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SUMMARY REPORT & RECOMMENDATIONS

BLACKSTAIRS NATURE BIODIVERSITY DAY

HUNTINGTON CASTLE, CO. CARLOW

OCTOBER 16th, 2021

SUMMARY REPORT

The Inaugural Blackstairs Nature Biodiversity Day took place in Huntington Castle on October 16th 2021. This is a summary of the key messages from the day - the full recording of the day’s discussions are available to view on the Blackstairs Nature YouTube channel. In addition we include a list of recommendations, made by an array of expert panellists, for the wider Blackstairs community. 

AIMS

The primary purpose of the Inaugural Blackstairs Nature Biodiversity Day was to draw attention to our unprecedented biodiversity crisis and to highlight the importance of our Blackstairs mountains uplands ecosystems. It has been demonstrated that while climate change directly affects 20 percent of endangered species, habitat loss and degradation threaten more than 80 per cent. Therefore it has never been more timely and urgent to protect, conserve and restore these precious upland habitats. 

With that in mind the main goals of this event were to share knowledge, find common ground between the various specialists, stakeholders and custodians of the Blackstairs mountains uplands and in turn generate an integrated response to optimally manage this invaluable habitat.

OUTCOMES

We are pleased to report that the event was successful on all fronts - we feel that a key element in achieving these objectives and

reaching consensus was the inclusion of a carefully chosen but diverse range of voices and perspectives. In addition, the very successful field trip conducted the day before the event informed those who attended and gave them a greater sense of the many different aspects of the Blackstairs mountains and its community.

One of the most significant outcomes of the day was a commitment to ongoing engagement from many of the key stakeholders, including The Department of Heritage, National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), The Heritage Council, the National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC), LAWPRO, Coillte, Coillte Nature and the Blackstairs Farming Group. A meeting has since taken place between Blackstairs Nature, Coillte, Coillte Nature and the NPWS on Coillte forestry sites on the Blackstairs.

A number of other NGOs and organisations who contributed on the day have also offered to advise and liaise with the Blackstairs Nature group in order to support their vision.

ECOLOGY

Throughout the day attention was drawn to the triple crises of biodiversity loss, water pollution and climate change, highlighting the need for an integrated response to all three crises at both community and policy level.

Our uplands are a precious resource - for biodiversity, carbon storage, clean water, flood control, hill farming, cultural heritage and recreation - crucial ecosystem services which cannot be taken for granted. Because the Blackstairs mountains uplands are effectively an oasis surrounded by an intensive farming landscape this gives them a relatively greater importance in terms of their biodiversity and ecosystems value.

The only Biodiversity Audit of the Blackstairs mountains was conducted in 2015 as part of the Blackstairs European Innovation Programmes (EIP). It was agreed that this should be reviewed and/or repeated. Since we cannot manage and protect what we don’t measure it is essential to track change over time in order to respond effectively.

Some of the shortcomings in the existing biodiversity auditing system were discussed. While protected Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are well monitored under the Habitats Directive there is no auditing of non legally protected areas. Furthermore no national ecological monitoring scheme exists - the absence of such an information management system means there is no mechanism to gauge the success or failure of a given biodiversity management plan - a major obstacle to appropriate conservation. This is a policy blind spot which needs to be addressed.

Auditing should be extended to areas both inside and outside SACs and EIPs to include, for example, water heads and forestry plantations. The hope was expressed that the newly resourced NPWS, in conjunction with the NBDC, will focus on these non legally protected areas and will collect data on habitats as well as species. It was acknowledged that there is very little data on our invertebrate population and that this critical knowledge gap needs to be filled. The important role of Citizen Science in documenting species was also discussed.

It was noted that the Blackstairs mountains contain at least 65 endangered species, one of which is a critically endangered solitary bee - Sphecodes Gibbus. This exceptionally rare bee was discovered by Brian Power, a local ecologist, who gave a very informative pre recorded presentation in which he shared his in-depth local knowledge of many of the red-listed species which he has documented on the Blackstairs mountains. He pointed out that these records could well be the tip of the iceberg given that no formal audit has ever been conducted outside the Blackstairs SAC.

At least 70 species of bird, many of them endangered, have been identified on the Blackstairs mountains. This includes a tiny population of the once common Red Grouse - in his opening speech Minister Noonan gave the welcome news that a national Red Grouse survey is to be conducted by the NPWS this Winter to include the Blackstairs.

The importance of the Blackstairs as a flyway on the migration route of the critically endangered Greenland White-fronted Goose was also

discussed by the NPWS, who monitor their activity closely - 50% of the world’s population of these geese over-winter in the nearby Wexford Slobs.

The absence of a Carlow County Biodiversity Action Plan was also highlighted - to our knowledge Carlow is one of only two counties in Ireland without such a plan. It was agreed that this needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Ideally this should be done in collaboration with Wexford given that the Blackstairs mountain range spans both counties. The recent appointment of Heritage Officers to both counties could facilitate this integrated approach. However Biodiversity Officers should also be appointed in order to support the work around our natural heritage.

There is enormous potential for species and habitat protection on the Blackstairs mountains through active conservation management and ecological restoration - a Nature Based Solution for Climate Control. The concept of ecological restoration was discussed in depth by Paddy Woodworth, adding clarity to an often poorly understood area. An ambitious but worthwhile project would be the creation of a continuous wildlife corridor from the Dublin mountains through to Mount Leinster, a suggestion which had been made by Pádraic Fogarty in his recent podcast series Shaping New Mountains. (In the meantime Blackstairs Nature have a proposal for a pilot ecological restoration plan on the Blackstairs near the Nine Stones.) In his presentation “A Vision for our Future” Pádraic talked about the importance of the connection between people and nature and how most of our environmental problems stem from the fact that humans have largely divorced themselves from nature. Nonetheless he remains optimistic for Ireland’s future - if we do the right thing.

FARMING

It was acknowledged that farmers are an integral part of the solution to our environmental challenges.

National agricultural policy does not serve our uplands well. Current policy is homogeneous - a one size fits all approach - which does not differentiate between upland and lowland areas. This point had also been raised by the farmers who participated in the field trip the previous day and is something that concerns them greatly.

The biggest issues with the uplands are water pollution, over grazing, under grazing, gorse fires and land abandonment - there is a pressing need to get that balance right and maintain ecosystem services through a collective approach.

A massive policy shift is needed - one which is tailored to specific habitats and which targets local landscape needs, such as those of our uplands. The ecosystem services provided by our uplands needs to be recognised, harnessed and protected. Nature, water and climate need to be put at the heart of policy. However change needs to be incentivised - farmers need to be recompensed for protecting biodiversity just as they receive grant aid for food production. The Farming for Nature Awards were highlighted as one way to celebrate those farmers who do the right thing for biodiversity. 

More locally led schemes like the Blackstairs Farming Futures EIP should be developed, with good scientific input. Such agri - environmental initiatives demonstrate the importance of local adaptation and the benefits of moving away from a rules-based to an results-based approach. These collaborative schemes, which aim to improve local habitats and biodiversity and deliver for local environments, represent the best future for the management for our uplands. 

It was suggested that these EIPs need to be expanded to include all farmers and that this should be incorporated into the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Rural Development Programme and also that Pillar 1 of the Eco farming scheme might be adapted to suit our uplands. 

Finally we were reminded that there is a huge opportunity with the next CAP in 2023. Everyone needs to work together including farmers, ecologists and recreational users - it will be essential to plan ahead and have the appropriate structures in place in order to avail of the huge financial resources which will be available in January 2023.

WATER

Declining water quality is an issue across the country, but especially in the south-east. The main pressures on water quality are from agriculture, waste-water treatment and forestry - the latter contributing hugely to water pollution in the Blackstairs head waters.

Most of our high status water is in the uplands - in fact 82% of Irelands drinking water comes from our uplands. However, this water source is very difficult to protect as it is part of an extremely delicate low nutrient ecosystem which is easily unbalanced. The statistics are stark - 90% of our high status water is gone while 50% of our river and lakes are polluted.

Forestry clear felling results in pollution via sediment run off. Fresh Water Pearl Mussel (FPM) are especially vulnerable - this critically endangered species is present in a number of rivers on the Blackstairs which are directly affected by clear felling. The use of cypermethrin was discussed - this is a potent insecticide which is used in sheep dip and, until very recently, for pine weevil control in conifers. It is highly toxic to water bodies and aquatic life - killing fish and aquatic insects, as well as bees and other flying insects. It is still in widespread use as a sheep dip and it was pointed out that if a single recently dipped sheep gains access to a water body it can completely wipe out the water’s invertebrate population. According to Coillte the use of cypermethrin for pine weevil control was discontinued in 2019 - see below.

The River Basin Management Plan was discussed in relation to the Barrow and Slaney. It was suggested that the uplands component of the Nore Vision project could be applied to the Blackstairs uplands.

FORESTRY

Forestry in Ireland is at a crossroads - decisions made today will significantly shape the future. It is welcome news that a new Forestry Strategy is being devised over the next year. 

It was acknowledged that we are living with a hundred year old legacy of poor forestry policy and practices with the wrong tree in the wrong place and little debate or public consultation. It was pointed out that while more debate in relation to forestry policy is now beginning to

happen it is still way behind farming and water policy and needs to become more democratic. While climate change adaptation partly relies on forestry it can’t be fast tracked - we need the right tree in the right place.

Reference was made to the Land Use Review, which will look at how lands such as peatlands, forests and farmland are being utilised in the Programme for Government. This will feed into future government decisions on optimal land use and consider issues such as carbon sequestration and flood risk reduction, for example, by planting forests in areas near rivers prone to flooding. This needs to align with consultation on the River Basin Management Plan and hopefully will be used as a template for tree planting in the future.

While the work of Coillte Nature was welcomed, a recommendation was made to have lots of small scale native broadleaf afforestation projects in every county rather than a very small number of large scale projects which is currently Coillte Nature’s policy. This would be a much more biodiversity friendly approach providing ecological stepping stones throughout the whole country.

A point of clarification was made by Coillte Nature - that the practice of re-afforestation after clear-felling is not bound by legislation, as many in the room had understood to be the case. The provision exists to seek consent for non-reafforestation with, for example, a mono culture such as Sitka spruce, if that is in the best interests of the environment.

Problems with such mono-culture plantations were discussed as were the benefits of changing to Continuous Cover Forestry (CCF), which is a policy Coillte intend to embrace more comprehensively. CCF is now standard practice throughout many European countries.

The question of the suitability of the Blackstairs mountains for a Coillte Nature programme was raised. Dr. Ciaran Fallon of Coillte Nature explained that in order to answer this question it would, in the first instance, be necessary to identify pockets of existing native woodland on the mountain. A commitment was made by him to visit the Blackstairs mountains and assess the presence or otherwise of such pockets, along with its suitability for native broadleaf planting.

Meanwhile the excellent pre-recorded presentation by Dr. Séamus Ó Murchú on the History of the Blackstairs Woodlands made reference to the historical widespread afforestation of the Blackstairs mountains, illustrating the mountain’s suitability as a habitat for mixed native broadleaf planting.

There was some confusion about exactly when the use of the toxic insecticide cypermethrin for pine weevil control in conifers was discontinued nationally by Coillte. While Coillte maintained that cypermethrin was discontinued in 2019, local beekeepers’ records show that Coillte were still spraying this chemical in the South - East in late August 2020, as evidenced by cypermethrin spraying notifications.

It has since come to our attention, according to an article by Valerie Flynn published in the Sunday Times on March 20th 2022, that Coillte have replaced cypermethrin with another highly toxic chemical, in the neonicotinoid class of pesticides - acetamiprid. Acetamiprid poses a serious threat to wild bees and honeybees, as well as a wide range of other insects, all of which can be affected by feeding on (contaminated) honeydew, a sugary substance secreted by these aphids.

Professor Jane Stout of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan and Professor of Botany at TCD states in this article that both acetamiprid and cypermethrin are“ toxic to a wide range of insects, not just the target pests, and so pose a risk to ecosystems”, while acetamiprid can cause “sub-lethal impacts on honeybees”. She also says that bees are “more at risk if acetameprid is sprayed” (as is Coillte’s practice) rather than if applied to the soil or injected directly into the trees. Coillte’s conifer saplings are pre-treated with acetamiprid in a nursery, followed by top-up spraying to prevent infestation over the ensuing three years.

The Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations has joined an EU wide beekeepers ’campaign for a ban on acetamiprid, which is also licensed for use in horticulture and agriculture. Three related

neonicotinoid pesticides have already been banned in the EU since 2013.

The widespread use of this toxic chemical is of major concern given the fact that more than half of Ireland’s bee species have steeply declined since the 1980s and 30% are threatened with extinction, while there has been a 40% reduction in the insect population globally.

COMMUNITY

The impact of collective community action was discussed, citing the success of groups such as Rivers Trust and Tidy Towns, as was the fact that the enormous amount of work which is being done at local level is effectively driven by poor national policy. Too many obstacles exist for community groups alone to effect meaningful change and communities often feel excluded from the decision making process. This feeling was strongly echoed by farmers and other members of the Blackstairs community on the field trip the day before. Their passion, pride and sense of history and ownership were palpable - but so also was their sense of exclusion and lack of involvement in decisions which directly affect their lives and livelihoods. 

While the “bottom up” approach has benefits it cannot work without adequate support from the top down. It’s always a struggle for community groups such as Rivers Trust - and Blackstairs Nature will be no different unless there is a shift in national policy. A collaborative approach is essential and community groups need a platform to engage with policy makers in order to inform policy changes and practice which would help deliver long-term goals and shared visions. They also need to be provided with adequate support, not limited to funding but also to include assistance with administration in order to side step the red tape and bureaucracy which is a huge stumbling block for such groups. Such a system exists within the Burren Beo agri - environmental scheme and is a huge success. 

A need was identified for a programme of support for locally based upland partnership groups that are committed to working towards the

sustainable management of their areas - similar to Wicklow Uplands Council.

It was suggested that with a community effort matched by a state engagement and willingness to help, the Blackstairs mountains would be suited to a pilot project to which the NPWS pledged their support. It was acknowledged that NPWS need more resources plus a policy shift to allow more community engagement.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR COMMUNITY ACTION FROM BLACKSTAIRS NATURE BIODIVERSITY DAY OCTOBER 2021

We were extremely fortunate that such a respected gathering of cross disciplinary experts came together with the Blackstairs mountains as their sole focus. They generously shared their wealth of knowledge and insights and collaborated to identify a number of recommended key actions specifically tailored for our uplands.

Blackstairs Nature is a small voluntary group of community volunteers and is not in a position to implement these recommendations alone.

These recommendations effectively provide a road map for the wider Blackstairs Community to consider and implement. Therefore Blackstairs Nature would like to share them with our community - to that end we have collated a list of suggested actions below. Our aspiration is that other stakeholders - either interested individuals or

community groups - will collectively help to deliver some of key actions for the benefit and enjoyment of our beautiful uplands.

Please feel free to share this document with any group or individual who might be interested.

Blackstairs Nature have already begun to implement some of these suggested actions. We have had engagement with a number of key stakeholders and intend to kickstart community engagement in the Spring with some guided nature and archaeological walks on the mountain looking at both the natural and cultural heritage of The Blackstairs mountains.

In the meantime, we look forward to The Department of Heritage, NPWS, NBDC, LAWPRO, Blackstairs Farming Group, the Heritage Council and Coillte, along with our County Councillors and our newly appointed Heritage Officers, delivering on their promises of support and hopefully in turn helping to realise the vision and goals of Blackstairs Nature and that of the wider Blackstairs community.

SUGGESTED KEY ACTIONS

1. Identify key messages and recommendations from expert group

- share with wider community

2. Key stakeholder engagement

- eg; Dept Heritage/ NPWS/NBDC/ LAWPRO/, Blackstairs Farming  Group, Coillte 

- Link in with NGOs to avail of their expertise - eg IWT, BWI, SWAN, An Taisce,

- Liaise with County Councillors/Politicians/Heritage Officers/ Heritage Council

- Liaise with Blackstairs recreational groups - eg Mountaineering Ireland, walking groups, beekeepers

- Join local PPN - have voice in local decision-making - Join Uplands Forum/ Liaise with Wicklow Uplands Council

- Liaise with funders such as SICAP/ Community Foundation Ireland/Carlow Tourism 

3. Community engagement 

- Community events to raise awareness 

- Walks - eg; biodiversity / farming/ archaeology etc  - Talks - eg; ICA/ Beekeepers/Farmers/Citizen Science/All Ireland Pollinator Plan 

- Set up local wildlife group 

- All Ireland Pollinator Plan - participate in

- Cultural heritage - working sheepdogs/ farmers’ stories - Consider workshop for a Shared Vision for the Blackstairs with facilitator 

4.Education

- Build a sense of place and community.

- Bring biodiversity awareness etc into schools.

- Get children actively involved - sense of ownership eg litter pick - Walks - place based learning

- Talks

- Booklet on eg Farming/Biodiversity on Blackstairs - Cultural heritage

5. Aim for Flagships Project such as: 

- Pilot Ecological Restoration Project - Peatland/ Grassland/ Forestry

- Portion of Coillte Estate for CCF 

- River Restoration project - especially relevant given presence of FPM 

- Community Woodland Project with An Taisce 

6. NB: Biodiversity Audit.

A new baseline biodiversity audit of Blackstairs is needed to include SAC and areas outside SAC including forestry and rivers. Specifically need to audit FPM which has been documented in Slaney river and

Mountain River which runs into the River Barrow. Liaise with NPWS and NBDC. 

7. NB: Biodiversity Officer appointment - to both Carlow and Wexford. Push for this position with county councillors/ local politicians. A Biodiversity Officer would be ideally placed to implement the recommended key actions above. 

8. NB: County Biodiversity Action Plan required as matter of urgency. Ideally Carlow and Wexford should collaborate. Liaise with Carlow County Council/ Wexford County Council/ Heritage Officers/ politicians 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT 

Blackstairs Nature would like to thank our panellists - listed below - who contributed to the Inaugural Blackstairs Biodiversity Day. We would also like to thank The SICAP Programme/Carlow County Development Partnership, LAWPRO and Sugar & Spice Cafe for their sponsorship. 

Facilitator: Ella McSweeney - Journalist/Reporter

Rapporteur: Dr. Micheál O’Cinnéide - Ex-EPA/ NPWS Review  Deputy Chair/ Corrib Beo Co-Chair 

Contributors: 

Padraic Fogarty - Irish Wildlife Trust 

Anja Murray- Ecologist, environmental analyst, presenter Dr. Liam Lysaght - Director Biodiversity Ireland 

Dr. Mary Tubridy - Heritage Council/ Uplands Forum Lorcan Scott - Wildlife Officer Heritage Council 

Ciara O’Mahoney - NPWS Divisional Manager SE 

Dr. Stephanie Maher - Ecologist Teagasc 

Alyn Walsh - NPWS 

Dr. Brendan Dunford - Burrenbeo/ Farming for Nature Hannah Quinn Mulligan - Farmer/ Journalist/ Women’s Agri Group Maura Ryan - Sheep Farmer 

Dr. Daire Ó hUallacháin - Agri-ecologist Teagasc. 

Martin Shannon - Blackstairs Farming Group

Dr. Ciaran Fallon - Director Coillte Nature

Dr. Elaine Mc Goff - An Taisce

Sinead O’Brien - SWAN 

Ann Phelan - LAWPRO 

Mairead Phelan - ICA 

Niall Ryan - Dept Agriculture 

Helen Lawless - Mountaineering Ireland 

Paddy Woodworth - Journalist 

Brian Power - Ecologist 

Dr. Séamus Ó Murchú - Archaeologist 

Photos courtesy of Glenn Lucas 

For more info, visit the main website : www.blackstairsnature.com