Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Questions (25)

Eamon Ryan

Question:

25. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if she has considered further the possible purchase of a location (details supplied) by the State; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24327/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Culture)

It is several months since High Island off the Galway coast was put up for sale. We had a discussion at that initial stage as to whether the State might have an interest during which I set out the benefits of the island’s heritage and important wildlife sanctuary which tells us what is happening in the north Atlantic’s ecology. I do not believe there has been a sale of the island since but there may well be tenders. Will the Minister reconsider the State purchasing the island on behalf of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, to maintain it as a sanctuary?

The property referred to contains a national monument in my ownership as Minister. The day-to-day care of this national monument is undertaken by the Office of Public Works, OPW, on behalf of my Department which has overall policy responsibility for its long-term conservation. The property is also part of a larger special protection area, SPA, under the birds directive. My Department is aware that recent surveys have found larger colonies of certain bird species than were known previously. Some of the survey work was partly funded by the Department.

My Department continues to explore ways to optimise the protection and presentation of heritage sites under our control in a way that is compatible with conservation objectives and that provides excellent value for money outcomes to the state. In some instances this has included strategic land purchases. As it is in State care, the national monument on this site is fully protected under the National Monuments Acts. Any works at or in its vicinity may only be carried out with ministerial consent under those Acts. This will remain so, irrespective of future ownership arrangements. As we have discussed before, access to the site is very difficult and, therefore, any acquisition would bring little benefit in terms of visitor access to the monuments on the site. The same access issues also mean that disturbance levels are low, which is of benefit to the breeding birds.

Property acquisition by my Department is the exception rather than the norm. The countryside is populated with a rich range of almost 150,000 archaeological monuments. The Department, working with OPW, is only in a position to acquire, maintain, conserve and present to the public a limited number of properties and monuments. Acquisitions are, therefore, only contemplated where there is a clear, tangible and substantial benefit to the overall quality and management of the State’s heritage portfolio.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In this case, the national monument and other recorded monuments are already well protected. Even if the entire property were in public ownership, public access would continue to be hazardous and unsuitable for large-scale visitor exploration, which of itself also provides a significant safeguard for the bird population. Additionally, value for money principles must be carefully considered where any acquisition is proposed. Neither would it be appropriate or prudent for me to compromise any possible acquisition proposals by publicly disclosing interest or otherwise in any property.

At this stage, will the Minister still consider that this might be one of those unique sites? It is not just because of the national monument on it and that the OPW should have an interest. The NPWS should also have a critical interest in the island. The recent scientific analysis from the island shows it is a spectacularly important location with 4,000 breeding pairs of storm petrels and an important colony of Manx shearwaters. Seabirds are one of the most threatened species. The seabirds on this island travel to the north Atlantic to feed. We are in a row with Scotland about Rockall. If we want to show we are serious about what is happening in the north Atlantic and preserving its ecology, it is important the NPWS takes ownership of islands like this and manages them.

Last summer, I was on the beautiful Inishkea Islands, similarly located off the far west coast. There is a real problem there of overgrazing, even though it is isolated and hard to get to. We need to manage certain particularly sensitive sites. High Island is one of the most sensitive of them all, not just for its archaeology but for the birdlife on it. There is a prospect of managing this if we owned it.

I appreciate the Deputy’s points. As I have outlined previously, the site referred to contains a national monument owned by the Department and is in the day-to-day care of the OPW.

It does not have the potential to become a significant tourist attraction, in any event, as access is hazardous. The asking price, which I think is €1.25 million for approximately 32 hectares, is significant, and there are value for money principles which must be given careful consideration in the case of any acquisition. The acquisition of land for the purposes of presentation or protection of national monuments, as I said, is the exception rather than the norm. It is only considered where the national monument is otherwise not adequately protected, which is not the case in this instance.

As the Deputy mentioned, the site is listed for a number of bird species but the difficulty of public access means a high degree of protection for the birds.

I am not telling the Minister what to bid; I am asking that she makes a bid. I understand the value for money proposition, which any Minister has to take into account. However, to have no bid and no interest is, to my mind, a real missed opportunity.

I want to draw the Minister back to the key question. Let us put the national monument aside, although it is spectacular, and focus on the ecology. The island, the birds on it, the monitoring of them and the management of the island to assist that, could be a critical part of our understanding of what is happening in the ecology of the north Atlantic. In a world where climate change is changing weather systems, feeding systems and bird life systems in the north Atlantic, that is not an insignificant issue. The populations there are not small; they are huge and hugely important.

On that one issue alone, we should give the National Parks and Wildlife Service a real management capability. I know the island is isolated and hard to get to. However, I know the NPWS would love to have that sort of site within its portfolio and we would show we are interested in what is happening in the north Atlantic. We could then go to the Scottish Government and say we have a real interest because we are engaged and because we are active in managing that whole system.

The Deputy asked about the ecological status of the site. The site is listed for the following bird species: fulmar, barnacle goose and Arctic tern. Some 358 fulmar pairs are estimated to breed on this site, which is approximately 1% of the total Irish population. Another protected species, the barnacle goose, frequents this site in winter but, due to its remoteness, a precise and accurate estimate of site use is not available. Bird survey and monitoring work is undertaken there by UCC and is part-funded by my Department. The surveys led to population estimates for two additional species, the Manx shearwater and storm petrel, that are much higher than previous estimates and indicate that the place is of significant conservation value for these species. Therefore, the designation may have to be amended to reflect this new information.

Though not in State ownership, the site currently enjoys very low levels of human or farming disturbance, which benefits the birds. It can be difficult to secure optimal grazing levels on offshore islands but, in this case, the access difficulties may well prevent that problem.

The Department would be a statutory consultee on any planning proposal and should, therefore, have substantial influence over any proposal to build there.