It is early Wednesday morning, 5th May 2010, and I was up till the wee small hours collating as many relevant points as possible for an Irish journalist, preparing to write a piece on the background of illegal poisoning in Ireland. I tried to focus on the legal, farming and economic arguments surrounding the impact of illegal poisoning. Since the 19th of February 2010 I have been in a bit of a tailspin, deflated and frustrated at the poisoning of Conall. I have done more fieldwork this season than over the last decade. Trying to walk away the tension I feel over our inability at convincing the authorities of the need to tackle poisoning quickly. I am vexed at the hypocrisy of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association successfully lobbying of Scottish Natural Heritage, suggesting that Irish farmers have no respect for wildlife. Embarrassed as an Irish person, that those guys who various Scottish experts believe and calculate to kill 30-60 Golden Eagles a year, are even slightly sheltered by a poisoning of 1-2 Golden Eagles a year in Ireland. Constantly, refrain from entering the stress of Scottish rural politics and their feud between conservationists and gaming interests. Four months of stress last year was enough.
I could easily justify working 24/7 on illegal poisoning policy. Still to contact the Irish Veterinary Board and the Irish Kennel Club to get estimates on how many dogs are poisoned annually. For some reason nobody collates illegal poisoning cases. Frustrated that this small charity is somehow expected to drive policy based on illegal activity, which is surely the responsibility of a range of statutory authorities. I can understand why so few public servants are rushing to fill their desk with poisoning papers - the whole national governance of poisoning seems a mess and very complicated. But I know that when the European Commission assess our complaint on the matter - change will come. God! still have to send an updated account of recent poisoning incidents to Brussels.
Conall was an Irish bred Golden Eagle chick, reared in Glenveagh National Park, Donegal after a considerable amount of effort by ourselves in the Golden Eagle Trust, NPWS staff in Glenveagh and a large number of Volunteers. We were very reassured that our efforts paid dividends last summer, but in February I simply despaired that a very small number of individuals were still intent on laying waste to any form of nature they were not prepared to tolerate on their farms or commonage.
The poisoning of protected birds of prey is as much about the attitudes of landowners in rural Ireland as it is about the enforcement of wildlife and poisoning legislation. The attitude and ethos of the Golden Eagle Trust is primarily about trying to encourage, coax and cajole sceptical farmers that the return of native birds of prey will not impact on their livelihoods. We have cited the experience of other sheep farmers in Scotland, Wales and Norway to show that modern farming can easily co-exist with, or accomodate [if you prefer that term], nature. But as predators, we always knew that the attitudes of farmers and gun clubs towards raptors would be a real thermometer of the respect for nature in Ireland. The attitude to predators globally usually reflects a wider societal attitude to nature in general.
I started working toward the reintroduction of Golden Eagles into Ireland in 1995 alongside my late colleague Jim Haine, Ronan Hannigan and John Marsh. The idea was not new and the National Parks and Wildlife Service staff in Glenveagh National Park had been examining the possibilities since 1990. From the outset we recognised that poisoning was still the main threat to any Eagles we might eventually release in Donegal. Indeed the main opposition to the reintroduction of the Golden Eagles came from the Irish conservation movement, who cited possible natural re-colonisation, lack of habitat and food and the need to fund other extant wildlife priorities as additional reasons for postponing any return of extinct Irish raptors.
Over the years, most of these arguments have been proven to be unfounded. The release of the Golden Eagles has helped raise the public profile of the benefits of nature alongside a noticeable increase in public awareness across the whole range of Irish nature. But the earlier concerns regarding poisoning remain unanswered. The survival rates of the established adult Golden Eagles in 7-8 territories in Donegal is good - clearly showing poisoning no longer occurs in these areas. But the worry remains that the poisoning of wandering Golden Eagles remains unchecked outside these core areas.
Though the attitude of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) in Donegal has been excellent in relation to these matters, the lack of any real direction from the IFA nationally has been disappointing. They may be unwilling to simply admit that illegal poisoning is no longer in their own interests, whatever about its impact on wildlife. We sense that the IFA have the very difficult job of trying to appease and represent two very different types of Irish farmer. On the one hand they represent small farm holdings, especially along the western seaboard and in upland and bogland areas. Most of these farmers work 'off-farm' to supplement their meagre farm incomes. These individuals are very sensitive to promoting the wider rural economy. However, the bigger and richer farmers in parts of Munster and Leinster are very nervous that the forthcoming reforms of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy may direct a bigger slice of funding away from big agricultural food production units toward broader rural development goals in areas occupied by smaller farmers. The general public and politicians will need to strongly support the IFA in their efforts to maintain current subsidy levels post these important European Agricultural reforms post 2013. Whatever policies the IFA pursue over the coming years, it is clear that a percentage of the Irish public will be increasingly agitated by any perceived tolerance of illegal poisoning among farming representatives in Ireland. Irish conservationists are clearly on the side of minimising farm abandonment on small holdings and generally wish to see these individuals funded because of their important role in food production, in maintaining rural communities, and yes, in enhancing our depleted biodiversity.
The ongoing light regulation of illegal poisoning ensures taxpayers money is still given, under both the Single Farm Payment and Agri-Environment schemes, to hundreds of individuals who still use poison illegally. We suggest that the Department of Agriculture need to represent all of Irish society equally, not just the farming sector. It is very clear to us how the tourism sector in rural Ireland is exasperated by the inaction of the Department, whether in relation to mountain fires or poisoning. These issues need to be tackled openly. Yes, they are very difficult to enforce but they cannot be ignored in the hope that they will evaporate.
Irish conservationists are generally loathe to tangle with Irish farmers. Farmers and Coillte (the semi-state Forestry sector) own the vast majority of land in Ireland. They have both made many important environmental and wildlife advances over the last decade, reflecting best practice in their respective sectors. Farmers are tired of all the restrictions placed on them due to rising conservation standards. They perceive the 'Green Agenda' as a new form of "Green Landlordism" and the emotive and historical connotations that holds in rural Ireland. I sometimes sense however that some landowners still hold an old Imperial Feudal attitude toward their property - they own it and they will do as they please on their property. And whilst they have enshrined property rights, in this Republic it is the Oireachtas that will decree which aspects of wildlife are protected, in the wider national interests. These emotive points of view need to be finessed so that we all can agree a forward plan that will enhance the well being of farmers and the wider public equally.
The National Rural Network held an important conference on the 2nd December, in Croke Park, and in his closing speech Ciaran Lynch, Head of Sustainable Rural Development Department, Tipperary Institute, emphasised the issue of Trust (see http://www.nrn.ie/the-national-rural-network/events/conference09/proceedings/ - see audio clip of his comments). These concluding remarks clearly encapsulate all the key issues surrounding poisoning in rural Ireland. As he states, we need to develop a common social good, we need to share resources and benefits, and we need to develop mutual respect and trust, collaboration and dialogue in order to reach an agreed outcome for rural Ireland. These remarks are well worth listening to. The GET recognises that we have only one of many competing perspectives and we have deliberately tried to adopt a compromise on effective poisoning legislation, though we are all personally opposed to poisoning. We have tried to reassure farmers that we are not opposed to control of foxes and crows but wish to see this control carried out within the law and in a discriminate manner.
Unless we can find an agreed outcome to the issue of Fox and Crow control and the protection of newborn lambs, illegal poisoning will continue. The very small Golden Eagle population may produce 1-2 wild bred Golden Eagles annually, which will repeatedly disperse into neighbouring counties such as Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo and Galway and will encounter the odd poisoned meat baits left on the hill - which will attract any scavenging animal - and die as a result. The population will then gradually decrease due to natural mortality and illegal persecution and eventually become extinct again. The stain on the green image of the Irish Agri-Food Sector will grow and the potential for local promotion of unspoilt landscapes in the Northwest will be lost. Neither sector will crash as a result, but the international reputation of Ireland will be damaged. If Golden Eagles become extinct again, due to the inaction of the Agri-food sector, it will further damage the potential for building trust within the rural economy. The farming sector may perceive illegal poisoning as a wildlife threat but we now perceive the majority of poisoning as an illegal farm practice. We may never reach total agreement with the farming sector on the matter, but politicians and statutory authorities need to address the matter and find an agreed approach and enforce it vigorously.
15 years after embarking on efforts to restore Golden Eagles to Ireland I often reflect on the choices we made in the past. The majority of respected ornithologists at the time suggested it was madness to proceed - one individual said Irish farmers would have all the 6 eagles, released in 2001, poisoned before Christmas. The people behind the Eagle project felt that Donegal farmers were supportive of wildlife, as indicated by the local Buzzard population and could be persuaded to tolerate Golden Eagles. We are still of the view that the vast majority of farmers in Donegal either tolerate or openly support the Golden Eagles that visit their properties. These wild creatures were restored with Millennium funding at a time when we were all more optimistic. It is clear that the survival of the Golden Eagles will now depend on the attitude and voice of the general public and their local politicians. Inaction regarding poisoning will cause Ireland to lose its Golden Eagles once again. I still hope that Ireland will simply not tolerate the ongoing illegal poisoning of protected birds of prey. It makes no sense in terms of Agricultural, socio-economic reasons or culturally. Light regulation has not worked and will not work. But yes doubts have crept in. At times we wonder whether anyone is really listening. But we believe that in the long term, the farming lobby will see that it is not in their long term interests to be associated with illegal poisoning. The consumers of their farm produce and food do care about Irish Eagles and nature in general.
The Golden Eagle chick was found poisoned on Truskmore Mountain in mid February and 'Dr Poison' in Ballintrillick has since poisoned a Raven in nearly the exact same spot. He must feel totally immune from the Irish authorities - with no pressure brought to bear on his Single Farm Payment. Yes, the proof is scarce and his boasting about poison is inadmissible. One local lady reported her dog was poisoned with Strychnine in January 2010. She believed the poison was thrown into her enclosed garden where her two young children play. Just imagine if the children had picked up and discarded the poisoned bait and then later licked their fingers laced with Strychnine. This is the attitude and mind set of poisoners - 'they are right and do not tell them what they may or may not do on their land or commonage'.
But yet there is hope. Garda in Kerry sought and were granted a search warrant in relation to the latest White-tailed Eagle poisonings in Kerry - progress. A White-tailed Eagle has wandered unmolested over hundreds of farms over the last ten months visiting 28 of the 32 counties on the island of Ireland. This is a clear demonstration that the vast majority of farmers no longer use poison. Attitudes are changing, but we can only hope that the illegal use of poisoning will diminish quickly.
But the question remains, were we right to try to re-establish Golden Eagles at the start of the new Millennium in 2001? The survival rate of the released birds in Ireland is equal to the survival rates of their siblings in Scotland, who also encounter illegal poisoning. So it is not a moral issue (as they could have better chances of survival in Ireland , if one takes account of their unnaturally high survival rate as fledglings in Ireland), merely a question of judgement. Was it too optimistic to try to restore an Iolar Fíréan (which translates as the 'righteous or just eagle') to Ireland? Will the old Irish respect for nature or the 'couldn't care less' Ireland prevail?
Time will tell, but time is running out. We will continue to try to engage with the farming sector, but to be frank many of the culpable individuals will pay little heed to any reasonable views, within or out with the farming sector. If we can openly admit we have a poisoning problem in rural Ireland and tackle these individuals, especially by carrying out farm inspections where poisoned birds are found and enforcing new poisoning legislation, we will prevail. Yes, we still hope Golden Eagles will once again soar over Irish mountains. But that means the wishes of the people and the laws passed by our Oireachtas must pertain to those mountains. If an attitude that Irish law simply does not apply on remote Irish mountains prevails, we are fearful that the couple of hundred poisoners in Ireland will, in time, boast that Irish Golden Eagles are extinct and Irish nature has been tamed again.