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.
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.
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