Return of the native

Return of the native

White-tailed eagles went extinct in Ireland a century ago. Lenny Antonelli visits an ambitious project returning these huge raptors to Irish skies.

BBC Wildlife, December 2016

Our boat moves over clear green water, gliding towards the massive nest. Nearby a common seal dozes on a rock exposed by the low tide, while off to our stern another lifts its head above the water. It’s June and I’m on the Lady Ellen, a small boat piloted by ferryman Kevin Jer O’Sullivan.

We’re motoring over Glengarriff Harbour, a sheltered bay dotted with wooded islands and surrounded by old oak forests, in County Cork in the south-west of Ireland.

Kevin slows the boat as we approach the nest, high above in a Scots pine. But branches obscure the big white-tailed eagle chick, making him difficult to see. “Wait ’til I show you herself!” Kevin says in his thick Cork accent. He points to the vast adult female on a branch right ahead of us. I’m stunned into silence.

Later that morning, watching the nest from the shore, National Parks & Wildlife Service ranger Clare Heardman tells me this bird’s dramatic story. She and her mate were among 100 white-tailed eagles released into nearby Killarney National Park in 2007–11, as part of an ambitious plan to re-establish the species in Ireland.

In 2014 the Glengarriff pair hatched their first chick, but it died after two weeks. The next summer two chicks hatched – again, one died, but the other chick developed well and Clare looked forward to it becoming the first eagle hatched in Cork in more than a century.

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Where's the wild in Wild Nephin?

Where's the wild in Wild Nephin?

Many Irish wildlife enthusiasts have been asking one question over the past year – what’s going on with the Wild Nephin rewilding project? Lenny Antonelli digs a little deeper.

Irish Wildlife magazine, Winter 2016/17

Jointly announced three years ago by the State forestry company Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), the Wild Nephin Project’s stated aim is to create an 11,000 hectare wilderness area in the Nephin Beg mountains of north west Mayo. The most exciting element is perhaps Coillte’s plan to take 4,000 plus hectares of lodgepole pine and spruce forestry out of commercial operation, and to ‘re-wild’ the plantation into a large-scale mosaic of mixed woods and bogland. 

Coillte said this would be achieved by thinning out the dense conifer stands, introducing native trees, and blocking forest drains to restore bogland. Rather than take an intensive approach to management Wild Nephin, as the project is known, would take these initial steps – then stand back and let nature take over. Under the plans, the forests would be combined with the mountains and bogland of the adjoining Ballycroy National Park to create a large-scale ‘wilderness’ area – the first of its kind in Ireland. Forest roads would be closed to vehicles, and simple huts erected for backpackers, in a bid to facilitate ‘primitive’ recreation.

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Irish government in row over passivhaus eco building regulations

Local authority pushes for standard with high levels of insulation and ventilation, but Irish government says measure would slow construction of new homes

The Guardian, 17 June, 2015

The Irish government is fighting plans by a local authority in Dublin to make the super energy-efficient passivhaus standard mandatory for new buildings.

In a submission to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown county council, the Department of Environment said introducing the standard would slow the construction of new homes.

Ireland’s building industry is experiencing a tentative recovery for the first time since the country’s property bubble began to collapse in 2007. The government is eager to accelerate house building in the capital, which has experienced a serious housing shortage.

The passivhaus standard, developed by European physicists in the 1990s, requires high levels of insulation, draught-proofing and ventilation. It is designed to eliminate the need for traditional central heating systems and to drastically cut carbon emissions.

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Lessons from a wild Europe

Lessons from a wild Europe

Europe’s wildlife is on the march as wolves, lynx, bears, beavers and bison reclaim their former haunts. Now this rewilding success offers a compelling vision of how – if attitudes change – big mammals and people could flourish together in Britain. Lenny Antonelli reports.

BBC Wildlife, Spring 2015

Leo Linnartz is searching for phantoms in the forest. The Dutch ecologist is looking for wolves in the Netherlands, a country that doesn’t officially have any, but he’s expecting them any day now. The wolf population in neighbouring Germany is spreading, and it seems only a matter of time before they cross the border.

A lone female wolf has settled less than 30km away inside Germany. Juvenile wolves typically strike out from the pack to claim a territory of their own, often travelling hundreds of kilometres. So if this lone female has pups it’s inevitable that some will slink towards Holland.

Leo’s group Wolves in the Netherlands has set up camera-traps in forests and nature reserves along the border. So far they’ve only captured images of deer and wild boar. But even with 30 trailcams, the chances of photographing any wolves that cross over are slim. “It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack,” Leo says.

Indeed, wolves have probably already visited the Netherlands. In 2011 motorists captured pictures of a wolf-like animal in the Dutch town of Duiven, but the images weren’t 100 per cent conclusive. That same year a film crew searching for lynx in the Ardennes Mountains of southern Belgium put a camera beside the carcass of a sheep killed the night before. That night they captured footage of it being dragged off by a wolf, the first confirmed in Belgium for over a century.

New wolf packs have also sprung up in Germany, France and Switzerland. And late in 2012 a wolf was found dead in Denmark, the first recorded in the country for 199 years. An autopsy revealed that it died of natural causes. The following year researchers found evidence of 11 male wolves in the country. And if wolves can survive in Denmark’s heavily modified landscape, where can’t they?

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Huge Romanian rewildling project aims to create 'European Yellowstone'

Earth Island Journal, 11 May 2015

In an ambitious new rewilding project, conservationists hope to create a ‘European Yellowstone’ amid the beech woods, spruce plantations and alpine pastures of Romania’s Fagaras Mountains. Backed by wealthy donors, the nonprofit Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) is buying land for what it hopes will ultimately become a vast national park.

So far FCC has spent €45 million buying 40,000 acres of land, but the group’s ultimate goal is to protect 500,000 acres, which it then plans to donate back to the people of Romania. Although FCC is buying some of this land, the group also hopes to convince some stakeholders — such as the state and other local landowners— to put their land into the park. FCC’s largest backer is the Wyss Foundation, a philanthropic group founded by the Swiss medical devices billionaire Hansorg Wyss, which has already contributed $175 million to protect 14 million acres of wild land in the American West.

The Fagaras Mountains lie at the southern end of the 1,000-mile long Carpathian range, which stretches across east and central Europe. The Carpathians are a stronghold for Europe’s three big predators — the grey wolf, brown bear, and Eurasian lynx — as well as the continent’s most extensive old growth forests.

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Walking with the tides

Time your visit to this mysterious tidal island with care

Irish Times, 10 January 2015

For years, Omey Island seemed a near-mythical place to me. Despite exploring much of the Connemara coast I had never been to this tidal island, which you can walk to at low water but which becomes cut off at high tide. Inishbofin, Inishark and Inishturk print their silhouettes indelibly on the western skyline, but Omey hides away under the Aughrus Peninsula.

You can cross the wide strand from Claddaghduff Quay to Omey around low water from roughly half-tide to half-tide. But tidal conditions vary each day, and with the weather, so ask in Sweeney’s shop and pub in Claddaghduff for local advice before setting out.

We crossed Omey Strand an hour before low tide one gusty October day, roughly following a route described in Paul Phelan’s book Connemara and Mayo: A Walking Guide (Collins Press, 2012). Rather than follow the signposts all the way over the strand, this route veers right towards a prominent house near the island’s northeastern corner.

As we crossed the beach, a hearse started out across the hard sands, followed by cars. The burial procession advanced slowly through the grey wind, bound for Omey’s graveyard.

As you reach Omey, turn right and follow the shore, passing the graveyard if you haven’t already. Ignore the sandy road leading inland towards the house and continue along the beach. You can now pick up a sandy track above the curving shoreline and follow the northern coast (no fence-hopping required).

You will come to one beach, then another. Where a fence turns inland above the second beach, follow it to the remains of Teampall Féichín. This medieval church was built on the site of an earlier monastic settlement founded by St Féichín. Omey’s Gaelic name is Iomaidh Féichín, the bed of Féichín.

Return to the beach and continue to follow the shore. This exposed corner of the island is called Guairín, meaning small dunes, according to Tim Robinson’s book Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness, from which I have gleaned much of my information. It is mostly machair, a sandy grassland only found in western Ireland and Scotland. The grass is populated by snails that use the lime-rich sands to build their shells.

You will reach the island’s northwest corner, where there is another small tidal island offshore, and, further west, Cruagh Island. Follow the shore of Omey as it turns and heads southeast.

The wind was heavy and the sky grey – not a solid grey, but a fluid mass of moving shades and shapes. To the south, towards Slyne Head, the dim sunlight broke through in crepuscular rays. Keep the sea on your right until you come to a small bay. St Féichín’s well, where pilgrims have left strange trinkets, is above the shore here.

In 1841, Omey was home to 396 people; just 10 years later, after the Famine, this had almost halved. The island’s school closed in 1973, and today there is just one year-round resident.

Cross the beach, join the road by two mobile homes and go left, past the lake and back down to Omey Strand. Presuming you haven’t horribly miscalculated the tides, you can follow the posts back across the sand to Claddaghduff.

WALK: OMEY ISLAND, CO GALWAY

Map: OSI, Discovery Series Sheet 37.

Start/finish: Claddaghduff Quay, Co Galway. The turn for Claddaghduff and Omey is about 3.5km north of Clifden on the N59. Turn at Claddaghduff church for the quay, or continue straight for Sweeney’s shop/pub.

Time and distance: Roughly 8km, 2.5 to 3 hours.

Suitability: Easy to moderate walking. Head out well before low tide. Omey has no services.

Those not-so-wild Europeans

Re-creating wilderness on a continent that has almost none

Sierra magazine, July/August 2014

In Ireland’s blustery Nephin Beg Mountains, the state-owned forestry company Coillte is rewilding roughly 11,000 acres of pine and spruce plantation. By thinning the canopy, closing logging roads, and establishing a system of shelters, it hopes to turn this industrial forest and parts of neighbouring Ballycroy National Park into a 27,000-acre recreational wilderness.

Coillte won’t fully liberate the forest to natural processes for another 14 years. But when it does, this will will be a rare parcel of European land unmanaged by humans. “We actually want our landscape to become one where there are no humans driving the changes,” says Bill Murphy, who’s overseeing the project for Coillte.

Nobody is certain how much wilderness Europe has left, but the best estimates say it’s 1 percent or less. Most of this land is in the east, where bison roam Poland’s Białowieza Forest, old-growth trees carpet the Carpathian Mountains, and taiga blankets the Russia-Finland border. The rest of Europe has been paved, cultivated, grazed, logged, urbanized, or otherwise degraded.

Definitions of “wildland” and the laws protecting it vary across the continent. Europe has no shared wilderness literature or history, says Mark Fisher, an honorary research fellow at the Wildland Research Institute; there is no European Muir or Leopold. While America’s early preservationists were idealists who fought to protect wild places from development and safeguard the public’s right to explore them, their European counterparts were instead driven by the science of conserving species and habitats.

The planned wilderness in the Nephin Beg Mountains, called Wild Nephin, is part of Western Europe’s nascent rewilding movement. In Germany, the Brandenburg Wilderness Foundation is returning vast military camps to the wild, while in Scotland, the nonprofit Trees for Life is restoring Caledonian Forest to highlands. All three projects are guided by the principle that nature can take over again, so long as it gets a leg up.

Up to now, hikers have shared Nephin’s forest tracks with logging trucks. But Coillte plans to cease commercial logging, shut out motorized vehicles, and turn forest roads into rough trails. When rewilding is complete, backpackers will be able to hike through Ireland’s most extensive wild forest, camp in backcountry shelters, and explore a roadless expanse of woods, mountain, and bog with no trace of human habitation or modern infrastructure.

It’s a paradoxic, of course, that such rewilding requires human intervention. But if Europe succeeds, hearts and minds may follow, and Nephin’s resurrected forests, bogland, and rivers could serve as a glimpse of Europe’s modern frontier.

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

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.

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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

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.

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Ireland's last wilderness

Lenny Antonelli takes 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

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

 Village magazine, May 2012

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.

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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.