Updated 14 June 2011

Let us suppose that I have won The Lottery and now possess several gazillions of currency units, but that I also wish to rid myself of this encumbrance as quickly as possible. Accordingly, because of my interest in steam navigation on the Shannon Estuary in the 1830s, I decide to have a replica of the Garryowen built for me and to operate it as a passenger steamer, serving Limerick, Kilrush and Tarbert, in the summer months.

The Department of the Marine (or whatever it’s called these days) will of course have something to say about the matter, and Shannon Foynes Port Company will have to be persuaded to dredge beside the inner pier at Tarbert, shift the pilot boat at Kilrush (Cappa) and provide a suitable berth at Limerick, but those are minor matters. The real cloud hanging over my proposed (if imaginary) investment in the tourism sector is that I don’t know whether the birds will allow me to proceed.

Support your local newspaper

I was in the midlands last week, and I saw in the local papers that the rivers Boyne and Blackwater are to be made a Special Protection Area. I didn’t read the details, but I wondered whether the chaps restoring the Boyne Navigation would be affected.

Then I got home and found a similar notice in the Limerick Leader. It’s 32 cm X 19 cm, which must have cost a few bob, but it contains little useful information. I am reminded of the ads the government used to put (I hope they’ve stopped) in the national papers saying in effect “We’ve made a new statutory instrument called such and such, but we’re not going to tell you what’s in it; you’ll have to buy it from the Stationery Office if you want to find out.”

Anyway, this one is headed …

government notice
for the attention of landowners
and marine/land users
special protection area
counties clare, kerry and limerick

… in white on black with a harp on one side and a NATURA 2000 logo on the other.

Now, as a possible operator of steamship services, I’m a potential marine/land user, so I’m interested in this. I want to know more about whatever this Special Protection Area is and how it might affect my operations.

For the birds

The heading takes up 4.5 cm of the ad. Down the bottom, a list of affected townlands, with a small map showing the Shannon Estuary, takes up another 16.5 cm, so there’s 11 cm left to tell us what it’s all about.

The first 1.5 cm of that tells us that the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (née the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport) proposes to designate the Shannon and Fergus Estuaries as a Special Protection Area for wild birds under the EU Bird Directive. This area will be part of a European network of such areas. Another 2.5 cm lists offices where we can look at maps of the area, so we have 7 cm left to answer these questions.

What activities Will be affected?

The site has been identified and selected on ecological and ornithological grounds and will be recognised as an internationally important site for birds. Ireland must take appropriate measures to protect such sites and prevent pollution, deterioration of the site or excessive significant disturbance. Designation does not restrict existing activities that are not harmful to wild birds.

Hmm. So my proposed new (or rather revived, but certainly not existing) activity, the steamship service, will be restricted. And some unspecified persons have “identified and selected” this site, not after a wide-ranging appraisal that weighs one consideration against others but solely on the grounds of their own special interest.

What exactly will I not be able to do?

This is not answered in the ad: I had to turn to the departmental MS Word document  NOTICE OF INTENTION TO DESIGNATE RIVER SHANNON AND RIVER FERGUS ESTUARIES (Site code: 004077) COUNTIES CLARE, KERRY AND LIMERICK as a SPECIAL PROTECTION AREA, kindly supplied by, where the full horror was revealed. I will have to get the department’s permission if I want to do any of these things:

  • Reclamation, including infilling
  • Blasting, drilling, dredging or otherwise removing or disturbing rock, minerals, mud, sand, gravel or other sediment
  • Introduction, or re-introduction, of plants or animals not found in the area. [Consent is not required for the planting of crops on established reseeded grassland or cultivated land]
  • Construction or alteration of tracks, paths, roads, bridges, culverts or access routes
  • Burning, topping, clearing scrub or rough vegetation or reseeding.[Consent is not required for these activities on established reseeded grassland or cultivated land provided it is greater than 20m from a river, stream or floodplain; or greater than 50m from a wetland, lake, turlough or pond]
  • Drainage works including digging, deepening, widening or blocking a drain, watercourse or waterbody
  • Felling of trees or removing timber, including dead wood
  • Planting of trees or multi-annual bioenergy crops
  • Any activity intended to disturb birds, including by mechanical, air, gas, wind powered or audible means
  • Developing or allowing the development or operation of recreational/visitor facilities or activities, at a commercial scale
  • Harvesting marine invertebrate species in intertidal areas
  • Driving mechanically propelled vehicles in intertidal areas, except over prescribed access routes.

Well, that would certainly put paid to my steamer service. But no doubt there is an appeal process, during which my economic, tourism and industrial heritage concerns would be weighed by an impartial arbiter against those of the birdies ….

When it’s set up, who will decide, and on what grounds?

Er, no.

It seems that the same unspecified persons might be deciding whether existing activities are harmful to wild birds and whether any activity, existing or planned, constitutes or causes pollution, deterioration or “excessive significant” disturbance.

Those with a legal interest in areas affected by this proposal are required to consult with this Department before undertaking new activities in or near this site.

Eh? Given that “this site” is the whole of the estuaries of the Shannon and the Fergus, the department could be doing a lot of consulting. How near is near?

But maybe I don’t have a legal interest so I don’t have to consult. Here’s what the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht says about the matter in its document:

A landowner/user contemplating undertaking such works is required to seek the consent of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. (In practice, such consent should be sought initially from the local NPWS conservation ranger.) The works can only commence on the grant of the Minister’s consent.

Affected landowners, occupiers or users who have had an application for consent refused may appeal against this refusal within, but not later than, 30 days after the date of refusal. Details of the appeals process are available from […].

Note the focus on land rather than water. Why are landowners privileged thus? [Answer: because they’re an organised body with lots of votes and time to spend picketing ministers’ offices.]

The nature of the consulting is not described but it is clear that the department can ban an activity and it is not clear that the decision will take account of anything other than the welfare of our feathered friends.

There is a second leg to the enforcement:

Planning authorities will include this site in all relevant Development Plans. The proposed designation will be taken into account when assessing any future development proposals in or near the SPA site.

What is a development proposal? If my steamship doesn’t need any muck shifted, will I escape this control? If my steamship offers passengers the opportunity to fire shotguns at passing birdies, will anyone notice?

Who gets told?

Those identified by the Department as having a legal interest in areas affected by this proposal are notified directly in writing. Others who believe that they should have been notified will be provided with this documentation on request.

That’s interesting. First, “legal interest” is neither defined nor explained. Second, “believe they should have been notified” is not the same as “believe they have a legal interest” and the difference is not explained. Third, it is not clear what the opposite of a “legal interest” is: could my proposed steamship operation be an illegal interest?

Admittedly, when I emailed to ask for “this documentation” I was not asked any questions about the nature of my “legal interest”. I was sent a Word document [see above] and maps of the area of the estuary in Co Limerick that will be affected; I have asked for the maps for Cos Clare and Kerry.

Incidentally, does that email address mean that the Department of the Environment etc is involved in this too, or that its conservationists are about to be reallocated to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht? You’d need a full-time employee to keep up with what bits of the administration are where.

Note too that “Further details” are available for “land owners and land users” but that marine users are not mentioned.

Who can object now?

Not a lot of people. First, it’s too late:

This proposed site has already been advertised and/or protected under Statutory Instrument. This new proposal will specify the conservation interests protected by the proposed designation.

Second, you have to have a legal interest:

Objections will only be accepted from persons with a legal interest in the area proposed for designation.

As “legal interest” has not been defined or explained, it’s not clear who can object: perhaps only land-owners. My proposed steamship operation may not have a legal interest.

Third, you have to supply a “good quality map outlining clearly the area subject to objection”. What is a good quality map? For my steamship operation, the entire estuary is the “area subject to objection” so why do I need to supply a map?


Objections can be made on scientific grounds only.

So what does that mean? I want to object on economic grounds, and economics is a social science, so I presume I’m OK …. Well, actually, I don’t: this reads to me like an attempt to limit the possible objectors to (a) members of the birdloving community (comme on dit) and (b) those rich enough to employ qualified -ologists to construct scientific-sounding objections for them. Your average proposed steamship operator, small farmer or fisherman won’t be allowed to object.

Fifth, there is a three-month deadline and, sixth, no objections can be made after that, so the whole scheme is written in stone from then on: birds rule OK.

The appeal process itself is not exactly designed to give prospective appellants confidence in the fairness of the process. From the Word document:

Stage One (internal review) is conducted by the local National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) conservation ranger. […] If your objection is not successful following this review, it can then be considered further at Stage Two by the Designated Areas Appeals Advisory Board.

This option is available only where an objection is unsuccessful at internal review. […] The Board is comprised of an independent chairperson and equal representation of landowners/users groups and conservationists.

The Board must confine itself to consideration of the scientific arguments relating to the specific lands only. In this regard, a scientific report from a suitably qualified expert is required. Some grant assistance is available towards an appellant’s costs for the expert engaged in the production of a scientific report. A list which details some independent experts who can provide assistance in drawing up the scientific evidence on which it is intended to base the appeal will be provided. An appellant is, of course, free to engage the services of an expert other than those listed on the panel.

So landowners get in as second-class citizens, after the birds, but nobody else is heard.

Shotgun boogie

Now, I’m all in favour of our feathered friends (especially roasted). I even feed them throughout the winter, and all I get in return is guano all over the garden. But I don’t want the bloody things ruling the, er, roost.

I went to the EU website page about the Birds Directive. I even downloaded and read a copy of the Directive. It didn’t give me much more information, but I did spot that the Directive …

… shall apply to birds, their eggs, nests and habitats.

But “habitats” could be used to ban any activity affecting any part of the estuaries. Dredge alongside a pier, run a steamship or collect some seaweed as a traditional fertiliser and you could be breaking the law.

Maybe that’s what’s needed to protect stocks of the lesser spotted seagull, but the problem here is that this entire process seems to have been designed to put birds first, landowners second and everybody else nowhere.

Industrial -v- natural heritage

Now, anyone who has looked around this site will have seen that the Shannon Estuary is an extraordinarily rich industrial heritage zone, one in which water and land have interacted for hundreds of years. Embankment of the creeks reclaimed land; it also allowed the creeks to be used to carry manures (sand and seaweed from the estuary, limestone from the Limerick shore) in to fertilise the land and to carry its produce out to market.

Meanwhile, turf extracted from Poulnasherry and elsewhere, at the western end of the estuary, was carried to Limerick, Bunratty and other places at the eastern end. The turf boats sometimes carried passengers to the new seaside resorts, and the combination of passenger traffic and cargoes of agricultural produce led to the introduction of steam shipping: the Shannon Estuary was at the forefront of shipping technology in the early nineteenth century. Piers were built, forts protected the estuary and lighthouses marked its hazards. All of those constitute a rich transport and engineering heritage, and one that could be exploited for tourism. Transport innovation continued with the advent of rail and even of air transport: the two themes of transport and power characterise the estuary’s history.

Nemo iudex in causa sua

But any attempt to develop a tourism business (even one more modest than running a steamship) around that heritage will now run up against the Birds Directive. Even if the piers did not need dredging, the Word document explicitly mentions tourism:

Developing or allowing the development or operation of recreational/visitor facilities or activities, at a commercial scale.

Any such development requires the explicit permission of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and there does not seem to be any provision for taking account of any interests but those of the birds. The designation process, as I understand it so far, gives me no confidence that tourism or industrial heritage or economics or common sense or anything other than birds and landowners would get a say. The avian enthusiasts are judge, jury and executioner, and that does not seem either fair or sensible to me.

I’m all in favour of taking the interests of the birdies into account, but I don’t see why they should get a veto.

And of course this page is completely pointless because, being neither a bird nor a farmer, I am not allowed to object to the designation of the estuaries as an SPA.

You, gentle reader, may know more about this than I do (it wouldn’t be hard), so please tell me that we haven’t surrendered to the birds as well as to the ECB.


One response to “Guano

  1. Pingback: Foynes | Irish waterways history

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