Address at the Official Opening of the Biodiversity Festival and Honey Show
Phoenix Park Visitors Centre, Saturday 14 September 2019
It is a great pleasure to be here today with you for the opening of what is the inaugural Phoenix Park Biodiversity Festival and Honey Show. The Festival is an initiative of the Office of Public Works (OPW), and the aim of the show is to celebrate the Phoenix Park’s rich and natural biodiversity through a programme of events consisting of free activities, including walks, talks, tours, documentaries, music and art.
I am particularly delighted that the festival programme will feature talks by invited guests, really distinguished and committed scientists including Professor Jane Stout of Trinity College, Dr. Simone Ciuti of UCD, as well as representatives from the National Biodiversity Centre and Birdwatch Ireland. This will be a marvellous event with experts in their area sharing the learning and understanding of the Park with a broad audience.
Not enough people are aware that over the years, the OPW has undertaken a variety of surveys generating detailed inventories of the wildlife and biodiversity of the Phoenix Park. The OPW staff work with many organisations, including Birdwatch Ireland, UCD’s School of Biology and Environmental Science, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service in relation to the protection of species and their habitats in the Park.
All of this rich legacy of data and research will inform the programme that has been developed for this new festival. The Festival’s purpose is to build public engagement with, and understanding of, the wonderfully diverse place that is the Phoenix Park, and by doing so engendering a civic desire for it to be celebrated and protected, and by doing this deepening our connection, our resonance with nature, ecology and biodiversity.
The Phoenix Park is one of the largest enclosed recreational spaces within any European capital city, a great lung for the city, a sanctuary from the city, a place where one can all feel the benefits of being in touch with nature. It is of course also the home of the President’s residence and as an inhabitant of the Park in Áras an Úachtaráin, I am fortunate to be in a position to appreciate some of these beautiful surroundings daily.
With the growing trend towards urbanisation, it is important to make room for biodiversity to flourish and co-exist with us. It is vital that we protect our national biodiversity to ensure that we, and generations to come, can all enjoy the balances it brings and pleasures it gives.
When we speak of biodiversity, we are recalling something that is fundamental, that biodiversity is the variety and variability of life on Earth. Biodiversity is typically a measure of variation at the genetic, species, and ecosystem level. While terrestrial biodiversity is usually greater near the equator, which is the result of the warm climate and high primary productivity, Ireland is fortunate to be home to 28 land mammal species, over 400 bird species, more than 4,000 plant species and over 12,000 insect species.
The National Parks and Wildlife service is responsible for the protection and conservation of Ireland’s natural heritage and biodiversity at national government level. It has key strategies for protecting these species, delivered through three main categories of conservation area: Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protection Areas and Natural Heritage Areas. I had the privilege in the 1990s of signing these into Irish law.
Countries share their survey findings. Ireland, along with more than 130 other countries, is active in the protection of biodiversity at international level, through membership of the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The Platform provides governments and society around the world with scientific assessments on the state of the planet’s biodiversity, ecosystems, and the important contribution they make to people and society.
At its recent meeting in Paris, members of the Platform received disturbing news – stark scientific evidence on the health of the natural environment highlighting an alarming decline in nature, a critical risk for humanity in the 21st century. The evidence is presented in the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. That report which is the most comprehensive assessment of its kind yet produced had a clear message.
The message is clear: nature, biodiversity – the life that we share on this planet and the contributions it makes to human existence – is in trouble.
As with climate change, the scientific evidence is unequivocal that the primary causes are human-driven. The Report tells us that, globally, we are losing biodiversity at a rate that is unprecedented in human history. The number of plants, insects, mammals and birds that are threatened or endangered is growing year on year. The Report assesses those changes that have taken place over the past fifty years and it presents a clear picture of the relationship between economic development and how it affects biodiversity.
The land, ocean, atmosphere and biosphere are being altered at an unparalleled rate. The Report makes it clear that the current response from the international community to loss of biodiversity is insufficient and that deep, sustained, shared, transformative changes are needed to restore and protect nature and the benefits and essential services that are derived from it.
We are lucky to have as a great facility in Ireland the Irish National Biodiversity Data Centre which collects and manages data on Ireland’s biodiversity to document Irish wildlife resources and track how it is changing over time. A few months ago, the Irish National Biodiversity Data Centre published results from its butterfly and bumble bee recording schemes. These surveys reveal rates of decline in these important insects that must be of concern to all of us. Declines in the common bumble bee population are significantly above the 1% annual global average.
As with climate change, the situation is urgent, but solutions are possible, and each of us can do our part to reverse these deeply worrying trends that threaten humans’ future survival on the planet.
I am delighted that the Office of Public Works, in its management of the Phoenix Park, is showing leadership and setting the standard for biodiversity by shining a light on the issue through this important festival which is taking place in such an appropriate setting. This celebration of the rich and natural biodiversity, right here in our capital city, is a great example of what we can do in an urban setting.
Biodiversity decline and loss of habitats does not happen in isolation: other societal and economic issues are also relevant. Indeed, climate change itself is a significant cause of biodiversity loss. Sustainable measures to protect biodiversity can also have a positive impact on other societal challenges. Sustainable agricultural practices to protect biodiversity can, at the same time, meet food production needs.
Farming, of which I will speak at the Ploughing championships, is the very fabric of our rural landscape and plays a vital role in our fight against biodiversity loss. The Department of Agriculture Food and Marine has been working with farmers, the custodians of our countryside, for many years now in rolling out Agri-environmental schemes to protect and enhance biodiversity.
In most recent times, I am glad to say that there has been substantial progress in more targeted biodiversity conservation measures, such as the implementation of the Green, Low-carbon, Agri-Environmental Scheme (GLAS), the Burren Programme and the locally led and European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs).
Approximately 50,000 farmers have participated in the GLAS programme. This is a scheme that is hugely influential on the farming landscape because it prioritises actions which target the preservation of priority habitats and species.
The Burren Programme is an example of where the wider farming community can come together and work towards the protection of a precious local ecosystem.
Moving from the farm-level to the national level, the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan was launched in 2015. This plan is about all of us, from farmers to local authorities, to schools, gardeners and businesses, coming together to try to create an Ireland where pollinators can survive and thrive.
We can make small and easy changes to our landscapes that will help protect these vital creatures, and this plan makes steps in showing us all how easily we can achieve pollinator-friendly habitats no matter where we are. Simple actions like mowing grass less often, retaining soft landscaping over hard paved surfaces, and letting the odd flowering weed spring up in your garden here and there can have can be hugely beneficial to pollinators. I encourage you to try what you can. Every measure has the potential to influence change and protect our environment and biodiversity and even assist in climate mitigation.
Finally, this weekend we are not only here to celebrate biodiversity, but also the produce of the honeybee. The honey show event has been held in the Phoenix Park since 2015, and competitors from across Ireland come to display their honey in all its glorious forms.
The most important managed species of pollinator is the honeybee, and I am very pleased that there has been a recent surge in the number of people taking up the courses and acquiring the craft of beekeeping. At this show we can sample the delights that are produced by this wonderful insect.
May I take this opportunity to wish all competitors in the honey show my very best, and I look forward to perhaps sampling some of the honey in all its various forms and flavours. Mar focal scoir, in conclusion, may I congratulate those who have worked behind the scenes to deliver the Biodiversity Festival and Honey Show.
I wish to commend especially the work of the Office of Public Works for their efforts and inspiration in organising this new festival, I congratulate and thank too, all the State Departments, Agencies, the Local Authorities, and of course, our great national resource, the many voluntary organisations that have combined to facilitate the smooth running of the event.
To all those visiting the Biodiversity and Honey Show over the next two days may I wish you, I am sure you will have, a very enjoyable and inspirational experience.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.