I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, who has been sent into the Seanad to do the work of other people but I appreciate her being here.
This matter concerns the lack of management, protection and development of the Gearagh conservation site in County Cork and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht's lack of leadership and action about this. The Gearagh national nature reserve on the River Lee in County Cork is a globally unique site of international importance, both for its primeval river forest and its wintering wildfowl. As a priority Natura 2000 site under the EU Habitats Directive, it has several different forms of legislation theoretically protecting it. It is a special area of conservation, SAC, a special protected area, SPA, a world Ramsar site, a biogenetic reserve and part of the Lee Valley natural heritage area.
Despite this raft of legislation and protections, the fact that it is the property of the State, under the control of the semi-State body, the ESB, means it is without any effective management plan. As a consequence, this State-led neglect has prevented the local community from developing the area as a significant recreational, educational and eco-tourism destination.
The Gearagh is a designated SAC to primarily protect its alluvial woodland. However, the lack of good water management in the river catchment upstream from the forest, as required under Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive, is causing the site’s islands to disintegrate. This is flying in the face of the intended EU protection enshrined under Article 6(2). The SPA status was originally designated on the site due to the thousands of wintering wildfowl that used the area. Today, however, the numbers of wintering birds are much reduced. Each winter the ESB allows access to the protected area by a local gun club. The hunting had been so substantial that it was claimed that the carcasses of the birds were ferried out in wheelbarrows. These are the very birds which are meant to be protected.
Although the site featured as a centre page spread in Cork County Council’s biodiversity action plan, not a single sign has been erected directing the public to the nature reserve, nor has any money been used to promote the Gearagh as a tourist site. One could pass the entrance to the site without noticing it. Nobody would see that it is such a special area and understand it is on a par with the Burren.
Having won the Young Scientist Competition in 1983 and the Ford European Conservation Awards in 1987 for a sustainable management plan to protect and develop the Gearagh, both as Western Europe’s last primeval river forest and as an international wetland wildfowl reserve, attempts by the local community to engage with the ESB and the Department in order to implement such a plan have been met with short-sighted dismissal. It is disappointing the Minister did not attend to take this matter today. That does not bode well for this issue being taking seriously. The apparent disregard of both the Department and the ESB is extremely disappointing. It would lead one to wonder whether the Government is true to its commitments to its environmental protection obligations at local and national level, as well as at European level where its obligations are enshrined under EU law.
What is the Minister’s opinion on the reports of violations by the ESB of Ireland’s environmental protection commitments in the Gearagh site under the EU Habitats Directive and other legally-binding principles? Why does the Department not appear to be active in empowering the local community to develop this spectacular site, as a major ecotourism boost for the region, creating jobs, protecting the environment and boosting the poor environmental image of the ESB and the Department? Why is the EU Habitats Directive not being actively enforced in the site by prohibiting the gun clubs and the sufficient and level-handed restoration of the Gearagh’s forest? Will the Minister establish an all-inclusive management plan, a plan that protects the Gearagh and allows the local community develop the site in a sustainable way?
During a recent Seanad debate on our oceans, we heard good and successful examples of community-led management plans about marine protected areas in Scotland by Dr. Ruth Brennan of Trinity College Dublin, which could act as a template for the Gearagh.