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The call of the wild Protecting nature with the National Parks and Wildlife Service has been in Barry O'Donoghue's blood since childhood. But the Head of its Agri-Ecology Unit believes that engaging with people is vital in the quest for Irish conservation

Barry along the coastline of his native County Kerry

The balance between farming and nature is a hot-button issue around the world, and Ireland is no exception. But behind the headlines there is a growing push to bridge the gap between those who farm the land and the nature that depends on it to survive. Barry O’Donoghue, who has worked with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) since 2005, is one such person at the coalface, looking after the NPWS’s Agri-Ecology Unit with his four staff.

It’s a career that’s in his blood, as he reveals: “Since I was a young boy going out into the field with my father, I always wanted to be a Ranger with the NPWS. In February 2005, I realised this lifelong ambition.” The apple didn't fall far from the tree - Barry's father was himself one of the first Wildlife Rangers: they started in 1979 and were pioneers for the NPWS itself.

It’s a dream career with the NPWS - part of the Department of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht - that has produced many highlights. “I would feel ashamed to say any of the many magnificent experiences I have had with nature, whether sitting atop a mountain looking across the landscape or holding Hen Harriers or Golden Eagles or seeing Curlews or Corncrakes rear their young would be ‘work’.

“I have had many very interesting experiences, ranging from engaging with communities about their local wildlife to dealing with armed men poaching deer.”

“Since I was a young boy going out into the field with my father, I always wanted to be a Ranger"

But at the heart of his job are serious issues that need to be tackled through new approaches built on consensus. As Barry explains: “The work that I do is very important. When you consider that we depend on a healthy and functioning environment for our very existence and that agriculture is the dominant pressure on our environment in Ireland, it is vital that there are people working towards more sustainable agricultural systems. This relates to climate, water and biodiversity among various other issues.”

He believes that farming has the capacity to adapt and embrace change – something it’s done through the ages. “The Irish landscape and the habitats within it are the product of thousands of years of interaction with agriculture. This relationship has never been constant; agriculture has always been a dynamic industry and it has responded to changing social and economic conditions,” he says.

“At the same time, in recent decades there has been a decline in the number of farmers, particularly on High Nature Value farmland areas and so too a decline in soil and water quality as well as biodiversity. We have the opportunity in Ireland to work together for a more sustainable situation for the environment, farmers, and society in general.”

He’s realistic about the challenge, admitting that major change “doesn’t happen overnight so it can at times be a difficult and long road, but one that we simply have to travel if we want to see change. It is always a joy when you see a breakthrough and positive progress.”

"We have the opportunity in Ireland to work together for a more sustainable situation for the environment, farmers, and society"

And while engaging with nature has given him many stand-out moments over the years, Barry counts one interaction with a human as a career highlight. “A landowner, who didn’t have a great attitude towards NPWS, one day approached me and began asking genuine questions about nature. It turned out that a couple of weeks previously I had awarded his son a prize in an art competition I ran for the local schools and the son had told him all about the local nature. His father was clearly very proud that his son had won something, but it showed to me the power of communication and positive engagement.”

Barry, Frank King and Barry's father Tim at a Hen Harrier site. 'Between us we have watched at this particular site for a collective 138 years and lived for a collective 200 years!'

He believes that supporting biodiversity can be a win-win for farmers and conservationists, adding: “The NPWS continuously champions the role that farmers can and do play in looking after our environment. A sustainable future for farmer and the environment is within reach if policies align to support farmers to produce not just food, but wider ecosystem goods and services including carbon sequestration, water quality and biodiversity.”

Barry admits he sees his role as more than a career; it’s his life. “I often considered what I did in the world of conservation as a vocation, not a job. In recent years I have come to realise that for me, it is actually more of an obligation than a vocation in that I simply couldn’t walk away from knowing the habitats or species that give me, and so many others, so much joy are in trouble and need help. It is a great honour and deep responsibility to be involved in the line of work that we do.”

One species that’s getting much-needed support is the Curlew. “One of the projects that many people have become familiar with over recent years is the Curlew Conservation Programme. The Curlew is a well known and much loved bird of Ireland, which has suffered a major (96%) decline in population over the last few decades,” he says.

“The Curlew Conservation Programme involves locally based teams of advisors, champions and nest protection officers, working closely with landowners and other local interests, to protect Curlew nesting attempts and to improve habitat quality. NPWS Conservation Rangers and management are also centrally involved in a number of areas. I lead on this programme, which places the landowner and the birds at the centre of all considerations, with key goals of giving the Curlews a better chance of rearing chicks and stopping the population sliding further towards extinction.”

"I simply couldn’t walk away from knowing the habitats or species that give me, and so many others, so much joy are in trouble and need help."

But the nature of his work means the office calls as often as the wild. “I am in suits more than boots. Much of the job is office and meeting-based and I manage four staff with whom I am lucky to work. I do get out on site with the job regularly however. This is vitally important to maintain a close engagement with various players on the ground. I get out and enjoy wildlife any spare moment I get in my own time and I am managing a farm and woodland for wildlife also.”

He adds: “Predominantly I work in the line of agri-environmental policy vis-à-vis both national and Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The current period (the build-up to the new CAP Strategic Cycle) is of great importance in that regard and is a large focus of my work. The Agri-Ecology Unit also retains the facility to develop, test and advocate agri-environmental plans/projects under the NPWS Farm Plan Scheme and with others (eg, third level institutes, eNGOs, etc). In this regard, we look to progress and modernise. I provide scientific and technical advice in relation to agricultural management towards reaching and sustaining good environmental condition.”

The current period is particularly busy: “In the build-up to the new CAP Strategic Cycle, we are engaging closely with various stakeholders including colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine. This involves assessing the current state of play, the current policies regarding farming and the environment, identifying priorities and designing solutions for these priorities.”

Barry reveals that there’s never a dull moment in his working life: “It is crazy in terms of how broad-ranging it is. There is no typical day! The only constant is that there is a desire to work with colleagues and various stakeholders to try and make things better.

“I am often on the train to Dublin and people sitting near me must wonder what I am working on, given the phone calls, which can range from managing budgets to the legalities of pesticide possession; from research projects to habitat management projects; from talking to farmers about their stock to advising landowners about a particular habitat or bird; or from agri-environmental policy to the joy of discussing a Curlew chick that has just taken its first flight.”

And there’s a great deal of covering ground: “It is broad-ranging in terms of geography. I deal with subjects in every county and part of Ireland from Donegal to Cork, Galway to Wicklow. This is great as it provides variety and new topics. I love meeting people from various different backgrounds and areas and seeing the differences yet similarities for example people’s attitudes, different names on the same plants, people’s links to their home place, etc.

“In the course of the job, and given its wide reach, I think it is also safe to say that in Agri-Ecology Unit we deal with more of our NPWS colleagues than just about any other section of the Department.”

As with all his colleagues in conservation, Barry hopes to engage and inspire a new generation to play their role in the area. His passion for biodiversity was helped to ignite through the work of his role model, American naturalist Frances Hamerstrom, who passed away in 1998.

“She was a great conservationist and in fact one of the very first female wildlife biologists,” says Barry.

“She received her Master’s under the famous Aldo Leopold back in 1940. She is credited with saving the Greater Prairie Chicken in Wisconsin and worked bravely in making the scientific and political case against DDT, which threatened so much of our wildlife, including in particular birds of prey including the Peregrine Falcon.

“She had great respect and admiration for wild creatures and was a top-class scientist. I have a number of books that she wrote and just love her natural and engaging writing style.”

The Curlew Conservation Programme's end-of-season get-together at Connemara National Park in 2019

Surveying at home in North Kerry

Barry undertaking research on a Climate Change project in Alaska studying apex predators - in this case Golden Eagles - as indicators of climate change