BirdWatch Ireland, Ireland’s largest conservation NGO, has serious concerns over today’s announcement that the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys T.D., has granted permission for filming of portions of the next instalment of the Star Wars franchise on the island of Skellig Michael, off the Co. Kerry coast. Our concerns are in relation to the breeding populations of two vulnerable seabird species that are currently nesting on the island, namely the Manx Shearwater and the European Storm Petrel, which are highly sensitive to disturbance.
We also have serious concerns about the manner in which the decision to grant permission to film was reached, and also that this decision was made in the absence of proper public and expert consultation and without valid scientific evidence to support it.
The State was obliged in the present instance, under both Irish and EU law, to screen for and carry out an Appropriate Assessment before making any decision whether or not to grant permission to the Star Wars film-makers to film on Skellig Michael: we would contend that this procedure, one which is required for any activities scheduled to take place at sites of European importance, was not adhered to.
The Manx Shearwater and European Storm Petrel colonies on the island are amongst the largest in the world, and the site is of enormous international importance for both species. Due to their nocturnal habits, however, they generally go unnoticed by visitors, unlike Skellig Michael’s famous breeding Puffins. By this time of year, the Puffins have finished breeding and have departed the island with their chicks. Thousands of European Storm Petrel chicks, as well as a significant number of Manx Shearwater chicks, are still in their nesting burrows and cavities in the island’s walls and beehive huts, however. Their parents spend the daylight hours out at sea, only returning to feed their chicks once darkness has fallen.
The most recent seabird population figures available for Skellig Michael, taken from the Seabird 2000 survey conducted more than 15 years ago, estimated the presence then of 9,994 breeding pairs of European Storm Petrels (10% of the national population) and 738 breeding pairs of Manx Shearwaters. The State’s failure to carry out comprehensive surveys at this and other seabird nesting sites around the Irish coast since this, despite being obliged to do so by law, severly hampers any assessment of the true impact of the Star Wars filming activity on either species.
Our contention is that the impact that the Star Wars filming may have on Skellig Michael’s breeding birds is unknown, and BirdWatch Ireland believes that the Minister, acting on the advice of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, cannot possibly have had enough information about the potential impact on these vulnerable birds to be certain that their populations would not be adversely affected before making her decision.
We are alarmed that there was no opportunity for proper consultation with experts and conservation NGOs, as well as with other relevant stakeholders, before this decision was made. We will be submitting our concerns to the Minister and to the National Parks and Wildlife Service relating to potential disturbance both to the seabirds and to the site.
Of particular concern is the fact that, despite BirdWatch Ireland having brought the serious risks involved to the attention of National Parks and Wildlife Service officials, permission has been granted to the film-makers by the Minister to engage in night-time filming sessions on and around the island by helicopter. The production team has been granted permission to carry out these activities until 9:00pm, by which time the parent birds will be returning from sea to feed their waiting chicks. We find it very hard to believe that the National Parks and Wildlife Service could possibly have the necessary scientific data to conclude that these activities do not pose a serious risk to these nocturnal birds and could not cause them to desert their chicks. The impact of the noise and activity on the chicks themselves is also unknown.
The assessment which has been carried out by the National Parks and Wildlife Service on the potential impacts of the filming on Skellig Michael’s vulnerable nesting seabird populations is far from conclusive, and conclusions have been made without sufficient scientific information upon which to base them. There needs to be a much better process for assessing and approving potentially detrimental activities at priority heritage sites in Ireland, particularly those that are home to such important wildlife populations.
We would also point out that seabird survey work, conservation work and research in Ireland has been very poorly funded in Ireland. This is despite obligations on the State under both Irish and EU law regularly to census and assess the status of our nation’s globally-important seabird populations and to ensure their protection, especially at their breeding grounds.
- Skellig Michael is home to one of the most important breeding colonies of two vulnerable seabird species, the Manx Shearwater and the European Storm Petrel, both of which are nocturnal and which are still currently nesting on the island.
- Permission to film has been granted without proper consultation with experts and without valid, current scientific evidence.
- We are particularly concerned about plans to conduct filming on and around the island after dark by helicopter.
- We believe that the State has failed in its obligation under the law to screen for and carry out an Appropriate Assessment before granting permission to film.
- There needs to be a much better process for assessing and approving potentially detrimental activities at priority heritage sites in Ireland, particularly those that are home to such important wildlife populations.