Graham Hughes

Malcolm Noonan It's not enough to watch threatened species struggle to survive

The Green Party TD looks at the agreement at Cop 15 Biodiversity conference in Canada and says time is running out for nature.

LAST UPDATE | Dec 20th 2022, 8:56 PM

AT COOLDROSS IN County Wicklow, there’s a wire fence. It’s three metres high and buried into the ground with an electric wire running across the top.

Behind the fence is a population of Lapwing, or Pilibín as Gaeilge: ground-nesting birds with a white breast, iridescent black wings and an elaborate feather quiff on the top of their heads.

They make a haunting ‘Pee-wit! Pee-wit!’ call that carries across the soggy meadows and wetlands where they breed. This once-abundant species is now endangered, on Ireland’s Red List since 1999, for a range of reasons including too few nesting and feeding places and too many predators (the latter explaining the need for the fence).

jail-sanctuary-for-threatened-birds Lapwing, one of the world's most threatened birds. Niall Carson Niall Carson

I visited this project, which is operated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, earlier this year. After three years, it is showing signs of success with more than 20 breeding pairs in 2022, up from a mere handful in 2020. Strength in numbers allows the Lapwing to work together to fight off the hooded crows that feast on their eggs.

Beside the Cooldross project is Kilcoole Beach, where Little Terns nest. Here on the rocky shore, dedicated Birdwatch volunteers stand guard over a hundred or so nests, all numbered, with eggs camouflaged in the coloured stones. Again, thankfully, 2022 was a good season.

One breach in the fencing, one summer storm, could wipe the progress out. That’s how precarious these conservation ‘success’ stories are.

Over the past two years as Minister of State for Heritage, I have visited projects conserving our island’s last remaining Corncrake, Curlew, Natterjack Toads and Grey Partridge, all heroically led by passionate and dedicated NPWS teams, volunteers and farmers. It’s invigorating to see.

But I’m tired. I’m tired of seeing nature being corralled and fenced in or with 24-hour guard standing over a species on the brink.

We do it because it’s necessary to preserve our hope that, one day, when nature is restored, a balance will be returned. Hope that society’s vision for the future of this island takes account of what is currently a broken, nature-poor, fragmented landscape. Hope that it chooses to make space for a mosaic of connected habitats buzzing and singing with thriving nature, resilient in the context of our many land and sea uses and a changing climate.

We must do better

The coming 12 months will be decisive for nature policy in Ireland. Our next National Biodiversity Action Plan (NBAP) will be finalised, informed and bolstered by the outputs of the Citizens’ Assembly and the parallel Children and Young People’s Assembly on Biodiversity Loss.

It will also need to integrate the objectives of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030, including the proposed EU Nature Restoration Law. We expect the details of this new regulation and its implications for Ireland to become clearer over the coming months, though we already understand the imperative to develop a long term strategic fund for nature beyond current EU funding mechanisms and the need for policy coherence across a range of sectors in order to deliver on it.

The NBAP will also need to absorb the outcomes that have emerged this week from the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 in Montreal, Canada. This global meeting was the most important summit on nature in over a decade, where a new set of biodiversity goals to 2030 was agreed by 196 countries, including Ireland.

The goals commit us all to protecting 30% of the world’s lands, waterways, coasts and oceans; restoring 30% of the world’s degraded terrestrial and marine ecosystems; investing $30bn annually in financial aid to help low-income countries meet the targets and reducing the subsidies that damage nature by $500bn per year.

canada-biodiversity-conference Huang Runqiu, left, President of the COP 15 and Minister of Ecology and Environment of China listens as Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, speaks during a press conference at the COP 15 summit on biodiversity, in Montreal, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022. (Peter McCabe /The Canadian Press via AP) AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

One of Canada’s most famous sons, Neil Young sang ‘we got mother nature on the run in the 1970s’ in his 1972 classic, After the Gold Rush. Like many conservationists, Neil saw the destruction of our natural world back then as a threat to our very existence.

He was right. Today, we have a global pact for nature and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape what it means for Ireland in what history will see as the most crucial decade for action.

We must not limit our ambition. I want to be able to remove the fences in Cooldross, and everywhere else in this country, in my lifetime. This can only be achieved through collaborative action and inclusion of everyone and to do that we must break down our own barriers.

Malcolm Noonan is a Green Party TD for Carlow-Kilkenny.

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