape and biodiversity sufficiently through the likes of photography?

I think it’s one of the most powerful ways of interpreting landscape. The Visitor’s centre here is very visual and not very wordy because of the physical separation with the NP so we wanted to convey the beauty of the NP just through photography. So it is an extremely powerful medium.

How actively do you use photography to promote for example Special Areas of Conservation?

Not enough, definitely not enough. Our websites at the moment need to be improved…ideally we would update those photo galleries. It’s not just landscape photography…landscape is capturing the landscape at one particular moment… it can convey a mood I suppose. It’s also important to focus in on the miniscule, for focusing in on the minute detail in the landscape, whether it be a dragonfly nymph on the water…you can find beauty everywhere.

Special Areas of Conservation in Mayo

Special Areas of Conservation in Mayo

 

How can we go about valuing landscape and biodiversity in a more holistic way? I read in the Biodiversity Action Plan for Mayo that ecosystem services are worth €2.1 billion across the country. Most people just think of the development potential and that’s dependent on the price of the land. But what about ecosystem services and visual amenity?

Ecosystem services is a bit of a buzzword. I’m not really sure. Things that would spring to mind are things like carbon sinks – blanket bogs habitats are very important for that. Also water; flood plains and the bog are important for controlling floods, cleaning the water. How you put a value on them I don’t know. Then there’s the landscape value, well that’s immeasurable really. I don’t know how you would put a value on it. But if you’re drawing people into this area for that reason to appreciate the landscape and to appreciate the biodiversity, I suppose you quantify it by visitor numbers? I don’t know. Then do you offset that by carbon usage? At the moment, it’s very crude how we assess it. We assess it by visitor numbers that come into the NP.

Who would be the responsible body in Mayo and the Western Region for promoting evaluation of ecosystem services?

I suppose the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) maybe? They would be looking at air quality and water quality…

Do you think that information could be useful to the NPWS?

Yes, but in a wider abstract way. If you’re improving the environment, then you’re inevitably improving biodiversity and habitat quality…

It’s a bit like climate change. You mentioned the word ‘abstract’. It’s hard to put a value on these things but once you do, it does become much more tangible. Are you seeing any impacts on the land in Mayo or offshore due to climate change and do you have a climate change adaptation strategy?

We don’t as far as I know, I don’t even know what one is to be honest. There are changes happening especially with birds, for example little egrets. They’re a white bird like a heron except smaller and they’re the birds you would see in the Mediterranean and mainland Europe and now they’re here, breeding in Ireland. We see them in Clew Bay in the winter. So they’re moving northwards. And there’s the Greater Horseshoe Bat that’s just been recorded in Wexford, the Greater Spotted Woodpecker which is here. It could be perhaps an indicator for how climate change is affecting the world. Humans can adapt quickly but certain species can’t and have to move with their food range, suitable breeding places.

In North Mayo, there’s a lot of landscape that is unknown. How can we increase tourism in the county and how is the NPWS contributing to that?

NPWS are contributing by the development of the National Park, whether that be through advertising or providing facilities such as improved walkways and cycle routes. We also work with the rural social scheme and the County Council in developing a lot of the loop walks. Also interpretation panels with texts and guiding walks. In the wider countryside, we’re assisting existing community groups to interpret their local biodiversity value.

So how do you attract people to Ballycroy? In a way it’s remote and it’s away from the population centres such as Westport and Galway. So how do you get people up here?

It’s difficult and it doesn’t have a honeypot attraction. And as we discussed earlier, it’s removed from the main body of the NP so it is difficult. That’s why it’s important to improve our facilities. We need to improve our web advertising and things like this, interviewing through the media. We’re trying to improve the visuals and graphic design. Again it’s in its infancy and none of us are marketing or advertising experts and we don’t have consultants on hand to help us so its very much about feeling our way on how to do it.

The Visitors Centre looks great and I only hope that more people come here. Maybe you can create this ‘honeypot effect’ that you talk about, create a visitor attraction whatever it might be apart from the Visitors Centre which in its own right is an attraction. Thank you for your time.

Useful links –

Ballycroy National Park website

National Parks and Wildlife Service website

Ansel Adams website

Ireland’s ambitions to become a world leader in wave energy

“We’re fond of saying in the sector that we’re 90% under water…only 10% of Ireland’s territory is land. I’ve worked it out as 40 or 50 acres for every man, woman and child in Ireland”. I’ve accidentally stumbled upon one of James Ryan’s favourite topics as we travel in his car on the remote Mullet Peninsula along Ireland’s far western coast.  “What are we doing with it? Absolutely zilch. Two percent of our economy is based on the sea and that takes into account marine transport, which is the bulk of it really,” he adds in mild exasperation. But changes are afoot. Ryan is Managing Director of Aquavision Ltd, a local company that provides services in marine project development. He also represents the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), a semi-state body promoting the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures across the country.

Atlantic Marine Energy Test Site

We’re on our way to visit the closest point on land to the proposed Atlantic Marine Energy Test Site (AMETS) off the coast of Annagh Head, where the waves regularly reach 15 to 16 metres in height further offshore. Earlier in his office at Aras Inis Gluaire in Belmullet, he pointed out the test sites indicated by post-it notes on a large map of the area. “In the 100-metre depth zone, we have one site that is about 6 or 7 miles out to sea and then we have an intermediate test site at the 50-metre depth. We’re now also looking at the possibility of a near shore test site”. AMETS is the most ambitious initiative to date to position Ireland as a heavyweight contender for the development of marine energy globally. The purpose of this 10MW facility is to provide a full-scale open ocean test and demonstration facilities for private companies that are developing wave energy conversion technology. This will allow Ireland to challenge Scotland’s European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) based in the Orkney Islands on the basis that the Irish site is the most energy intensive of all. The walls of his office are lined with illustrations of various wave energy convertors with names like ‘Wave Bob’ and ‘Pelamis’ and ‘Aquamarine’, the owners of which are eagerly waiting to test the survivability and reliability of their technologies in the harsh Atlantic conditions. “At the moment we already have a quarter-scale test site in Galway Bay…we also have tank testing facilities down in UCC [University College Cork],” he explains. But AMETS is a potential game-changer for Ireland. According to a recent study by the SEAI, the Irish ocean energy industry could support 17,000 to 52,000 jobs and contribute €4-10 billion to the economy by 2030.

Visual impact

We finally arrive at the western tip of Annagh Head and take a short stroll to a rocky promontory where sheep are grazing nearby. The sea conditions are unusually flat on this July day and so there’s no dramatic footage of breaking waves to support SEAI claims of the best wave resource in all of Europe. Ryan singles out a buoy situated within the intermediate test site zone. I trained my camera lens at maximum focal length (200mm) to enlarge the structure that can only just be seen with the naked eye. “That buoy is 6 metres high”, he tells me. It becomes clear to me from looking at the illustrations of wave energy convertors in his office and the distance I could now observe, that visual impact was unlikely to be a pressing concern. Despite the absence of any dwellings in the vicinity, a local farmer still happened to seek us out on our brief stopover. The conversation was amicable but it was clear that local people want to know what’s going on in their patch and can understandably be mistrustful of outsiders (even those of us who come from the county).

Engaging communities

“We were aware from what had happened with the Corrib gas project [a controversial processing plant and pipeline under construction by Shell nearby] that there may have been another way of doing things at the early stages. So we were determined that noone was going to be surprised by any of our developments, they were going to know well in advance. As one fella said to me, ‘Jesus you’ve been talking about this for a very long time. Would you ever just go ahead and build the shagging things?’” The SEAI submitted its foreshore lease application and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government in December 2011, which was followed by an 8-week public consultation. Now they are playing the waiting game until the Minister decides whether to provide the green light. Ryan is somewhat critical of government bureaucracy and “inertia in the regulatory side of things”.  One of the reasons that Scotland is so far ahead of Ireland in developing marine energy to date is that, “they have developed the concept of the one-stop-shop where the developer just goes to particular government office in Scotland…and a decision is provided within 6 or 12 months of application”.

Changing policy

But the Managing Director of Aquavision admits that things are now changing in Ireland. “I actually hosted Enda Kenny here before he became Taoiseach [Prime Minister of Ireland] and he was genuinely, completed energized, pardon the pun, by the concept [of wave energy]. It’s difficult in these times where you’re cutting back investment in hospitals, in public health…and yet we’re going to invest €20 million in a project that isn’t going to bring any real return for 10-15 years”. Herein lies the crux of the problem with the development of marine renewable energy; venture capitalists and traditional investors typically expect a payback within 5 years. Ryan believes that there is a real need for intervention at State level in order to take on risk that private entities are unwilling to, especially over the longer term. In his own words, “The way there’s State involvement in the Space programme, it should be the same with regards to marine energy”.

Future for wave power

So how far away are we from developing wave energy to the point where it can start to have a real impact on energy security and carbon emissions? Often when I’ve talked to local people in Ireland and the UK who are opposed to wind energy, the Great White Hope mentioned on many occasions is that we should be harnessing the power of the ocean instead of building wind farms. “I think wave power has a long way to go in the development of the technology. It could be the late 2030s before we see any scale in wave farms,” he relays to me soberly. “I‘ve been involved with the sector itself for the last 7 years…now most people acknowledge we’re not going to meet any targets [for wave energy] that we’ve set for 2020 or 2030.” To put this in context, the 10MW AMETS project, one of the largest of its kind anywhere, has a potential output equivalent to just two or three modern wind turbines. By implication, wind farms are clearly going to need to play a vital role in our attempts to mitigate climate change in the short to medium term (and perhaps longer).

At this point, we’ve arrived at our second destination, the point where the two 10kV marine cables come ashore at Belderra Strand to feed into the grid. Again, it’s a lovely stretch of coast, largely deserted except for a few nearby bungalows. He points to a flattish hill to indicate where the substation will be positioned. The photomontages I saw earlier in his office show a berm or ridge around the single-storied structure to minimize visual impact. “There’s not going to be pylons so they’re going to be the same sort of poles that are here already. There’s just going to be a few more of them,” he tells me referring to plans to develop the electricity grid.

Implications for Climate Change

As we drive back to his office in Belmullet, I enquire about his views on where climate change stands in the bigger scheme of things. “For me personally, it’s huge. For me, its like the astronomers have spotted an asteroid coming towards the earth and they’ve told everyone, it’s coming in 10 or 15 years time and we’re doing nothing about it. And that effectively is what climate change is. I tend to be skeptical by nature. I’ve a good training in skepticism. But climate change is happening and it’s being caused by the activities of Man.”

Ryan believes that there is a potential dividend for the community in that it adds to the profile of the region in terms of being a real player in developing renewable energy technology. “The concept we have is that if we get this facility set up, there’ll be lots of links with colleges, research facilities. If we look at what has happened in the Orkneys when they developed there. Hundreds of jobs generated from all the spin off”. Battered by wind, wave and squally showers, North Mayo is a region scarred by emigration and unemployment, not just in recent times, but across entire centuries. Now a chance exists to harness the brute force of Nature, of turning climate into an ally that will help benefit local communities and appease the effects of man-made climate change.

This is the second in a series of stories that explores energy and landscape in Mayo – a rural county in the West of Ireland where I grew up. View the first story here – Could wind replace bog as a more sustainable energy resource in Mayo?

Useful links –

SEAI ocean energy webpage

Aquavision website

AMETS foreshore lease application

Cycling the green way through rural West of Ireland

 

Cycling the Greenway between Mulranny and Achill in the West of Ireland

 

“My most difficult days would be Mondays and Tuesdays. You’ve got the litter after the weekends if the weather is fine…and sheep coming down from mountain areas if walkers leave gates open” he later adds. Such are the challenges for John O’Donnell, caretaker of the Great Western Greenway, the longest off-road cycling trail in Ireland. Largely following 42km of disused railway between Westport and Achill Sound in County Mayo, the route passes through pleasant rural countryside, devoid of the hectic crush of modern living and freely accessible to all but the most unfit. “The most enjoyable aspect of the job would be meeting people and surveying them” O’Donnell confides.  Weather aside, it’s hard to imagine a more rewarding job.

Arthur J Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1887–1891 (and later Prime Minister of the UK), authorized the construction of a network of narrow gauge railways in rural Ireland at the end of the 19th century. Development of road traffic sealed the fate of the line, bringing an end to the railroad a mere 42 years later in 1937. Known by the nickname “Bloody Balfour” for his enforcement of the Perpetual Crimes Act aimed at suppressing the land rights of Irish, Balfour’s legacy has since been subverted by local landowners who gifted their modest plots of countryside for the establishment of the Great Western Greenway. O’Donnell makes a point of letting me know that the Greenway would not have happened, “only for the goodwill and the buy in with the local authority and the landowners. 80 to 90 percent of them [landowners] don’t benefit from the Greenway directly”.  Nevertheless there are wider benefits for the surrounding community with an additional forty to fifty full-time staff employed by hotels, cafes, and restaurants in the area. “You’ve got six or seven bike hire companies between Westport and Achill and they’re all employing 3-4 people,” he also adds.

The trail surface itself consists of compacted gravel and follows a largely flat route between Mulranny and Achill, just one of three sections in my home county that I recently had the pleasure of visiting. The ever-changeable West of Ireland weather meant several stops along the way to swap T-shirt and shorts for anorak and pull-ups; it’s all par for the course and adds to rather than detracts from the overall experience. Leaving Mulranny, the cyclist coasts downhill through welcoming woodland and a sea of ferns before the countryside opens up to reveal an inlet of the Atlantic with bogland and mountain strung out on either side.

I happened upon Mr. O’Donnell at a well-known viewing point – the Blue Bridge – as I stopped to take in the exhilarating scenery on my return journey. “So who typically comes to the West of Ireland to cycle the Greenway?” I enquired, once pleasantries had been exchanged. “The majority of our visitors would be Irish nationals. After that, in the last year, it would be the USA and parts of Europe…mostly Germans and French…and Austrians. The UK market wouldn’t be as strong as the first year…I’ve noticed a big drop in UK visitors this year”. I was struck by the number of young families cycling along the route and said as much. “You can use the tag-alongs [a small canvas-covered trailer] if the children are quite small. Its very safe for families to cycle along as it’s 97% off road”. In fact the only section that still forces cyclists and motorists to share a main road will soon be segregated. “We have secured the funding (€360,000) and hopefully that’s going to happen in the second part of the year or early next year”, John assures me.

But it’s not just tourists who walk and cycle the trail. “There’s a lot of people using it to go to work…when the weather is favourable” he cautiously adds. “Children in the schools in Westport right through to Achill, on a Wednesday in April, May and June, they have a cycle-to-school day and a walk-to-school day”. An impressive 550 visitors a day use some or all of the Greenway on average in the high season, although this can drop to below 100 per day in the dead of winter. I relayed to Mr. O’Donnell that I had met an older man by the name of Patrick J Sweeney further back on the trail as he loaded turf into a high trailer for the long winter ahead. “Oh, that’s my father-in-law. We were talking about you at dinner!” We both shared a laugh at the small world rural living affords.

The Greenway website does not make any explicit mention of eco-tourism (nor did our conversation) but this must surely be a prime attraction and key opportunity to open up new markets. The land in the West of Ireland may be boggy, hilly and largely suited for little more than grazing sheep but the landscape has a value that deserves far greater recognition and investment by the State and local government. At a local level, plans are afoot to develop a cycle rest area and hub called the Great Western Activity Centre, if funding can be found to renovate the old railway station in Mulranny. More pressing concerns are installing toilets, water-points and shelters from the often-inclement weather. “We don’t have any funding at the moment. Based on the surveys that I’m gathering for the last two years that will strengthen the case for funding”, he says optimistically. Other counties are looking to Mayo for inspiration to redeploy their own sections of abandoned railroad. “We’re getting delegations here from various county councils in the country. We’ve recently just had West Cork; they’ve got a lot of disused railways. The biggest issue challenging any other county council to actually go ahead with this is the occupation [sic] of landownership”.

Exactly twelve months previously, I was fortunate to visit New York City and stroll along another stretch of disused railway infrastructure – The High Line. It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting locations, each with their own unique sense of drama. The elevated views framed by towering skyscrapers and warehouses were now to be replaced by vast cloud-scudded skies and generous vistas confined only by the heather-covered mountains. The livestock freight train running through the Meatpacking District of busy Manhattan and the tourist express train chugging through rural West of Ireland have a shared sense of history. Both have  embraced change to find an exciting new meaning in life. Reborn, repurposed and above all relevant to a more sustainable way of living in the modern world.

View a slideshow of my recent trip here – Green infrastructure

Visit the Great Western Greenway website for route maps and more information

Mr O’Donnell would like to point out that Southwest Mayo Development provide much needed support to Mayo County Council in maintaining the Greenway through activities such as strimming and weed control.