The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is getting a lot of stick in local conversation as well as in the press regarding their potential ‘contribution’ to the flooding in South Galway. The finger of blame is floating across a lot of Government organizations and there’s a lot of scapegoating at the minute – but I’d like to look at the issue and where they fit in the overall scheme and how they can be proactive in resolving the flooding issues in South Galway.
What do the NPWS do?
Various Wildlife acts and EU habitats directives aim to help conserve natural habitats and of wildlife, birds, plants and obliges the Minister for the Environment/Government to protect the integrity of the habitats and species. The The NPWS is the part of the Department of the Environment, Heritage & Local Government implements this obligation on the Minister’s behalf. The key aim of the NPWS is to ‘secure the conservation of a representative range of ecosystems to maintain and enhance populations of flora and fauna in Ireland‘.
One of the mechanisms the NPWS has is the creation of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) which allow them to monitor habitats and secure their conservation. In laymen terms SACs mean that you need permission to carry out works in these areas. Works done without permission may incur heavy penalties and loss of benefits to landowners who are compensated for land that has SAC status.
Why is this relevant to flooding in South Galway?
Swallow holes and turloughs are an intrinsic part of the drainage mechanism in South Galway. In order to avoid flooding,the waterways need to clear of debris and maintained regularly. Many of the Swallow-holes and turloughs in the Slieve Aughty catchment area are within SACs e.g.
This means that any maintenance work that is required on this will require the generation of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and require consultation and approval from the NPWS. Projects can be approved if there is unlikely to be a significant negative impact on the ecological value of sites or on grounds of overriding public interest, particularly involving public health and safety. There are also Special Protection Areas (SPAs) that list areas as a protected area that require special management e.g. Coole/Garryland SPA.
Whats the issue then?
Rightly or Wrongly – the key perspective that people seem to have is that the NPWS is an imposing barrier in flood relief schemes in South Galway and that the EIAs, and other mechanisms involve too much red-tape.
A Connacht tribune article of Dec 14th highlights that the “swallow hole” where the Cloone River goes underground at Ballylee, had also not been cleared, which may have prevented the devastating rise in levels in the Castledaly, Grannagh, Ballyaneen and Ballylee areas. Councillor Joe Byrne said:
“In the last six months I’ve put in proposals to widen ten or twelve swallow holes to allow the water to get underground quicker. I got an answer back that the owners would have to carry out environmental assessment reports because they’re in SACs. We have to get serious here – are ecological issues more important than people’s lives?”
I’ve heard this perspective many times in the past few weeks. The onus seems to be on the landowner carrying out Environment Impact assessments as part of a planning application and this is creating a mountain of red tape. The response above is not a government body making a comparison between a snail and a senior citizen – it’s a legal issue. Once a SAC has been defined – it has legal ramifications that are ratified by the EU.
If you distill it right down – the problem with the SACs in the Slieve Aughty drainage system is that they are self-destructive. If you don’t maintain them they cause flooding and contamination but you can’t maintain them due to the red-tape.
The irony in the NPWS
I’ve mentioned in a previous article that there was a lot of irony with the NPWS because if their objective is preserving our wildlife/habitats then, by not enabling flood relief schemes, it may end up being the actual threat to our wildlife.
An example of this irony are as follows : There is an SAC in Kiltartan : Site Name: Kiltartan Cave (Coole) SAC (000286) : It states : “As this site contains >50 Rhinolophus hipposideros in winter, it is a site of international importance. It is the only major cave in the area and the only major hibernation site known for the Lesser Horseshoe in County Galway”. In the 2015 floods – this whole cave was under several feet of water. There was a huge impact and destruction of wildlife in general around the area.
It’s a pity that the NPWS have found themselves in the situation where communities are turning against them and the idea of wildlife conservation – which goes against one of their other aims of promoting awareness of natural heritage and biodiversity issues.
Whose fault is it?
I don’t think that the flooding is the fault of the NPWS. I think they are a participant in a bigger overall systematic failure of our government to address this issue correctly.
The cause of the flooding in South Galway, is not poorly linked water channels flowing from mountain to sea or swallow-holes being blocked with silage bags – It’s poorly linked thinking between our different government departments and services and flood alleviation plans being blocked by bureaucracy
Are they part of the solution?
The good news is that when it comes to severe flooding – there should be a lot of common ground. Just as any farmer wants to avoid flooding, why wouldn’t any organization trying to protect wildlife and Special Areas of Conservation be trying to avoid this type of outcome below :
However, the NPWS should be a part of that solution but first it needs to step up to the plate and become more proactive in addressing flood relief and flood maintenance schemes.
What should NPWS do?
Firstly – enlighten us- What’s the NPWS position on flooding in South Galway? Do the NPWS see this level of flooding (see photos below) as a concern for their SACs?
Secondly, be more proactive in enabling flooding relief solutions. As the key stakeholder for the SACs and wildlife, you should take the initiative and push for a strategic approach to swallow hole maintenance in SACs and remove the onus on landowners submitting individual EIAs/planning applications.. basically… work to remove the red-tape.
The same goes for any planning that will aim to cap maximum turlough levels and control flooding (while maintaining the integrity of the turloughs) – These plans need to be enabled rather than impeded.
If the NPWS cannot resolve this, directly or indirectly, then they are not in a position to maintain the integrity of their SACs they seek to protect and the SAC designation should be removed.
– David Murray
PS: NPWS Please consider the photographs below where you see some of the destruction of peoples livelihoods as well as the impact on your habitats.