A SEVERE THREAT TO BIODIVERSITY AT A CRITICAL TIME
In recent weeks in County Monaghan, there have been reports of a number of wildlife crimes being committed – examples include the dredging of stretches of river where there are nesting birds, spawning fish and otters have been seen, and the cutting/removal of non-obscuring hedgerows with mature trees. The public is advised to report wildlife crimes to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) but the organisation is in disarray and County Monaghan has not been allocated a Wildlife Ranger. With no straightforward and immediate way to bring perpetrators to justice, they are currently having the last laugh at the expense of our wildlife. The biodiversity crisis is at a critical point and this cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.
WHAT IS WILDLIFE CRIME?
Wildlife crime is a widespread issue that poses a serious threat to our biodiversity and jeopardises conservation efforts that are in place. In Ireland, wildlife crime is an offence that goes against existing legislation (The Wildlife Act 1976) that protects wild plants, animals, and their habitats. A large amount of wildlife crime activity in Ireland goes unreported and incidences of wildlife crime are on the rise. The rural habitats that our wildlife most often live in make it difficult to catch wildlife offenders in the act, and the system for reporting crimes and ensuring swift prosecution of perpetrators is inefficient and extremely slow-moving. The persistent under-resourcing of wildlife crime organisations indicates that putting a stop to it is a low priority in comparison to the measures taken to address traditional criminal activity. Many government and law enforcement officials fail to take wildlife crime seriously, which can lead to low numbers of prosecutions and inadequate sentencing of wildlife offenders. The continual reduction and dismissal of the severity of wildlife crime is being fueled by the consistent low prosecution rates of wildlife crime. “This is a vicious cycle that must be broken.” [www.ucc.ie] More specifics on what actions constitute wildlife crimes can be found on www.wildlifecrime.ie.
The Wildlife Act 1976 is our key national legislation that protects wild flora and fauna and controls activities that may cause harm to wildlife in Ireland. Currently all bird species, 22 other animal species or groups of species and 86 species of flora are afforded protected status. The Act also ensures that the hunting, possession, trade and movement of wildlife can be regulated and controlled. Under EU and international law Ireland is legally obligated to protect our biodiversity. However, despite the existence of this extensive legal framework and increasing public awareness related to criminal activity, wildlife crime continues to be a significant (and increasing) problem in Ireland. The NPWS is supposed to play a major role in wildlife conservation in Ireland; it is part of the Heritage Division of the Department of Housing, Local Government & Heritage and was set up to protect and enhance our biodiversity. However, the NPWS has been under-funded and under-resourced for far too long and this has greatly impacted its ability to tackle conservation issues and keep wildlife crime under control.
The Government has been accused of dragging its heels on a promised reform of the NPWS, and criticised for its failure to publish a highly critical independent review of the NPWS’s operation – this review was committed to in the Programme for Government and was completed last year. It should make for very interesting reading when it is finally released!
GLOBAL ALLIANCE FOR THE RIGHTS OF NATURE
“The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN) is a network of organisations and individuals committed to the universal adoption and implementation of legal systems that recognise, respect and enforce the Rights of Nature”. There are members of the alliance in over 100 countries on 6 continents: North and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia who are looking for ways to transform humanity’s relationship with Earth.
The legal movement for the rights of nature began with a 1972 law review article, ‘Should Trees Have Standing’, by Christopher D. Stone, a law professor at the University of Southern California, who wrote that he was “quite seriously proposing giving legal rights to nature”. In the years since then, the concept has surfaced in legislation, judicial rulings and constitutional amendments in countries across the world.
“The primary premise of the Alliance is that in order to ensure an environmentally sustainable future, humans must reorient themselves from an exploitative and ultimately self-destructive relationship with nature, to one that honors the deep interrelation of all life and contributes to the health and integrity of the natural environment. An essential step in achieving this is to create a system of jurisprudence that sees and treats nature as a fundamental, rights-bearing entity and not as mere property to be exploited at will.” [www.garn.org]
The campaign to make ecocide a crime was the life’s work of UK barrister, Polly Higgins, who died in 2019. Polly spent a decade ensuring the word “ecocide” was globally understood by giving talks, making documentaries and advising governments. Along the way she inspired thousands, from parliamentarians to ecologists and from lawyers to artists. She devoted all her time to one client – the Earth. Polly presented a definition of ecocide to the UN Law Commission in 2010 as follows: Ecocide is extensive loss, damage or destruction of ecosystems of a given territory(ies)… such that the peaceful enjoyment of the inhabitants has been or will be severely diminished. And by inhabitants, she wasn’t referring to only humans! It was to this definition that Pope Francis referred in his call for ecocide to become a crime in November 2019. [www.stopecocide.earth]
Last year, following on from Polly’s work, legal experts from across the globe drew up a definition of ecocide for adoption by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The draft law, made public in June 2021, defines ecocide as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”. If adopted, it will become the fifth offence that the court prosecutes, alongside war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and the crime of aggression. Professor Philippe Sands, co-chair of the panel that spent six months developing the definition, said: “For me the single most important thing about this initiative is that it’s part of that broader process of changing public consciousness, recognising that we are in a relationship with our environment, that we are dependent for our wellbeing on the wellbeing of the environment and that we have to use various instruments – political, diplomatic but also legal to achieve the protection of the environment”. [www.theguardian.com]
WHAT CAN WE DO AS MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC?
Educate ourselves: there are many websites that give comprehensive information on wildlife crimes and the Wildlife Act 1976 in Ireland (and in a global context) and ways in which we, as the public, can help reduce/prevent them. Websites such as www.wildlifecrime.ie, www.harmonywithnatureun.org, www.stopecocide.earth, and www.garn.org are a good place to start.
Take the time to report the crime: Take photographs of what you have seen and let someone know that it is happening/has happened – every report of a wildlife crime that is made helps to increase awareness and put pressure on the powers-that-be. Reports can be made to the NPWS (North Midlands Regional Office number is given as 0761002517) or to the Gardaí – a protocol was launched in June 2021 between the NPWS and An Garda Síochána on tackling wildlife crime. This Protocol was developed to establish closer working relationships between both organisations. If you are having any trouble making a report you can also get in touch with the Monaghan Branch of the Irish Wildlife Trust and they will be able to advise you – their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Put pressure on our politicians: We need to let them know that the current state of affairs is not acceptable and we want urgent action. Reports from Malcolm Noonan about upcoming actions to protect wildlife and stop biodiversity loss sound very good on paper but how long before we see these being enforced in everyday life? At the very least, we need a properly funded and supported NPWS with Wildlife Rangers in all counties and the newly established Wildlife Crime Unit to be up and running successfully, but, in order for this to happen, we need political will to prioritise these issues.
The Monaghan Branch of the Irish Wildlife Trust is currently appealing to Minister Malcolm Noonan and Niall Ó Donnchú, Assistant Secretary of the NPWS, for a Wildlife Ranger to be stationed in County Monaghan with immediate effect – see letter below.
RE: Immediate appointment of a suitable Conservation Ranger for County Monaghan
We, the newly formed Monaghan Branch of the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT), are writing to you on behalf of our county’s increasingly vulnerable wildlife. While we are aware that consistent fragmentation and destruction of various precious habitats has been occurring for many years, in recent times this seems to have escalated further, leaving us extremely concerned for the future of nature in the county.
Native trees, hedgerows and riparian vegetation are being butchered and removed, while wetlands are being infilled and/or drained at an alarming rate. When we attempt to report any of these types of sightings, there is no one to contact and total confusion as to where to turn. The result is that none of the perpetrators of wildlife crime are held responsible and made to mitigate or reverse the damage they have caused. We are at peak frustration point within our own IWT branch and have experienced the same frustration from other members of the public seeking somewhere to turn when they witness the ecocide occurring around them.
Aside from the weak legislation in place to protect Ireland’s nature in general, a key issue is that County Monaghan does not have any National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) Conservation Ranger. This has been the case for several years now. The nationwide recruitment drive in 2021 was not successful in the hiring of any candidate for the role and the reserve panel chosen for upcoming ranger positions does not include County Monaghan at all. The current District Conservation Officer, while very capable and striving to fulfil his post to the best of his ability, is assigned to cover six separate areas under the North Midlands region: Cavan, Leitrim south, Longford, Monaghan, Roscommon and Westmeath. This is unacceptable and the situation cannot continue.
We implore you to act immediately on behalf of the wildlife of County Monaghan so that it can be better protected. We ask that you ensure at least one NPWS Conservation Ranger is appointed within the county in the very near future. We aim to contact all relevant parties in relation to this matter and will not rest until a suitable candidate is appointed.
We look forward to your response and are happy to assist you with this issue in any way we can.
Members of the Irish Wildlife Trust – Monaghan Branch