Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Questions (19)

Niamh Smyth


19. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the steps she has taken on foot of the recommendations from the curlew task force; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45670/19]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Culture)

I ask the Minister to outline the steps she has taken on foot of the recommendations from the curlew task force, given its report was published in September 2019.

I thank the Deputy. In January 2017, a national curlew task force was formed, to include various stakeholders with an interest in the management of the curlew and its habitat. The National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department is currently considering the recommendations of the curlew task force, which were published in September 2019, in order to inform the vital next steps for curlew conservation. The possibility of the curlew becoming extinct as a breeding species is one of the most serious conservation concerns in Ireland at the moment. Decades of habitat loss and fragmentation, and losses to predators, have seen the species decline in numbers by 96% since the late 1980s and early 1990s. Unfortunately, these threats are very much still present and active.

The curlew conservation programme, which was established in 2017 to pioneer curlew conservation efforts in Ireland, will continue in 2020, co-ordinated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The programme, which had a successful year in 2019, includes surveys, habitat maintenance, enhancement and creation, nest protection and public and community engagement. The aim of this locally-led programme is to reverse the population declines by supporting the creation and maintenance of suitable breeding habitat and employing nest protection officers, aiming ultimately to improve breeding productivity, that is, the number of young curlew successfully reared in a given year. Curlew productivity in key areas has improved year-on-year as a result of the works of the programme.

Landowners and local communities have been central to the success of the programme so far and co-operation with stakeholders will continue to be crucial to the programme's success. The efficacy of these ongoing conservation efforts will be determined by a research project in due course. The pilot phase of the curlew conservation programme, just three years in, has shown that prospects can be improved by following the model of locally-based teams, engaged positively and proactively with relevant stakeholders, most especially landowners, to find and safeguard the breeding attempts and improve the immediate habitat and environment for breeding attempts. Curlew conservation efforts will continue to be a key consideration in my Department's overall nature conservation strategy in 2020.

I thank the Minister. As the Minister rightly laid out, the evidence is that the breeding productivity of the curlew in the conservation areas has improved as a result of the action on the ground of the local curlew action teams, which are to be highly commended for their work on this issue. The report concludes that the work needs to be sustained on an ongoing basis and that, ultimately, the environment and landscape into which the curlew return will need to be greatly improved if the population is to be placed on a truly sustainable footing. The report concludes that wider policy changes are required to ensure this is so. Will the Minister outline how her Department intends to ensure this happens?

Will the programme be scaled up on a national level and replicated throughout the country?

There are two main pillars within the curlew conservation programme, one of which delivers on-the-ground action and another that progresses research on a species that has received little attention in Ireland to date. Both pillars are closely intertwined and complementary. The third year of the curlew conservation programme, which is this year, saw direct efforts in the following areas: the Stack's Mountains, the north of Lough Corrib; Lough Ree; north Roscommon and Mayo; mid-Leitrim; north Monaghan in the Deputy's constituency; and Donegal. Some 54 pairs were located in these operational areas in 2017, 45 in 2018 and between 41 and 56 in 2019. When the core areas that were covered in each of the three years are compared, those figures are as follows: 46 in 2017; 42 in 2018 and; 41 to 56 in 2019. Further habitat improvements were planned and undertaken this year, which should benefit curlews into the future. The pilot phase of the curlew conservation programme, just three years in, has shown prospects can be improved by following the model of locally-based teams engaging positively and proactively with local landowners and relevant stakeholders to find and safeguard the breeding attempts and to improve the immediate habitat and environment for these attempts.

Our Lady's secondary school for girls in Castleblayney had a good conference two weeks ago on Brexit. The conference covered the environmental section of that as well. The Minister mentioned north Monaghan, an area in which the conservation of the curlew is being developed, and that programme is welcome. Based on the figures the Minister outlined, am I correct that the number of pairs has reduced rather than increased? She might confirm that for me.

In August 2019, the sixth report of the UN convention on biological diversity confirmed potential catastrophic species loss and the deterioration of important habitats was accelerating. Ireland has a legal obligation to conserve biological diversity. An Taisce described the report as a damning indictment of the state of biodiversity, with insufficient progress reported across most targets. Birdwatch Ireland and the Irish Wildlife Trust have echoed An Taisce in calling on the Government to move quickly to arrest a species extinction crisis in Ireland. One third of all Irish bee species could be extinct by 2030 and the Irish butterfly populations have declined by almost 12% over the past decade. Some 50% of Irish freshwater areas are polluted and as a result, there has been a decline in our most sensitive aquatic species such as salmon. More than 90% of protected habitats are classified as having unfavourable conservation status. What provision was made in budget 2020 to tackle these staggering figures?

Before the Minister comes in, I remind Members that this is the first question and we have to keep a keen eye on the clock because other Members will be coming in.

It is okay but I ask Members to please co-operate with me.

I thank the Deputy for her comments. I commend Our Lady's secondary school on its efforts in respect of the conservation of the curlew. The recommendations of the report are being strongly considered by the Department. It is broken down into eight main areas: the curlew ecological requirements; farming and agri-environment; forestry; bogs; predation and nest protection; planning and development; curlew and people; and synthesis. The efforts of the curlew conservation programme, particularly in the local teams, in building and maintaining a positive profile for the curlew cannot be overstated. Conflict can often arise between the desires of those involved in conservation and the desires of landowners to manage their land as they see best. The understanding and communication skills, which involve listening as well as talking, of those involved in the programme, have been exemplary. The experience to date has been largely positive, with countless landowners and local people helping with reporting sightings, facilitating access, providing advice and undertaking efforts to help the curlew. This year, we increased the amount in budget 2020 for the heritage sector by 15%. Unfortunately, if we look back to the Fianna Fáil and Green Party budgets of the past, funding to the sector was cut by 75%.