Fishy chat-up lines and underwater love among Arctic char

Scientists in Galway are attempting to eavesdrop on the sounds Arctic char make during courtship in the hope of protecting this threatened fish Irish Times, 1 May 2014

What does the fish say? New research at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) aims to shed light on just how vocal a unique Irish fish is. Biologists hope to discover whether Arctic char, a deepwater inhabitant of Irish lakes, vocalise. during courtship and spawning.

Researchers hope that, by recording char in the lab, they can use its unique call to pinpoint where it spawns in lakes in the hope of offering it better protection.

About 700 species of bony fish are known to vocalise. Most do this by contracting their swim bladder to produce pulsating drum-like calls. In many species, sound is produced by males as they compete with each other and try to attract mates.

Sound travels farther underwater than light, says PhD researcher Marta Bolgan, and it doesn’t dissipate as quickly as chemical signals, making it a logical communication medium for fish. But fish acoustics are poorly understood compared with those of aquatic mammals such as whales and dolphins, and freshwater fish are the least-studied of all.

At a fish farm in Galway, Bolgan has recorded what seem to be sounds produced by Arctic char. She believes these may be the first Arctic char vocalisations recorded by scientists. Bolgan now hopes to record the species spawning in the lab to confirm whether it vocalises, and to figure out why.

To coax the fish into breeding, she tries to recreate its natural spawning conditions in freshwater tanks: cold water temperatures (6-8 degrees) and a short daylight period recreated using lamps.

Bolgan keeps male and female char separately, but once the females are ripe with eggs, she transfers two males and one female to an observation tank. For the first two days she keeps the sexes separate using a divider.

Each time, the males appear to compete until one has established dominance. “One male keeps swimming around the tank and the other hides,” she says. Often the female will dig a nest in the gravel bedding to prepare for spawning.

When she removes the divider, the courtship ritual begins. “The [dominant] male swims with the mouth really close to the tail of the female, and the mouth of the female is really close to the tail of the male. They swim in a circular pattern, and they can go on like this for a couple of hours.”

But there’s one catch: of the nine pairs she has observed at the time of writing, none have completed spawning, and Bolgan has yet to hear any vocalise. She says that because her char are from farmed populations, they may have lost the ability to breed naturally, or her observation tank may be too small for spawning.

“I have a feeling that they rely more on other communication channels. We can’t exclude sound production yet, but maybe it’s not their main communication channel,” she says. Nonetheless, her research still provides new insight into the behaviour of Arctic char.

Later this year, Bolgan will record underwater at Lake Windermere in Cumbria, where the exact location of char spawning grounds is known. She’s hoping to film the fish here too. This should provide better evidence as to whether wild char vocalise during the breeding season.

But even if Arctic char aren’t vocal, they’re still likely to use sound. Bolgan says all fish hear and use sound to pick up information about their environment – for detecting prey, avoiding predators and locating spawning and feeding grounds. Research has shown that many species of reef fish use acoustic information to locate their spawning grounds. “The soundscape is like a fingerprint. Every area sounds different,” she says.

Scientists don’t know how salmon locate their spawning grounds, but sound could provide one explanation. A research student at GMIT now hopes to record salmon vocalising at the Marine Institute facility in Mayo later this year. Understanding fish acoustics is vital for their conservation, says Bolgan’s supervisor, biologist Dr Joanne O’Brien. The idea is to minimise human noise at critical points in their life cycle. One of O’Brien’s long-term goals is to set up underwater recording stations in Irish lakes to monitor fish populations remotely.

While marine mammals tend to communicate in a wide range of frequencies, fish use the same low frequencies occupied by noise from human activities such as shipping, putting them at greater risk.

“Noise affects fish and mammals in the same way,” says Bolgan. If I’m trying to speak with you and the noise gets louder, I don’t hear you.”

“So if my point in the communication is to aggregate with you to reproduce, maybe I don’t hear you, maybe I don’t manage to catch you, and reproduction fails.”

SPLENDID ISOLATION: A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHAR

Arctic char arrived in Ireland after the last ice age ended, more than 10,000 years ago. The species, a member of the salmon family, lives in the cold climates of the northern hemisphere and survives farther north than any other freshwater fish.

Like salmon, most Arctic char populations feed in the sea and migrate up rivers to spawn. But the Irish population is unique, spending its entire life cycle in freshwater – mostly in deep, cold lakes near the west coast.

One theory suggests that, after the ice sheets retreated, Irish char populations simply stopped migrating to warming seas, where competition and the risk of being eaten was higher. It has remained isolated in Irish lakes for millenniums.

Arctic char has been recorded in more than 70 Irish lakes, but is believed to be extinct in about a third of these now. It is rated as “vulnerable” on Ireland’s red list of threatened species, and its decline has been linked to the introduction of non-native fish. It requires cold, well-oxygenated water, so is also threatened by pollution and climate change.

The species spends most of the year in deep water, but comes up to shallow lake beds to breed in late autumn and winter. The female digs a nest and releases her eggs, which the male fertilises externally. But little is known about the specific spawning behaviour of char in Ireland or the exact location of breeding sites.

Marta Bolgan’s PhD at GMIT is funded by the Irish Research Council, while her research at Lake Windermere will be supported by the Marine Institute

The Wild Country

Ireland has designated its first national wilderness: a vast area of mountain, bog and forest on the country’s wild west coast. But is a real ‘backcountry’ experience possible on such a small island?  

The Great Outdoors magazine, December 2013

You won’t meet many other walkers in the Nephin Beg mountains. You can kind of understand why. Only two of these hills peep over 700 metres, they get about four times as much rain as Dublin, and they’re a long way from most places.

But these hills guard the wildest terrain in Ireland. In 1937 – after 5,000 miles of walking through Ireland – the naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger wrote: “Indeed the Nephinbeg range of mountains is I think the very loneliest place in this country, for the hills themselves are encircled by this vast area of trackless bog. Where else even in Ireland will you find 200 square miles which is houseless and roadless...”

The Nephin Begs rise to the north of Clew Bay in County Mayo. West of their central spine is the immense Owenduff blanket bog; to the east are huge conifer plantations. The only roads out here are forest tracks. In March, Ireland’s national parks service, together with the state forestry company Coillte, designated 11,000 hectares of this landscape as Ireland’s first national wilderness area: Wild Nephin.

For hillwalkers and backpackers, the plans are thrilling. For the next 15 years the forests will be set aside for rewilding, forest roads will be closed and converted to trails, and ‘backcountry’ campsites will be developed. Wild Nephin project manager Bill Murphy, a passionate wilderness advocate, says the region “was never popular with the mountaineering fraternity, because it was too remote.”

I had hiked and camped out here before, but never for more than one night. Now I wanted to see if a more immersive wilderness experience was possible. On a grey August evening I caught a cab from Newport to the trailhead at Letterkeen. From here, I followed the Western Way into the Nephin forests. I had initially planned to rush this part, then make for the hills to the west. Who likes conifer plantations, after all? But Bill encouraged me to spend a night in the forest. “The going is hardish but well worth the effort to come into a clearing and see these superb lakes – could be northern Maine or Finland,” he said. So now my plan was to trek through dense forest and make camp beside a small lake.

But soon a logging truck passed me, and I could hear machinery coming from the forest ahead – a reminder this isn’t perfect wilderness yet. So as the light faded I changed tack, hiking to a quieter lake on the north-east side of Nephin Beg mountain.

I searched in vain for a good camping spot, but the ground was either soaking wet or thick with vegetation. I gave up and made camp on the damp lakeshore. I cooked some pasta, scoffed some swiss roll, then retreated to my tent to escape the midges.

After I started hillwalking three years ago, I became obsessed with finding the remotest places in Ireland. It was an odd compulsion: poring over maps to locate the most far-flung valleys, hills and coastlines, then hiking out to them. I visited the uninhabited Blasket Islands off County Kerry, the mountainous coastland of south-west Donegal, and the isolated cliffs and headlands of western Achill. But it was the Nephin Begs that really captured my imagination.

The American writer and conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote: “To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” The Nephin Begs are Ireland’s blank place.

The next morning I stepped out of my tent and, sinking into sphagnum moss, realised just how bad my camping spot was. Water rushed into my boots, my ‘dry’ camp pants got soaked, and the midges got worse. I cooked some porridge and broke camp as quickly as I could. I followed a gully down through the forest, startling a red deer on the way, and emerged back on the Western Way. I walked to a river where I made tea,collected water and cooked up some noodles.

Then I left the trail behind and followed streams through the forest. For the first time, walking on lush banks deep in the woods, I could grasp Bill’s vision of conifer plantation as wilderness. Rewilded forestry could offer a new type of outdoor experience in Ireland: you might camp on a riverbank under pine trees, sleep out in a clearing, or watch deer at a forest lake. Our islands haven’t got much woodland, but perhaps rewilding forestry can help make up for it.

The lodgepole pine that dominates the Nephin plantations is closely related to the native Scots Pine that thrived out here thousands of years ago. Coillte’s rewilding plan will now aim to naturalise these forests: to create more clearings, let more light into the understorey, encourage natural regeneration, restore bogland, and start the shift from plantation to woodland.

The aim will be to give nature a leg up, then let it take over. “It’s about natural processes driving the changes in the landscape as opposed to human, that’s what it means to be truly wild,” Bill says.

But hiking through the forest is tough. I crossed streams back-and- forth to avoid deep vegetation, and my boots filled with water. Fighting through thick grass, I climbed out of the forest and up to the Scardaun Loughs, two lakes in the saddle between Nephin Beg (627 metres) and Slieve Carr (721 metres). Hillwalkers regard the latter as Ireland’s most remote mountain.

I crossed the saddle, and on its west side a tumbling stream cut a steep gorge into the earth. Following it downhill, one of Ireland’s most gob- smacking views opened up: a panorama of the immense Owenduff Bog, drained by pristine rivers, and flanked by the Nephin Beg range. Not a road or building in sight. This is, I reckon, the wildest spot in Ireland. I disturbed a common lizard on my way downhill, and arrived onthe Bangor Trail. This rough track was used for centuries to carry people and livestock through the mountains. From the Letterkeen trailhead it’s 24 kilometres of isolated, boggy terrain to Bangor Erris – the longest stretch of Irish trail not to pass a road or house.

Local hillwalking guide Barry Murphy told me two legends: one says that a highwayman, Daithí Bán, would stalk the track would stalk the track from the mountains and rob travellers returning from market with their earnings. The more common version, however, says that Daithí Bán was a giant who lived in the hills and came down to fish in the salmon-rich Tarsaghaunmore and Owenduff rivers.

I followed the rough track south. It was early evening, and the sky was grey and lifeless. My goal for the night was the Lough Avoher hut, a timber shelter on the trail built by the voluntary group Mountain Meitheal. This is the first in a series of huts and campsites planned for Wild Nephin.

After 24 hours out here, the hut seemed like the essence of comfort. There’s a sleeping platform, rainwater tank and – rather thoughtfully – a spade. I could hang my wet clothes out, sit at the picnic table, sleep off the ground. When I finally got there, exhausted, I cooked pasta, put up my tent’s inner mesh, and ducked inside to escape the midges with my battered copy of Tarka The Otter.

In 1924, the United States designated a big swathe of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest as the country’s first wilderness area. Forty years later, a pioneering American law defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”.

Wilderness might seem like an odd concept in densely populated, urbanised Western Europe, but the movement for it on this side of the Atlantic is growing. Campaigners are pushing for European countries to protect one million hectares of wild land, with projects like Wild Nephin at the forefront.

The next morning I headed for the hills. I crossed a patch of bog, hopped a stream and climbed the wet slopes of Glennamong (628 metres). The ascent presented false summit after false summit until, suddenly, I was standing on top. After three grey days, blue sky was finally breaking through.

I followed the ridge west to the next summit, Corranabinnia (714 metres, but unnamed on OS maps), and suddenly all the wild islands and mountains of Mayo opened up around me: Clare Island, Inishturk, Croagh Patrick, Mweelrea, the Sheeffry hills, Achill. But my plans for the day were thrown off course.

I had intended to follow the hills onwards to Claggan Mountain and camp there for my final night. But with the wind picking up, the razor- sharp ridge to Corranabinnia’s south-west top looked daunting. So I chickened out and zig-zagged down the steep – but relatively sheltered – south face of the mountain to forestry in the valley below.

Then thick mist rolled in, and my motivation to camp deserted me. I checked the map and realised I was only 13 kilometres from Newport, so I wimped out again. With a cramped shoulder, swollen ankle, and my knee starting to give in, I called it quits and walked to the town’s hostel.

Robert Lloyd Praeger may have deemed the Nephin Begs Ireland’s loneliest landscape, but he still found them uplifting. “You are thrown at the same time back upon yourself and forward against the mystery and majesty of nature, and you may feel dimly something of your own littleness and your own greatness,” he wrote. The Nephin Begs inspired him to tell his readers to “go up to the hills, as sages and saints have done since the beginning of the world”.

It strikes me I’ve still only experienced a fraction of this landscape. There are dozens of streams and lakes in the forest I’ve yet to see, summits I’ve yet to reach, remote mountain valleys, spurs and lakes I’ve yet to explore. Walking out of the Glendahurk valley, I asked myself: have I just experienced real wilderness? It’s not for me to say. Come to the Nephin Begs, go up to the hills, and find out for yourself.

 

 

Ireland’s big rewilding project first of its kind in Western Europe

Wild Nephin project aims to create 27,000 acres of unique wilderness landscape Earth Island Journal, October 16, 2013

The Nephin Beg mountain range rises on Ireland's western coast and stretches 20 miles into the sparsely populated northwest of County Mayo. This is a landscape of boglands and heath-covered mountains, battered by Atlantic winds and rain. The only forests here are stands of Lodgepole pine and Sitka spruce, planted in an attempt to wrestle economic gain from the unproductive soil.

On a long coastline of wet, weather-beaten hills, the Nephin Begs aren't unique. But they form one of the few big areas of roadless, uninhabited terrain in Ireland.

Now this range is home to a pioneering re-wilding project. In March, Ireland's National Parks and Wildlife Service, and Coillte, a public forestry company — the region's two big landholders — designated 27,000 acres of bog, mountain, and forest out here as Ireland's first wilderness area, Wild Nephin.

The project has three core aims: to protect a large wild landscape, re-wild the forest, and provide a "primitive" wilderness experience for visitors.

Over the next 15 years the project will aim to "naturalize" the plantations. It will thin the forest cover to let more light into the understory, create more clearings, restore areas of bogland, and plant some native species. Trees will be felled but left in place to mimic natural catastrophes and encourage regeneration. Forest roads will be closed and converted to trails.

While many conservation areas in Ireland are utilized in some way — often for sheep and cattle grazing — Wild Nephin will seek to create a wild, "self-willed" landscape. "What we want to do over the next 15 years is re-engineer the forest, so in 15 years time when we step out of the management of the area, then only wild processes will change the landscape," says Wild Nephin project manager Bill Murphy.

The region is not yet a perfect wilderness. In 2002, Ireland was prosecuted by the European Commission for allowing part of the region to be overgrazed by sheep (stocks have since been reduced). The Nephin forests also bear the scars of past logging. The re-wilding project will not seek to remove the non-native conifers that dominate the forests; instead it will encourage natural regeneration.

The Wild Nephin project is part of a loose but growing movement to create and protect wilderness across Europe, and to re-wild ecologically degraded landscapes. Germany, for instance, is aiming to designate 2 percent of its land area as wilderness by 2020.

The nonprofit Rewilding Europe aims to rewild one million hectares of land by 2020 and create 10 “magnificent” wildlife and wilderness areas. The group hopes its efforts “will serve as inspirational examples of what can also be achieved elsewhere.” Another organization, Pan Parks, also plans to safeguard one million hectares of European wilderness by 2015. Pan Parks oversees a network of wilderness areas, including mountainous regions in Eastern Europe, an island archipelago in Finland, and forests and boglands in Estonia and Lithuania. All these areas are within existing national parks, but must now satisfy the Pan Parks' definition of wilderness, which prohibits logging, hunting, fishing, agriculture, roads or construction in designated areas.

Earlier this month, the World Wilderness Congress was held in Salamanca, Spain — the first time in 20 years Europe hosted the event. Wilderness groups published a document, A Vision for A Wilder Europe, calling for the continent's last wilderness areas to be protected, and for natural processes to be allowed shape more of Europe's land.

"If we can get people behind our cause, then we can say that no more wilderness is going to be lost in Europe," says the Pan Parks' executive director Zoltan Kun.

The term re-wilding is often used to describe the re-introduction of big, locally extinct species — like the gray wolf in the United States’ Yellowstone National Park. But in reality it often means less eye-catching projects like Wild Nephin, which aim to restore landscapes and allow wild processes to take over. And indeed, iconic species of bear, lynx and wolf are all making a comeback across Europe.

"Wilderness probably wasn't even on the European radar in philosophical terms if you go back 20 years," says Toby Aykroyd of the Wild Europe Initiative, an alliance of conservation and wilderness groups. But that has changed. Momentum for rewilding stems from a 2009 motion passed by the European Parliament that called for more wilderness protection, and for wilderness to be defined and mapped. Last year the European Commission published a biodiversity strategy that mentioned wilderness for the first time.

However, most of the wilderness that remains in Europe is in the east of the continent. In densely populated, urbanized Western Europe, little land is truly wild. In Ireland even the most remote mountain valleys provide grazing for sheep, while in the UK national parks protect cultural landscapes as much as wild ones, with villages and farms inside their boundaries.

"Wilderness is not a word you'll find in all European languages, so it's very difficult for there to be a common literature or history [of wilderness preservation]," says Mark Fisher of the Wildland Research Institute at Leeds University, UK.

In this, Europe differs from the United States, where the writing of early wilderness advocates —from John Muir to Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey —seems to have taken root in the national psyche.

"If you look at the history of protected areas in America... there was a movement to protect areas of huge scenic quality," Fisher says. In Europe, however, early conservation movements were science-driven, he says. They aimed to protect landscapes where important species and biological communities thrived. And because of that, an emotional response to wild places never became embedded in European culture, Fisher says.

The idea of rewilding areas in a continent where the human imprint is so large, has set off a debate over best conservation practices. Earlier this year, the British writer and environmentalist George Monbiot provoked heated discussion with his latest book Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, and a series of articles that took a pointed look at the aims of conservationists. Monbiot criticized UK conservationists for their "intensive management of the natural world".

"Nowhere else does conservation look more like a slightly modified version of the farming which trashed the land in the first place," he wrote in a column on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds website. Monbiot believes rewilding should involve reintroducing missing animals and plants that were once native to a region, and abandoning “the biblical doctrine of dominion” that assumes it is our duty to “control and corral” nature. "In my view most of our conservation areas aren’t nature reserves at all. They are museums of former farming practices, weeded and tended to prevent the wilds from encroaching," he writes.

Even groups that aren’t pushing as hard for species reintroduction agree that conservation efforts in Europe have been too focused on preserving individual species and habitats rather than whole dynamic ecosystems. "I think traditional conservation has got stuck in a rut around a kind of gardening ethos," says Toby Aykroyd of the Wild Europe Initiative.

But campaigners seem to be chipping away at this thinking. The Wild Europe Initiative includes big conservation groups such as Birdlife International, UNESCO, and the WWF. The European Commission recently commissioned the production of guidelines for "non intervention" management of wild areas, and an official register of wilderness in Europe is in production.

The Wild Nephin project was recently the centerpiece of a major conference, held in Irish town of Westport, on wilderness in modified landscapes. Inherent in this theme was the acceptance that, in Western Europe, wilderness will have to be created by rewilding habitats that have been modified by humans.

"The whole idea of wilderness in Europe is going to be different from the idea of wilderness in North America," says Wild Nephin’s Bill Murphy says. "We have to come up with a context that suits our culture."

Zultan Kun of Pan Parks believes that ultimately, there's a moral obligation —both to the developing world and to future generations — to protect wild land in Europe. "We always talk about protecting the Amazon rainforest, or protecting Borneo. And while we argue for that we destroy our nature here," he says. Kun stresses the difference between rewilding and restoring wilderness — you could rewild your city garden, but you won't get a wilderness.

These are still early days for the wilderness movement in Europe. While Pan Parks might be one of Europe's biggest wildland advocacy groups, Kun told me the group employs just four people who all work from home. He was working from his daughter's bedroom when we spoke.

Kun dreams of turning 5 percent of Europe into protected wilderness. Right now an estimated 1 percent of European land is wilderness, and another 1 percent is near-wilderness that requires restoration.

But environmentalists see the potential to drastically increase this, partly due to high levels of land abandonment across Europe. And Kun believes that as economic recession dries up funding for conservation in Europe, the political environment could favor a more hands-off approach to managing protected areas.

"We have the favorable political environment to take wilderness further, but we need to create massive public support for it," he says.

 

At one with wilderness

Hiking Ireland's first wilderness area Irish Times, August 17, 2013

We simply need that wild country available to us,” the US novelist and historian Wallace Stegner wrote, “even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.” This is an arresting idea: that wild places nourish our spirit even if we never enter them.

If there is true wild country anywhere in Ireland, it’s in the Nephin Beg mountains of north-west Mayo. In March, Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service designated 11,000 hectares of bog, mountain and forestry here as Ireland’s first wilderness area, dubbed Wild Nephin.

And you can do more than just look in from the edge. Three looped trails at Letterkeen explore the southern part of this wilderness. In early July I set out on the 12km Letterkeen Loop (marked with purple arrows), crossing a footbridge over the Altaconey river and following the bank of a quick, shallow stream. The ground was thick with tall bracken, the trail hard to make out.

The trail crossed streams, traversed wet bog and climbed to over 200 metres in the first few kilometres. The track here is often sopping wet, but after warm weather it was mostly dry.

An hour and a half later I arrived at the Lough Avoher hut (pictured above), a small lean-to for backpackers, built last year by the voluntary group Mountain Meitheal. I had brought my camping gear; this would be my bed for the night. I cooked some pasta and climbed a little up the hill behind the hut to watch the sun set. Then I went back and settled into my sleeping bag. A swarm of midges biting my face woke me at 6am.

In 1964, the US became the first country to legally designate wilderness — public land without roads or mechanised transport, where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain”.

Conifer plantations are often unloved by hillwalkers, but they still offer remoteness and solitude, and plans to ‘re-wild’ the Nephin forests could provide an exciting blueprint for other plantations. The goals of Wild Nephin are certainly inspiriting. Coillte will set aside 4,400 hectares of forestry and re-wild it to improve habitat and boost biodiversity. Forest roads will be closed and converted to trails, and basic shelters and campsites developed for backpackers. Coillte says the region will offer solitude, challenge and “primitive recreation”.

After breakfast, I followed the trail above the forestry. I studied a damselfly, watched a group of ravens play over Nephin Beg mountain, and startled a frog from the grass. I followed the muddy trail up to a 311 metre summit: take care here and stick with the markers, there is very steep ground nearby. Then I descended through the forest to a track that soon joined the Altaconey river again. The mature forest here was thick with ferns, lichen, and moss. Soon I arrived back at the car park, and stepped out of the wild country.

Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 23, but older maps may show old trail route. Up-to-date trail route and map at mayotrails.ie. Time and distance: 12km, 3-4 hours Trailhead: Brogan Carroll bothy, Letterkeen, Co Mayo. From Newport, take N59 towards Achill but turn right after 1km, signposted for Letterkeen Loops. Continue for 12km, past Lough Feeagh. Turn left just after a small bridge for the trailhead. Two shorter loops, the Bothy Loop (6km) and Lough Avoher Loop (10km) also start here. Suitability: Remote and tough trail that climbs above 300m where mist is common. Wild camping experience is advised if you are staying in the Lough Avoher hut. Streams here swell quickly during rain. Practice Leave No Trace (leavenotraceireland.org)

Plans for massive salmon farm in Ireland’s Galway Bay run Into troubled waters

Environmentalists and local fishermen concerned that sea lice from farm will harm wild salmon and trout populations Earth Island Journal, 1 May, 2013

The project's backers say the over 1,000-acre farm will bring jobs to coastal communities, while helping to meet demand for salmon in a sustainable manner. But critics claim it threatens wild fish populations.

The Irish Sea Fisheries Board, a government agency, is planning to develop the salmon farm near Inis Oírr, the smallest of three Gaelic-speaking islands that are famous for their unique limestone geology, rare wildflowers, and ancient archaeology.The farm is slated to produce 15,000 tons of organic-certified salmon per year, more than doubling Ireland's production of farmed salmon.

But a coalition of environmentalists, anglers, and tourism-dependent businesses is fighting the project. They say the farm will provide a breeding ground for parasitic sea lice that could threaten wild salmon populations.

Environmental groups says that sea lice from salmon farms are one of the most significant threats facing wild salmon populations in Europe. Parasite infestations in fish farms, where thousands of fish are stocked in small netted areas all year round, is known to significantly increase the number of lice in surrounding waters. According to a study published last year, sea lice are responsible for 39 percent of deaths among young salmon at sea.

In March, up to 2,000 people, including Icelandic conservationist Orri Vigfusson, a Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, marched in Galway city to protest the proposed fishery.

Even government agencies are at loggerheads over the project: While the fisheries board is proposing the project, Inland Fisheries Ireland — the country's authority for recreational fishing— is against the fish farm. It has published a fact sheet(PDF) which says that sea lice from salmon farms are a risk to wild salmon and sea trout, and that interbreeding between farm escapees and wild salmon threatens native stocks.

“The scale of the present proposal is of a very significant concern as it provides for a greater production tonnage of salmon at this one location than is currently being produced nationally,” IFI says on its website. “In the past salmon farms were considered large when they were licensed for a harvest of 2000 tons — the current proposal is for a farm harvesting 15,000 tons based in two sites in Galway Bay."

Inland Fisheries has called for more detailed study of the area's salmon and sea trout populations before the salmon farm is developed.

Most of the Aran islands' land mass is a protected conservation area, as is the Corrib river and lake system that is home to salmon and sea trout that migrate through the bay. But the proposed salmon farm site is not in protected waters.

The Irish Sea Fisheries Board's head of aquaculture development, Donal Maguire, says that agency has been supporting coastal communities for 50 years and would not propose the project if it posed an environmental threat.

He says new research by Ireland's Marine Institute shows that sea lice are not a major threat to wild salmon populations.

The project's environmental impact assessment says sea lice distributed from the farm will stay in the immediate area; that escaped salmon will pose little threat to wild populations; and that the project will have no significant impact on protected species or habitats. The farm will also be certified organic, meaning it will have a lower stocking density than conventional farms, and salmon feed will come from fisheries that meet the European Union's sustainability standard.

But critics also say the fish farm project is rife with conflicts of interests.

"We're really concerned about the process of this, where it's essentially being imposed on us by the minister and his agents," says Enda Conneely, one of Inis Oirr's 249 inhabitants.

The Irish Department of Agriculture originally tasked the Irish Sea Fisheries Board to develop the salmon farm as part of its food and fisheries strategy. Now the senior minister at the same department, Simon Coveney, is in charge of making a decision on whether to approve the project. Some observers believe Coveney’s mind is already made up. Éamon Ó Cuív, a legislator who represents the Aran Islands, told The Irish Times that he was asked by Coveney to garner support for the project among islanders.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Friends of the Irish Environment has lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman, an official Irish government watchdog, saying the farm would break a government commitment not to expand salmon farming until issues with sea lice are resolved.

The NGO Salmon Watch Ireland told Earth Island Journal that if the project is approved it will appeal the decision and could ultimately bring a legal challenge. The community co-operative on Inis Oírr has also indicated that it will use “national and international avenues of appeal” if the project is approved. In a detailed submission(PDF), the co-op said that the environmental impact statement lacks crucial data, and that due to the hazards of landing at the island's pier, none of the jobs generated by the project will benefit Inis Oírr itself.

With island and coastal communities hit hard by emigration and unemployment following Ireland's economic collapse, jobs are at the heart of this debate. "We badly, badly need the jobs and exports," says Donal Maguire.

The Irish Sea Fisheries Board says the project will create 500 jobs, and points to a smaller salmon farm by the mountainous Clare Island, 50 miles to the north, which it says is vital for keeping that island's small population viable.

The fisheries board says that the Galway Bay farm could even become a tourist destination — an opportunity to show the fishing heritage of the Aran Islands being "brought into the 21st century in a green, organic manner".

But opponents worry that the industrial scale of the development could hamper tourism, on which the Aran Islands are heavily dependent.

"We have the same customers coming back for the last 20 years, and they don't want this," says Enda Conneely, who runs a guesthouse and restaurant on Inis Oírr. "You go out to the Aran Islands to go away from industrial scale farming."

How the mountains saved me

A personal essay on spending time in the Irish hills

Earthlines magazine, May 2013

The remote stretch of coastland on the north-west of Achill Island is sometimes called ‘the back of beyond’. The island is tethered to the County Mayo mainland by a swing bridge that resembles a leviathan’s fleshless ribs. When you come to Achill you enter the belly of the whale.

From Achill Sound you could head across boggy hills to the cliff-fringed south of the island. This little-visited district is Gaeltacht, an official Irish-speaking region, but the language is rarely heard here today.

Or you could head north, where horizontal bog gives way to sand dunes and a chain of north-facing beaches. From the Bullsmouth you could ask a local boatman to take you through racing tidal currents to Inis Bigil, an island-off-an- island, population twenty-five.

Or you could go west, where the Atlantic terminates moodily on the two-mile arc of Trawmore beach by the village of Keel, and bungalows clutter the coast like a messy monopoly board. The road ends with a vertiginous drop to Keem, a beach of calm water and flaxen sand encased by steep hills. Between 1947 and 1975, the landing of twelve thousand basking sharks bloodied the waters here.

Heinrich Böll wrote that on Achill he could ‘play truant from Europe’; it is a wild place with wild planning. A fading holiday home development sits on the side of Croaghaun mountain, approved by god knows who. In Keel village, there’s a gaping pit where the construction of a hotel was abandoned. And high on the Pollagh bog in November 2011, a local developer built his bizarre ‘Achill henge’ monument: thirty concrete columns in a perfect circle thirty metres across. The developer described it as a ‘place for reflection’; many see it as a tomb for the Celtic Tiger.

The mountains of Slievemore and Croaghaun stand above all this, the former a cone of green, grey and brown, the latter a broad and undulating dome. At the start of the nineteenth century the British built a signal tower on the boggy ridge between these two hills to watch for invasion from Napoleon’s armies. Behind this ridge is the back of beyond. This is the reason I am here.

When I finished university in 2007, I felt as if I was facing an identity crisis – the kind that many freshly minted adults experience. As a teenager I was addicted to rooting around in tidepools, but I hadn’t figured out how to turn this into a job. I had studied zoology, but didn’t want to be an academic, with all the specialisation and lab-slaving it entails. I stumbled into journalism, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy my search for identity: who was I, and who did I want to become?

Living in Dublin, I thought that some of the sub-cultures which were thriving in the vacuum of a collapsed economy — hipsters, artists, DIY publishers — offered an answer. I bought some new clothes, started going to more gigs, even rented a space in an artist’s studio, with vague plans to publish a small magazine. I craved belonging, and the chance to define myself. But all I felt was twitchy and restless. I grew weary of music, fashion and art that seemed fixated on aesthetics and image, its preoccupations shifting without reason. So much of it felt like a conscious attempt to create culture unsupported by meaning. This wouldn’t do.

To get to the back of beyond, you follow a track along the Abhainn Bhaile river. The expansiveness of this bogscape inflates everything around it, so it all seems vast — the mountains, the clouds moving in from the Atlantic, the four hundred-metre Minaun cliffs across the bay. Even the surf crashing on Trawmore beach seems louder up here.

I leave the track behind and fight my way through the channels of an old peat field, then I slip and slide up the bog towards the ridge. I see a rocky trail and head straight towards it — surely it will offer better grip. But I’m in for a letdown: it’s not a rocky trail, it’s a stream. I keep climbing, and soon a cold northerly gust hits my nose. I’m near the top. From the south side of the broad ridge I can see north to the Inishkea Islands, two low reefs that face down the Atlantic, abandoned by their inhabitants not long after a storm drowned ten of their fishermen in 1927.

I walk to the north side of the ridge and there, right below me, is little Loch na Ciaróige, set like an inky jewel in the earth over Annagh beach on an isolated wedge of peaty coastland. In the pub that night an old islander told me he had heard much of Annagh but had never been. He wondered if he was still fit enough to make the trek.

In 2010, after the breakdown of a relationship, I started hillwalking. I remember stopping for lunch on the upper slopes on Corcóg, in Connemara, Co Galway on one of my first walks. Sitting on a saddle between two peaks, I could see nothing but mountains and valleys around me. There were no roads, cars, or houses within sight. Just by walking to this spot, I had made civilisation vanish. This was my first experience of the idea of wilderness, and I was addicted.

I went into the mountains as often as I could, and started poring over maps: was there any wilderness left in Ireland? How far could I get from houses or roads? How deep could I go into Ireland’s mountains? I was fascinated by the idea that there were still big uncivilised tracts of land out there, particularly in countries that were otherwise considered to be ‘developed’.

I found out that the remotest point in the contiguous United States is on Two Ocean Plateau in Yellowstone National Park, twenty-two miles from the nearest road as the crow flies (in practice, walking there is a seventy-mile round- trip). On the UK mainland the remotest point is between Loch Maree and Little Loch Broom in the north-west Highlands, six miles from tarmac. And in Ireland, it’s on the blanket bogs of north-west Mayo. I walked the Bangor trail there, an old livestock droving track between the tremendous Owenduff bog and the roadless Nephin Beg hills. Then I came to Achill, whose north-west tip is one of Ireland’s last slabs of wild earth.

Here I had found something – the pursuit of wildness – that I could live by, a rock — in the literal, lithic sense — on which I could ground myself and create my identity afresh. If I didn’t want just to be a scientist, I did aspire to be a hillwalker, a wild camper, an outdoorsman.

Nature gives us a foundation on which to cultivate an unshakable sense of self, and the ability to send down thick roots even if we don’t always stay still. So many roles that await graduates today seem ambiguous and disconnected, jobs that end with words like consultant, analyst, manager, advisor. But people often define themselves not by their desk job, but by what they do in nature: they’re birdwatchers, hunters, anglers, surfers, farmers, gardeners, climbers, fell runners, kayakers, beekeepers, tree climbers.

This is why I feel for fishermen who are forced to stop fishing, or turf cutters who are told to stop turf cutting. Multiplied over extensive landscapes and carried out by large populations, these activities can be ecologically destructive, but for the individual they are not only a means to survive, but one that also provides connection with the land and forms a core part of one’s identity. Ripping away part of someone’s self with the stroke of a pen always feels savage, however necessary it may sometimes be thought to be.

The descent to Loch na Ciaróige is tricky, a steep scramble through heather, ferns and hidden boulders. In summer this hill is a thick microclimate of bracken and blooming heather, the antithesis of the bog I have come from. But it is winter now: the heather bloom is gone, the bracken is rusted and dead. At the bottom I walk on small peaty cliffs above the shore where the outgoing tide has exposed a sandy beach. The seawater is transparent, and I want to go for a swim.

I walk down to the beach, but rationality nags at me: How will I dry myself after? How will I warm up at this time of year? What if, cold and wet, I get stuck out here? So I chicken out, and keeping walking west.

Long-running research in the US has investigated why people go to wild places, and how we use them to construct our identities. Studies by Jeffrey Brooks of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Daniel Williams of the Rocky Mountain Research Station, both social scientists, provide insight into this phenomenon.

In a paper published last year, Brooks and Williams wrote that we think of the time we spend in wild places as ‘a process of building and maintaining a coherent identity narrative – a story about oneself – that structures and infuses one’s everyday life with meaning.’ ... ‘A person’s relationship with a wilderness setting ... is interconnected with that person’s whole set of relationships with other people, places, and things,’ they wrote. Back in 1990, Williams and colleagues concluded that the more time we spend in wild places, the more our reasons for going back shift from purely escapism to introspection, self awareness, and developing new skills. What we want from the time we spend in wilderness, Williams and others wrote in a 1998 paper, are stories that ultimately enrich our lives.

I continue westward, over peat hags, heather clumps, bog pools. Is this wilderness? The word has never quite fit the Gaelic lexicon, feeling more like an American construct. Besides, there are signs of dead civilisation all around me. At Annagh, there are the ruins of an old booley village, where herders would bring livestock to summer pasture, living in small stone huts. Achill was the last place in Ireland where transhumance was practiced.

There’s also a stone hut which may have been a ‘sweat house’, a type of primitive sauna for treating rheumatism. Further west there are abandoned homesteads, and a fulacht fiadh – a Bronze-Age cooking site. Most wild land in Ireland is littered with archaeology, a reminder that there were two million more people on the island in 1841, before the Great Famine, than there are today. The back of beyond is full of old ghost stories too: a group kept awake all night by horses galloping around them, girls sleeping in a hut whose dog was thrown on top of them by an unknown figure, and a woman who — haunted by something she saw — insisted on leaving this place forever. I wonder whether these might have been cautionary tales, spun to stop children venturing out here.

The sky is blue and bright, and I cross a stream where a lake narrows and falls into the sea, and soon I’m climbing upwards. The wind whips up, a shower passes over, and I walk out on to the precipice of Saddle Head, one hundred and twenty metres high. But this is merely a viewing platform for what is in front of me: the six hundred-metre sea cliffs of Croaghaun mountain, the tallest on the British Isles, realm of the peregrine falcon. The only way to see them is by hiking or boat.

The English journalist J Harris Stone visited here in 1906 and wrote of the ‘sheer frowning precipices, no less than two thousand feet in height, and chaotically disarranged boulders of gigantic proportions, round which the Atlantic rollers fume and smoke’. I stand gawping for twenty minutes at this two kilometre-long wall of grass and quartzite. Leaving this spot won’t be easy.

From here, if you turn and follow the cliffs inland, the land rises to a lip backed by a steep corrie wall. Walk towards the lip, climb it, and then, abruptly, at the last moment, Lough Bunafreva West is below you. This place is impossible: a blue-black, rock-rimmed tarn in the middle of the cliffs, overlooking the precipices of Saddle Head: a chaotic, tiered arrangement of the vertical.

The Irish botanist Robert Lloyd Praeger described the lough as ‘perched on the edge of the huge cliff with another cliff overhanging it — a place so lonely and sterile and primeval that one might expect to see the piast or other Irish water-monster rising from the inky depths of the tarn’. I’ll stop here for lunch; I have a long walk back ahead of me.

Our identities are intricately wrapped up in the the places we have been. The longer we remain somewhere, the more we pay attention to a place, the more it becomes a part of us.

But this doesn’t mean that brief visits to wild places are futile; the opposite often seems to me to be true. The back of beyond has become a part of my own narrative because of its wildness. Its isolation means that, precisely because few other people have been here, it effortlessly becomes part of my own story.

I giddily recall my trips here, write about this place, bring people here, study its history and wildlife and folklore. Coming here also allows me to create myself, to tentatively begin to become the person that I want to be, someone connected with wild landscapes.

Of course, people do things away from nature that give them an unshakable sense of self too: they’re teachers, doctors, actors, dancers, artists, musicians, police officers, carers. But I suspect that these roles provide a resolute sense of identity because they require us to engage face-to-face with the world, to kick disconnection in the teeth. Or they demand that we create, which means engaging deeply with ourselves.

And yet, constructing identity is about more than an individual project for laying the stonework of one’s self. Sharon Blackie wrote in the last issue of Earthlines (Issue 4, pp 40-44) that a sense of belonging to a place entails a responsibility to it; similarly, an identity based on nature compels us to protect it. Developing a sense of self based on wild places means that we actively make those places a part of who we are: we mortar them into our own identity. This obliges us to fight for them, simply because any threat to them immediately becomes a threat to our very concept of self. So what are you waiting for? Go on – get out there into the wild.

Ireland's last wilderness

Lenny Antonelli take a ten hour hike through "the very loneliest place in Ireland"  Outsider magazine, Spring 2013

Unlike most things, it started in a pub on Achill in January.  "How's Galway this weather?" one of the locals asked me.

"Ah fairly quiet," I said. He burst into laughter. If Galway was quiet in the dead of winter, what was Achill?

But the island is still a bustling metropolis compared to some parts of Mayo, he insisted. "Ever been to Carrowteige in north Mayo?" he asked. "It's sort of like an Alaskan outpost."

"Or have you heard of that aul' Bangor Trail? I was camping out there for a few days and had to climb a mountain just to get phone coverage to call my daughter and tell her I was still alive."

His friend piped up: "Sure what you be doing going out into all that aul' wilderness?"

We don't really do wilderness in Ireland. Stand at the top of Carrauntoohil and you're still only a couple miles from the nearest road.

But Mayo's a bit different. The road network seems sparser, and doesn't stretch to every last corner. The county boasts some of Ireland's wildest and remotest spots — like the towering cliffs of Achill's western tip, or the epic crags and isolated beaches hidden by the mountains of Mweelrea.

And then there's the Bangor Trail. An ancient route through the Nephin Beg hills of north west Mayo, the trail was once used to bring livestock across this desolate landscape.

Scour a map of Ireland for a wild, roadless tract of land and you'll be drawn to the Nephin Begs — the only big range of hills we didn't drive a road through.

"Indeed the Nephinbeg range of mountains is I think the very loneliest place in this country, for the hills themselves are encircled by this vast area of trackless bog,"  Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger wrote in his 1937 book The Way That I Went —  his epic account of five years spent exploring the country.

"Where else even in Ireland will you find 200 square miles which is houseless and roadless?" he wrote. "I confess I find such a place not lonely or depressing but inspiriting. You are thrown at the same time back upon yourself and forward against the mystery and majesty of nature and you may feel dimly something of your own littleness and your own greatness."

The trail — not an official national waymarked way — starts in Newport, but the first half is mostly on road. The real Bangor Trail starts from the Brogan Carroll bothy at Letterkeen, a fairly remote mountain shelter. From here, it's 24km of wild terrain before you reach the village of Bangor Erris.

I hit the trail with local mountain guide Barry Murphy of Tourism Pure Walking.

Leaving the bothy, we cross a stream and skirt the edge of a vast conifer plantation. Barry squats down to study something beside the stream. "Otter scat," he says. "Smells like white wine."

After a few miles the plantation recedes into the background, and with it goes the last sign of modern civilisation we'll see for hours.

Ravens circle over Nephin Beg mountain up ahead as we hop streams along the trail. Though the word trail itself is a bit a euphemism: the way varies from rock to dirt to bog, most of it sopping wet.

We hike up to the Scardaun Loughs, two lakes plucked out by the ice in the U-shaped valley between 627m Nephin Beg and 721m Slieve Carr.

Slieve Carr is the highest mountain in the range. Hikers regard it as Ireland's remotest summit —it demands a serious trek just to get to its base.

The mountain was said to be the home of Daithí Bán, an 18th century highwayman who would stalk and attack travellers from the mountain. Another tale tells of a traveler who hid in the rotting corpse of a horse to avoid thieves out here.

Back on the trail, we cross a gully that shelters a lone, wind-twisted oak tree — the only native tree we see all day. Ruins of old farmsteads on the way echo a time when this was a busy trade route.

Skirting the western flank of Slieve Carr, you realise just how isolated you are: to the north there's 15km of tough terrain to Bangor Erris, to the east the mountains loom overhead with vast forestry beyond, and to the west stretches the endless Owenduff bog. Once you start the trail, there's no easy way out.

Scots pine once blanketed this landscape, but Ireland's climate got wetter about 4,000 years ago. Rain washed minerals down through the soil, forming an impermeable layer and water-logging the land. Mosses took over, the forest died and the vast bog formed. Out here, it's still forming.

Barry points to an old trail that stretches west across the bog. He was advised never to take that route "for fear of disappearing into the bog."

The biggest mistake you could make out here would be to take a shortcut across the bog — the trail has been etched out by thousands of feet over the centuries into a perfect route: low enough to avoid unnecessary climbing, but high enough to avoid deep bog.

Even on the trail we frequently plunge shin-deep into bog, but Barry insists he's never seen it this dry before.

We follow the winding course of a nameless river that emerges into the desolate Tarsaghaunmore valley.

The salmon-rich Tarsaghaunmore and Owenduff rivers that drain the vast bog are some of western Europe's last untouched waterways, rising in remote corners of the Nephin Begs and flowing straight across the bog and into the Atlantic, bypassing civilisation.

The light fades as we eat dinner on the water's edge. A farmhouse in the distance is the first sign of modern civilisation we've seen since morning.

The trail meanders over a range of low hills towards Bangor Erris for the last five miles. We put our headlamps on as night falls, but lose the trail and have to fight our way through thick scrub towards the lights in the distance. The last few miles take an eternity.

My right ankle seizes up, and I limp on through the dark. We find the trail again and — finally — stumble onto a boreen just outside the village. We've been hiking for ten hours. Looking back towards the trail, and towards the lonely Nephin Beg hills, all I can see is darkness.

Bangor Trail: Tips

Set aside a good 12 hours to hike the entire trial, and prepare to finish in the dark — bring headlamps or torches.

Tackle it after a spell of dry weather — it's extremely wet at the best of times. Not all streams on the way have bridges, so some could be very dangerous to cross after heavy rainfall.

Prepare for midges in summer — bring insect repellant.

There are shorter looped hikes in the area: the Letterkeen loop, Bothy loop and Lough Avoher loop all start at the Brogan Carroll bothy and range from 6km to 12km (www.irishtrails.ie).

Only experienced hikers who know how to use a map and compass should tackle the trail. If you don't feel experienced enough, hire a guide.

Navigation skills are crucial as the trail can be hard to follow, and marking is scarce. At grid reference F889131, make sure to turn left to follow the stream as directed by the marker, rather than following the track off to the right.

Bring good waterproof boots, rain gear, gaiters, warm clothing, lots of food and water, map and compass.

The section of the trail described, from the Brogan Carroll bothy to Bangor Erris, is covered by Ordnance Survey Ireland Discovery Series map 23. The section from Newport to the bothy is covered by map 31 of the same series.

To get to Brogan Carroll bothy, leave Newport on the N59 towards Achill but turn right after 1km towards L Feeagh/Letterkeen. After about 12km, turn left just after a bridge onto a forestry road. Follow this road for 1km to the bothy.

Ballycroy National Pak

Much of the trail runs through Ballycroy National Park, established in 1998. The park comprises 11,000 acres of blanket bog and mountain terrain.The vast Owenduff bog is one of the last intact active blanket bog systems in western Europe.

Other habitats in the park include alpine heath, upland grassland, wet and dry heath, lakes and river catchments. Animals here include mountain hare, otter, fox, badger, pygmy shrew, and bats as well as birds of prey such as kestrels, sparrowhawks and peregrine falcon. Other important bird species in the park include Greenland and white-fronted geese, and golden plover. Some of the most common bog plants include sphagnum mosses, black bog rush, purple moor grass and bog cotton.

A visitor's centre with tearooms is open during the summer in the village of Ballycroy on the N59 between Mulranny and Bangor Erris. For more information, see www.ballycroynationalpark.ie.

Stay on the Bangor Trail

This summer Mountain Meitheal volunteers constructed an Adirondack-style shelter for campers along the trail, on Coillte lands near Letterkeen wood at grid reference F938 073. The hut contains sleeping room for up to 6 people and is designed to allow people to camp without a tent (though you'll still need to bring a sleeping bag plus all your other camping supplies). It's the first in a planned series of designated camping areas as part of the Wild Nephin project — a joint initiative project between Coillte and the Natonal Parks and Wildlife Service to set aside the area as Ireland's first designated national wilderness. The construction of the hut also celebrates ten years of Mountain Meitheal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lobbying delays publication of pollution data on construction materials

Passive House Plus, 21 March 2013 Pressure from sectors of the building materials industry last November forced a delay in the publication of a database detailing the carbon footprint of building materials in Ireland, Passive House Plus can reveal.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland had initially been due to publish the document on its website as part of a consultation launched at a meeting with industry representatives in Dublin on 27 November, 2012. The Embodied Energy and Carbon Measurement Methodology and Database lists the carbon footprint of building materials commonly used in Ireland.

But following pressure from representatives of the building materials industry at the meeting, SEAI delayed publication and announced a closed industry-only consultation, which ended on 15 February.

A full public consultation is expected to follow, but speaking to Passive House Plus this week, SEAI's Kevin O'Rourke had no definite news on when this will be announced. He said the authority is still assessing submissions received from the industry.

At the 27 November meeting, some representatives of the building materials industry expressed concern over plans to put the database online before manufacturers and suppliers had an opportunity to analyse it.

Speaking at the meeting in a personal capacity, Colm Bannon, chair of the Cement Manufacturers Ireland environment committee said it was "quite extraordinary" that here had been no consultation with industry before the database was due to be posted online.

Mark McAuley of the Building Materials Federation, a division of IBEC, said it was unsurprising manufacturers were unhappy with the data being published before they had seen it.

Speaking later to Passive House Plus, he said both the BMF and companies it represents had since made submissions to the industry-only consultation.

"I'm hoping that [SEAI] plan to deal comprehensively with those submissions before moving on to a public consultation," he said. "I think what's required are a couple of face to face meetings with certain parts of the industry to talk about the accuracy of some of the data and some of the ways in which it's presented."

Some of the data, in his view, contains minor errors. "We don't have too many issues with it," he added. "Generally the industry has made a lot of progress in lowering the carbon footprint of its products."

He called for greater focus on life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions rather than just those associated with manufacturing, and said it would have been preferable if the database had been published alongside a method for assessing a building's carbon footprint over its whole life cycle. He said that in the absence of such a tool, the database was being launched without a context.

Other industry representatives suggested that the industry consultation period be at least six months, but SEAI did not bow to this request.

Speaking at the meeting in a personal capacity, architect Simon McGuinness said that architectural designers need good quality data on the carbon footprint of building materials. "Having an independent source of that data beyond the manufacturers' chosen figures is very important to us, so we would encourage you to be as robust as you need to be to ensure the integrity of the database," he said.

SEAI's Kevin O'Rourke stressed at the event that the database was still in development. He said it was far easier for stakeholders to react to a draft than to a blank sheet of paper. He added that the document had been through a peer review process.

However, industry figures expressed concern that even if the database was published in draft form on the SEAI website, architects and specifiers would start to use it to select products.

Following the meeting, O'Rourke sent an email to those present in which he announced a closed industry consultation. He wrote that any national assessment of embodied carbon and energy would attract "legitimate sensitivities in particular from the building materials sector".

He added that the database would prove more effective if manufacturers and suppliers were given an opportunity for detailed consideration prior to a full public consultation.

In a later email to Passive House Plus, O'Rourke acknowledged that there had been no opportunity for industry to engage with the database in detail before the meeting.

He said the decision to introduce a closed industry consultation period "had not been determined or influenced by any single industry or sectoral interest". He added: "The voices seeking a facility for such a phase of industry consultation included the representative body within IBEC for a cross section of building materials manufacturers and suppliers and a representative for the timber frame and insulation industry."

The Embodied Energy and Carbon Measurement Methodology and Database was prepared by the construction consultancy Davis Langdon and by environmental consultants Sustain, whose associate principal Craig Jones is an international authority on the carbon footprint of building materials. Speaking at the meeting, the consultants said they had been through a detailed and robust process to develop the data.

Kevin O'Rourke said the consultants had been "scientific, transparent and objective" and had followed best international practice.

The database lists the embodied greenhouse gas emissons of building materials in terms of their 'CO2 equivalent', which expresses the global warming potential of all embodied greenhouse gases by comparing it to the impact of carbon dioxide. The project also aims to set out a method for determining the embodied energy and carbon of building materials in Ireland, and a procedure for how manufactures can have data for their products listed.

The initial database contains default data for generic categories of building materials, but it is expected that manufacturers will be able to have data for their specific products and brands verified and added.

Priory Hall is not an exception

Published in Village magazine, May 2012 Priory Hall is no exception — a history of poor regulation and enforcement has left many of us living in shoddy homes, argues Lenny Antonelli

The government has launched a public consultation on building control following the high profile evacuation of the Priory Hall development in north Dublin due to fire safety defects.

But the proposed changes are nothing more than a paper exercise that will do little to boost the number of on site building inspections.

The new rules demand the submission of "certificates of compliance" confirming a project meets the legal requirements of the building regulations. Drawings showing how a building complies will also have to be lodged. But it speaks volumes that such basic measures aren't already in place.

Following Priory Hall, environment minister Phil Hogan said the fact Dublin City Council took the case to court "is a clear indication the Building Control Act is robust" (1). But if the act was robust, 240 people wouldn't have moved into a faulty building. And the government wouldn't be fixing the act six months later.

Priory Hall highlighted the lack of on-site building inspection in Ireland. The government requires local authorities to inspect just 12-15% of buildings. In 2010 — the last year for which figures are available — the average local authority inspected just a quarter of buildings. Four local authorities failed to meet their target, and two —Wexford County and Waterford City Councils — inspected no buildings at all.(2)

But the Irish Home Builders Association — a division of the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) — defended Irish builders in the wake of Priory Hall, and said the system of self-certifying buildings had worked well.

"Priory Hall is an exceptional case," director Hubert Fitzpatrick told Construction, the CIF magazine last October. But is it really? (3)

None of the houses examined for a study of 52 homes built between 1997 and 2002 complied fully with building regulations. The study was commissioned by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland but never published. Green building magazine Construct Ireland, which I'm deputy editor of, obtained it last year.

The study examined the homes for compliance with regulations on energy efficiency, ventilation and "heat producing appliances". Just one complied with energy efficiency rules in full, almost half failed to meet the rules for heat producing appliances, and over 40% failed to minimum ventilation standards. (5)

In a 2005 study, the National Disability Authority found housing had a "poor level of compliance" with Part M of the building regulations, which deals with access for people with disability.

These are the only two known studies that have looked at whether Irish housing complies with any parts of building regulations, according to the Department of Environment.

Other stories undermine the idea the Priory Hall is an exception. Up to 20,000 homes may now be infected with pyrite, a mineral that can cause some construction materials to expand and crack if exposed to air and water (7). Socialist TD Joe Higgins described these homes as "exploding in slow motion".

Meanwhile in Balgaddy, West Dublin, up to 400 local authority houses built at the height of the boom are plagued by dampness, mold, cracking, leaks, and electrical and sewage faults. (8)

And earlier this year, it was reported that up to 300 homes and apartments at Balmayne, north Dublin require expensive repairs due to fire safety faults.(9)

Though it's little comfort to the people living in there, these cases are the natural outcome of decades of under-regulation, lack of enforcement and lobbying against better building standards.

Though the first draft was written in 1967, building regulations weren't made law until more than 20 years later.(10)

As far back as 1978, Construction Industry Federation managing director Thomas Reynolds said making any insulation mandatory in new homes would be "entirely unrealistic and bureaucratic". (11)

That same year, the Building Industry Council urged the Department of Environment to scrap its draft building regulations and re-write it "with a greater understanding of the impact such regulations will have on industry." (12)

Then in 1982, the Irish Times reported that Aidan McDonald, a Department of Environment official, told the Stardust disaster tribunal that the building industry had lobbied against a system of building inspection and approval. The department accepted the industy's arguments and decided to move towards self certification, the Times reported. (13)

Building regulations finally came into force in the early nineties, along with the self certification system that gave us Priory Hall.

In 1998, an internal Department of Environment memo acknowledged energy efficiency standards were inadequate and needed updating. "We don't want to signal this to the outside world yet because the next leap in building standard insulation will probably involve making it difficult for 'hollow block' construction, used widely in Dublin, to survive," the memo read. This was revealed in a freedom of information request to Century Homes founder Gerry McCaughey. (14)

But the department didn't update the rules for another four years, during which hundreds of thousands of homes were built.

Then in 2007, the Construction Industry Federation warned that plans to boost minimum energy efficiency standards by 40% would add €15,000 to the price of new homes. The price rise never materialised. (15)

The Irish Homes Builders Association objected to plans the same year by Dun Laoghaire - Rathdown County Council to introduce its own tough energy efficiency rules, arguing the target was unachievable. (16) But a similar standard is now in effect nationwide.

Insulating a house properly is about more than just it keeping warm.  Over 300,000 households in Ireland experience energy poverty (17). Excess winter mortality — the surplus number of people that die in winter —in Ireland was found to be double that of Norway in a 2000 study by UCD researchers Peter Clinch and Jonathan Healy. Poor building standards could be one of the main causes, the authors said (18). Clinch and Healy also found that over half of elderly households in Ireland endured "inadequate" winter temperatures in a separate study that year. (19)

Countries with the highest winter mortality — Portugal, Spain, Ireland and UK —are also those with the poorest building standards, another study  concluded the following year. (20)

The number of excess winter deaths has fallen since, and insulation standards have improved, but Ireland still experiences more excess winter deaths than the most of Europe, according to the Institute of Public Health. (21)

Upgrading and insulating our building stock could form the core of a green economic programme that would reduce fuel poverty, cut carbon emissions and save construction jobs.

But the government has slashed home energy grants in successive budgets, even though SEAI research found every euro spent delivers a net benefit of €5 to society (22). The uptake of grants has plummeted this year.(23)

Yet in some ways Ireland is actually pushing the boundary of cutting edge, low energy construction. We built the first passive house —the leading standard of ultra low energy building —in the English speaking world, and we've become a world leader in this standard. But this is down to the ambition of our best architects, designers and builders, rather than government initiatives.

On paper, our minimum standards for energy efficiency are strong, but there's little enforcement. At Construct Ireland, we frequently encounter buildings that fail to meet energy efficiency standards — either because the builder or architect doesn't understand how to comply, or because they have little fear of inspection.

In 2009, a spokesperson for the Irish Homes Builders Association said the last government's plan that all new homes be zero carbon by 2013 was "extremely costly and difficult to achieve", and said new insulation rules were "overly prescriptive".(24)

Now the Fine Gael - Labour programme for government only commits to "moving towards zero carbon homes in the longer term." The Department of Environment failed to reply to a question I sent its press office asking if the 2013 target had been dropped.

The construction industry pushed against a higher standard, and now the government is delaying it. On paper our regulations might be good, but there's still barely any enforcement. We've been here before.

Lenny Antonelli is deputy editor of Construct Ireland magazine (constructireland.ie). His personal website is  www.lennyantonelli.ie

1. Priory Hall debacle shows need for decisive action, Irish Times, 25 October 2011

2. Local Government Management Services Board, Service Indicators Report 2010

3. IHBA ethos to improve standards says director, Construction magazine, p29 October/November 2011

4. Unpublished SEAI report: key findings revealed, Construct Ireland, p65, Issue 9 Volume 5

5. Homes failed to meet energy and building regulations, Irish Times, 29 November 2011

6. Review of the Effectiveness of Part M of the Building Regulations, National Disability Authority, 2005

7. Presentation of the Pyrite Action Group to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Transport, Culture and Gaeltacht, 11 October 2011

8. Council estate rife with mould and damp, Irish Times, 3 March 2011

9. Fire safety problems found in 300 homes on Dublin estate, 23 February 2012

10. Building code to take effect in June, Irish Times, 6 December 1991

11. Question of minimum levels of insulation generates some heat, Irish Times, 18 August 1978

12. Building Industry Council rejects draft rules, Irish Times, 5 May 1978

13. Opposition by builders held up regulations, Irish Times, 6 July 1982

14. Caveat Emptor, Construct Ireland, Issue 8 Volume 2, February 2005

15. Greens unveil plans for more energy efficient homes, Irish Times, 22 September 2007

16. Architect objects to energy standards for new homes, Irish Times, 2 March 2007

17. Warmer Homes, A Strategy for Affordable Energy in Ireland, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources

18.Housing Standards and Excess Winter Mortality, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Volume 54 Issue 9, September 2000

19. Fuel poverty, thermal comfort and occupancy: results of a national household survey in Ireland, Applied Energy, Volume 73 Issues 3-4, Nov-Dec 2002

20. Excess winter mortality in Europe: a cross country analysis identifying key risk factors, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Volume 57 Issue 10, October 2003

21. Fuel poverty and how does it contribute to health inequalities? publichealth.ie

22. Economic Analysis of Residential and Small-Business Energy Efficiency Improvements, SEAI, September 2011

23. Insulation group says jobs at risk as level of activity collapses, Construct Ireland, Issue 10 Volume 5, May 2012

24. Costs proving prohibitive for housing market, Construction magazine, p8, May 2009

 

Giants of the Celtic Sea

Lenny Antonelli reports on the many questions that surround the behaviour and migration of fin whales in the Celtic Sea Published in Science Spin magazine, November 2007. This is my edit, not the magazine's. With thanks to the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group.

Right at the southern edge of Ireland, in the open expanses of the Celtic Sea, lives the second largest animal that ever existed on our planet. Here the fin whale (Balaeonoptera physalus) thrives, feeding on herring and sprat among other species. It grows to about 20m in length, weighs between 50 and 70 tons, and its blow can extend over six metres into the air. Only the blue whale is larger.

But it is only very recently that we have become fully aware of the presence of these giants off our south coast. The reason we’ve only heard about them recently, however, is quite simple - the experts have only really become aware of their presence recently too. It was in 1999 that Padraig Whooley, a cetacean enthusiast and currently sightings co-ordinator for the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group, moved to west Cork and began to look for whales from the Old Head of Kinsale. He soon realised that west Cork is, as he describes it, a “mecca for whalewatching”.

Zoologist Dr Simon Berrow, the IWDG’s founder and current co-ordinator, explains: “After Padraig started doing the whale-watches we realised that a pattern was emerging and that the fin whales were coming back year after year. We realised that this was a regular thing and not just a once-off.”

West Cork quickly gained prominence among cetacean (whale and dolphin) enthusiasts, with common and bottlenose dolphins, minke, humpback, and fin whales all to be seen regularly. It wasn’t long, though, before it became apparent that fin whales weren’t just confined to the waters of west Cork. “Our original thinking was that they were just off Cork, then it became the whole south coast, and then it became the south west too,” says Berrow.

Indeed, a quick glance at ISCOPE, a powerful digital tool on the IWDG’s website that allows users to generate maps of species sightings off the Irish coast over any time frame, brings up a huge cluster for fin whales over west Cork, with smaller clusters over east Cork and Waterford, and some scattered dots around Kerry.

Padraig Whooley laughs at his own explanation for the distribution of sightings: “I think it's very much the case that the distribution of sightings reflects the distribution of whalewatchers.” Whooley has spent many days at sea off west Cork recently, camera in hand, as he attempts to photographically catalogue the fin whale population. To date, 29 individuals have been identified, using natural physical markings such as patches of discolouration, nicks on their fins, or scars. “We’ve only touched the surface. There are lots more out there that we haven’t photographed,” he says.

Fin whales – close relatives of other giants such as blue and sei whales - are distributed worldwide, but tend to be less common in polar and tropical waters. They can be spotted off our south coast for almost ten months of the year, generally occurring in small feeding groups of three to eight. They are usually first seen in the waters of the south west in late May or June, persisting right through until February, with their distribution seeming to move eastwards towards Waterford and Wexford when they leave west Cork in December. “When we stop seeing them in west Cork, they start picking them off Ardmore head in Waterford,” Whooley says.

According to Berrow, the explanation for this is simple – they are following their food. “We're pretty confident that the individuals we see in west Cork are the same individuals that are seen further east in Waterford and Wexford. This pretty much mirrors what we know about herring, which spawn in the west earlier and in the east later. And as the herring spawning progresses east, the whales seem to move east too.”

Fin whales usually disappear from our coastal waters early in spring, prompting what remains the most enduring question surrounding their behaviour in Irish waters: Where exactly do they go? The truth is nobody really knows.

The migration of fin whales is generally quite poorly understood. Some textbooks will tell you that they make annual migrations from warm, low latitude breeding and calving grounds to colder, higher latitude feeding waters, as is conventional for many large cetaceans. If this is the rule, however, the Celtic Sea population could be the exception.

Berrow elaborates: “There are only two to three months of the year that they're not in Irish coastal waters. In fact, I'd be surprised if they went all the way out of Irish waters at all, given the time frame. Historically a lot were caught off Spain, so they could be going there to calve, but we haven't seen many fins with calves in Irish waters. One suggestion is that these could be immature individuals just hanging around for a few years before they go off to mate, but some of them are very, very big, and don’t look immature. We’re really not sure.”

To answer the questions that surround the movement and migration of fin whales in the Celtic Sea, the IWDG hopes to tag individuals for satellite tracking. “We want to tag five or six because some tags might fail to transmit. The tags work for about 100 days. I think they’ll show the whales following the fish eastwards along the south coast, and then we’ll get to see where they go when they move offshore,” Berrow explains.

Apart from their migration, there is another major question mark surrounding these animals – just why did it take us so long to realise they were here? Even though concerted whalewatching efforts only began in 1999, surely fishermen, yachtsmen, and seaside locals would have noticed these 20m titans and their giant blows sooner? Dr Berrow thinks that they might actually be relatively new arrivals to our south coast. “We've spoken to fishermen and farmers in the area, and I get the impression that maybe they (fin whales) weren't around so much in the past. Maybe it's because they were hunted so intensely, and what we're seeing now is an increase in population after protection was introduced,” he says.

Past locations of whaling stations and old sighting records don’t point to a long established Celtic Sea population. “The old whaling stations in Ireland were along the west coast. The one in Mayo was located there, for example, because it's the closest point to the shelf edge, which we know oceanic Atlantic fin whales migrate along.  The odd fin whale was caught in the 1700s, but mainly around Donegal, but there are no historical records of them off the south coast. So this habitat could be relatively recent,” Berrow explains.

In the past, fins were a major target for whalers. Initially, they were simply too fast for fishermen, as despite their massive size, they are among the ocean’s fastest swimmers, and can travel at speeds of up to 22 knots (40km per hour). But in the nineteenth century the invention of the steamship and explosive harpoon made them easier prey. Fin whales catches increased through the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and by the 1950s and 1960s around 30,000 were being caught annually, most in the southern hemisphere. Around 600 were landed at the Norwegian whaling station at Inishkea, Co. Mayo. Padraig Whooley thinks fins were “probably the mainstay” of the whaling industry off the west coast.

But if their appearance in the Celtic Sea is part of a global ‘bounce’ in their numbers, just how many were in the north Atlantic before whaling began? There is considerable debate over the figures.  Estimates based on ships’ logbooks have put the number at between 30,000 and 50,000, about the size of the current population. A recent estimate based on new genetic methods, however, suggests the figure could be far higher.

Researchers in the US examined samples of mitochondrial DNA from north Atlantic fin whales and humpback whales, and compared the genetic “distance” between these two species of the same family. Then, they measured the genetic diversity within the fin whale population. By doing so, they were able to calculate how many breeding females would have been required to account for the genetic variation they found, and thus they could estimate population size. They concluded that there were once a staggering 350,000 fin whales in the north Atlantic.

Critics of this study have pointed out that this could have been the maximum size of the population at any point in history, and that the reduction to their current numbers might have been caused by natural factors over hundreds of thousands of years, long before whaling began.

Nonetheless, fin whale populations do appear to be recovering towards pre-whaling numbers, and Dr Simon Berrow believes the Celtic Sea would present an ideal habitat for recovering populations to colonise.  “They could be colonising a new habitat here along the south coast. The waters there are very different to what they used to be. There is massive productivity down there now that’s associated with the changing climate, with massive blooms of phytoplankton. It could be these oceanographic factors that have brought them here now,” Berrow says.

As news of the Celtic Sea’s fin whale population has spread, a fledgling whalewatching industry has sprung up in recent years. Currently, there are two operators running whalewatching tours from west Cork, with more expected to join them soon.  Whalewatching has the potential to be of massive benefit to local communities, and can provide a viable and sustainable alternative to fishing, but Whooley stresses the need for it to be done the right way.

“Here in West Cork the whalewatching industry is gaining momentum, but we need to try and avoid a situation which has too many operators working in the same waters, as concentrations of tourist boats may well have a detrimental impact.”

He continues: “Apart from the demise of salmon stocks, the second biggest threat to killer whales near Victoria (British Colombia, Canada) is commercial whalewatching. Research has shown that killer whales spend less time in the areas where commercial whalewatching boats operate, and that they also dive more and dive deeper and longer here. I don't think we're anywhere near that stage yet, but it does seem that whales have a preference for water where is no pressure. Of course if a fin whale doesn't want you around it will lose you remarkably quickly. It can dive for fifteen to twenty minutes and resurface a mile away. But that said, fin whales shouldn't have to go out of their way to avoid whalewatching boats.”

A policy document produced by the IWDG providing guidelines to marine wildlife tour operators has since been given legal status by the National Parks & Wildlife Service and the Marine Safety Directorate. The document sets out a variety of regulations, such as the speed whalewatching boats can travel at, how close they can approach whales and how long they can spend with them.

Simon Berrow believes there is “huge potential” for marine wildlife tourism in Ireland, citing Scotland as an example of a country that has successfully developed such an industry. Berrow would like to see a whole ecosystem approach taken in the management of the whales in Irish waters: “I spent a few years working in the Antarctic, and there, when they’re setting quotas for the krill catch, they don t just take into account the sustainability of the krill population, but also the amount of krill needed by predators. This isn't really in the mindset in the North Atlantic. The whole push should be on ecosystem management.”

West Cork and the south coast is now quickly gaining a reputation as one of the premier whalewatching spots not just in Europe, but in the world. Whooley recalls a recent day at sea when he encountered harbour porpoises, common dolphins, minke and fin whales. “You could have whale-watched anywhere in the world on the same day and you wouldn't have seen the same diversity,” he says. And if this is a haven for cetaceans, fin whales are certainly the jewel in its crown. But with pressure on these behemoths likely to grow as the area becomes more popular with tourists and enthusiasts alike, Whooley stresses the importance of ensuring adequate protection is in place. Especially when, as he says “so little is known about the ecology or behaviour of these fin whales in Irish waters.”

The website of the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group provides up-to-date news and records of whale and dolphin sightings and strandings, as well as information on whalewatching, IWDG events and courses, and species profiles. It can be found at www.iwdg.ie.

Channel 4 produced an excellent documentary about the fin whale that beached at Courtmacherry, Co Cork in 2009. Watch it here.