Category Archives: Connaught Telegraph 2015

Ballycroy National Park & Wild Nephin to become a dark-sky park

  1. Description of  project including specific location and associated newspaper (100 words max)

Our project seeks international recognition for Ballycroy National Park & Wild Nephin to become a dark-sky park.  The issue of human health, effects on wildlife and a general waste of valuable energy are important reasons to take light pollution seriously.  By designating dark-sky places, we can raise awareness of light pollution and at the same time develop educational/science based programmes through related interests in Astronomy.

We plan to work with local communities on an environmentally friendly light management plan and encourage appreciation for our pristine night-time skies.  This would be a niche attraction for Mayo and is a sustainable eco-tourism project with an environmental conscience.

  1. Rationale and objectives of project ( 100 words max)

How did the project originate?

The project began as a student dissertation research as part of a BA in Outdoor Education at GMIT Mayo entitled “Preservation of our Night-time skies” ; a study on the impact of light pollution and the potential for establishing a dark-sky park in county Mayo.   The study established that Ballycroy National Park had strong potential to qualify as an official dark-sky place and this was not just of interest to astronomers.  By building awareness of light pollution (a growing problem in economically successful countries), the West of Ireland can help to reduce wasted energy in excessive lighting, improve functional lighting where needed, reduce impact on wildlife and save costs.

  1. Phased plan of project

Please present this in bullet form style (6/7 bullet points should be sufficient)

April 2015 – GMIT Study was completed

June 2015 – Community steering group established “Friends of Mayo Dark Skies”

July 2015 – Establish project plan and key milestones for Application submission to International Dark-sky

August 2015 – Meteor Shower Watch evening

Sept 2015 –Gallery of Astro-photographs launched at Ballcroy Visitor Centre with Guest Speaker Secretary of Galway Astronomy Club on Aurora Borealis

November 2015 – Guest Speaker Prof. Brian Espey of Trinity College Dublin – What is Light Pollution & We should we care about it?

10 December – Collaboration with GMIT “Appreciation of the Night Skies in an Urban Setting”; student works themed on dark-skies at Lough Lannagh. Kayakers & Canoeists on a night time paddle with candle lit lanterns for a visual spectacle.

October – purchase of new equipment for measurement of Sky Quality of surrounding area.

October – December  – Updated Sky quality measurements taken

November – First draft of Application submitted to the International dark-sky association (awaiting comment)

December/January – collate all data and submit application to International Dark-sky Association.

  1. Planned benefit of the project to the community and environs? (100 words max)

Sustainable local communities require the development of a low-impact on the environment and reduced resource use. Both of these topics can be addressed through the light pollution theme which will not only increase awareness, but also identify and quantify the dominant offenders, serve as a baseline for future work undertaken nationally and, hopefully, save council and private money through identifying areas where more efficient lighting installations or practices could be introduced.

There are also educational benefits in programmes that will be established as part of the project – astronomy encourages students in physics, maths, heritage and natural sciences.

  1. Who is or will be involved  in the project (please give details of approximate numbers

The steering group includes 12 members from community groups in Ballycroy, Newport and Mulranny, also the Ballycroy National Park, Mayo county council, Mayo Development, local astronomers and physicians and project management team (ex GMIT students who developed the project initially).  The number may grow /shrink as the project develops.

All acting in voluntary capacity.


benefits of DS photo brian espey talk brian Wilson gallery matchoo on light meter posterfor gallery rockfleetcastlesteve suspensionbridge

A simple way to look after amazing birds

Swifts can fly as fast as a Ferrari

SWIFTS are extraordinary birds and really have the ‘Wow’ factor. When Lynda Huxley, of Swift Conservation Mayo, gives talks at schools she finds that the children are mesmerised by the the story of this amazing bird. Especially when they learn that swifts eat, drink, preen and sleep on the wing, and that they can fly as fast as a Ferrari! It’s impossible not to be impressed when you learn that they are are the fastest bird in Ireland’s skies. As Lynda explained: “Swifts look fast and they are, they can reach speeds of around 130 mph when flying around in one of their ‘screaming parties’.”

Pupils of Breaffy National School showing their support for the swift conservation programme.
Pupils of Breaffy National School showing their support for the swift conservation programme.

Another amazing fact about them is that swifts never land except to breed. They fly about 500 miles a day which means they any easily fly from Castlebar to Dublin and back in a day. This is really useful for them because on a wet, windy day here when there are few insects flying around they can fly off to somewhere where the weather is better. The journey between Ireland, where they breed, and Southern Africa, where they spend the winter months, is a round trip of around 14,000 miles. In a swift’s lifetime it will fly around two million miles which is the equivalent of more than four trips to the moon and back which is an amazing thought. You’ll be delighted to learn that one of their favourite foods is midges.

A little insect that drives us all mad and which is in plentiful supply here it the west. The parent swift will collect up to 500 flying insects in a ball or bolus in its throat pouch and take this back to the nest to feed the chicks. When the swifts are with us in summer each pair will consume over half a million insects, just think what our lives would be like if they weren’t here hoovering up the midges! In the summer of 2015, students at GMIT were helping Swift Conservation Mayo to study how often the parents were able to bring balls of insects back to the chicks. This was done by watching recordings from the live-streaming cameras in campus nest boxes.

It’s the first time such a study has been done in the west of Ireland. On a day of good weather, the parents would bring a bolus to the chicks every 40 minutes. However, on a day of poor weather, heavy wind and rain, the chicks would have to go without food for 24 hours. You would think that a chick going without food for 24 hours would die. But here is another amazing fact about swifts, their bodies can go into a torpor if they are without food.

This means that their metabolism slows down and they are in a sort of coma, which enables them to survive a day or more without food. Swift chicks are somewhat unattractive when they first hatch. It’s six days before their eyes open but from then on they develop into beautiful chicks which have large dark eyes with white eyeliner. Lynda explained: “The development of the chicks takes about six weeks, which is three weeks more than most other birds.

As they grow they exercise in the nest by doing push-ups, using their stiff wings, to strengthen their flight muscles. This is vitally important for their survival because once they take that leap of faith from the nest they have to be able to fly non-stop for the next three years.” Swift Conservation Mayo has been raising awareness and setting up nest box projects for the past five years. Everything that has been achieved so far has been made possible through grant funding and donations plus many hours of voluntary effort and support.

These days, swifts nest almost exclusively in buildings in our towns. Before this, they would nest in holes in trees or in cliff faces. In fact, there are still some swifts nesting in cliffs in Co. Antrim and Co. Sligo whilst, in Scandanavia and Scotland, there are a few birds still nesting in trees. This reliance on our buildings, which to swifts are in effect ‘man-made cliffs’, has led to a serious decline in the swift numbers due to renovation and demolishing of buildings and thus the loss of nest sites.

So, installing nest boxes which have been specially designed for swifts has been a major part of Swift Conservation Mayo’s efforts to help reverse this decline. Since swifts nest for life in their chosen nest site, and this could be for up to 14 years, it’s important to ensure that that nest site is there for as long as possible. So a box made of wood crete (mix of woodpulp and concrete) with a guarantee of 30 years is used.

Traditional swift nest sites and nest boxes are located at an elevation of over three metres so that when they leave the nest they can launch themselves just as a hang-glider does when he jumps off a cliff. This enables them to get the necessary aerodynamic life for flight. Swifts are faithful to their nest site and to their partner with whom they will mate for life. But, they only come together for their time in Ireland when they will breed. For the rest of the year and for their migration to Africa they live apart.

Swifts bring great drama and excitement to the skies

THE swifts are with us for just four months of the summer from May to August, but whilst they are here they bring drama and excitement to the skies of our towns with their aerial displays and the amazing fast flight of the ‘screaming parties’.

These exciting birds have shared our buildings for hundreds of years, in most cases without us even realising it. Swifts are like no other bird. They look similar to the swallow and the house martin but in fact they are not related to them at all.

A builder installing swift boxes during the construction of a new building in Mayo.
A builder installing swift boxes during the construction of a
new building in Mayo.

Unlike swallows and house martins, the swift does not perch on wires and in fact it never lands other than to go into its nest to lay eggs and rear its young. So, the swift spends the majority of its life on the wing and amazingly, when a young swift leaves the nest it will then fly non-stop for at least two or three years until it is ready to find its own nest site and a partner.

During that time it will fly to Southern Africa for the winter and return in early May to breed. You may be wondering how does a bird that flies 24 hours a day manage to sleep. Lynda Huxley of Swift Conservation Mayo explained: “In the evening as the light begins to fade they fly up to around 3,000 metres where they close down one half of their brain whilst the other half continues to work to keep them in the air.

“However,” she added, “our swift population has experienced a sharp decline, by over 40%, in the past 15 to 20 years. This time scale ties in with the Celtic Tiger years when there was a large amount of building refurbishment and demolition.”

The simple act of replacing fascia board and guttering can be enough to deny swifts access to their ‘traditional’ nest sites because modern methods and materials no longer leave the small gaps that swifts need to access their nest site.

The renovation, conversion and demolition of old buildings has taken place without any knowledge of swifts nesting in these buildings and yet this could have been avoided. Lynda realised that an action plan approach needed to be established to achieve a reversal in this downward trend in swift numbers in County Mayo.

The first step was to install special swift nest boxes at GMIT Mayo Campus in Castlebar in 2012. This has since been followed by a further 12 nest boxes projects in the county with several of these being at national schools. It also became obvious to Lynda that a fundamental part of any conservation strategy for the swift has to be protection of their ‘traditional’ nest sites. However, in order to do this we have to first know which buildings in our towns house these ‘traditional’ nests. Lynda explained that the swift’s relationship with its nest site is crucial to the survival of the species as a whole. She elaborated: “Swifts are extremely faithful to their nest sites and if they are denied access to that nest for whatever reason (re-roofing, for example) they will often continue to attempt to get into that nest sites for several years and as a consequence they may never breed again.”

So, over the past two years, with a team of volunteers Lynda has surveyed every town in Mayo to identify and record each building with swifts nesting and the number of individual nest sites. The result is a unique survey because Mayo is the first county in Ireland that can say that it now knows exactly where the majority of swift nest sites are located. What the survey has shown is that the majority of the nests are located in buildings that are pre-1940s.

The reason for this is that the building techniques and materials used for construction post 1940 deny swifts access to the buildings because they do not have holes that the birds can use. In fact, any pre-1940s building that has undergone renovation work or has been reroofed with these new techniques would also have been done in such a way that swifts are denied access.

The survey has also highlighted that the number of breeding pairs of swifts in the whole of the county is only around 200 and this is a reflection of the situation nationally. Some towns have reasonably healthy numbers, such as Castlebar, Ballina and Westport, with approximately 30 breeding pairs in each town. Ballina has 33 recorded nest sites but these are in located in just eight buildings.

The old garda accommodation in Walsh Street (next to the Jackie Clarke Museum) has seven pairs of nesting swifts, which is close to 25% of the town’s swifts. However, there are locations such as Kiltimagh, Crossmolina and Killala where there are fewer than 10 nesting pairs in each town and these towns are a demolition/ renovation away from losing their swifts.

For Belmullet and Achill, where swifts were recorded by Ireland’s father of ornithology Robin Ruttledge in the 1940s, it is too late as there are no swifts breeding there today. Swift Conservation Mayo is working with schools, arts centres, county council officials and many others to secure the swifts in the rest of the county. A wonderful example of a collaborative project is the new Town Hall in Westport where they have the first ‘built-in’ swift nest boxes nationally.

This is the best type of nest box project because they have been built into one of the walls especially for the swifts and will be there for them for the life of that building. Not only that but renovation work can take place and the swifts retain their nest sites, as has have achieved at the recently renovated chapel near the Mayo GMIT campus where collaboration with architects and the heritage officer has meant that the nest sites for the seven pairs that use that building have been saved.

The swift has the potential to become a ‘flagship’ species for Mayo. The county’s nest box projects and survey of nest sites put it in a unique position to be a blueprint for swift conservation nationally.

Graduate aims to have astro-tourists flocking to Mayo

by Tom Shiel

Georgia has stars in her eyes

OUR ancestors had wonderful  night views of the stars unsullied  by artificial light pollution.  The Milky Way and The Big  Dipper, signposting the North  Star, were as familiar to them  as the humps and hollows on  the nearest hill or mountain.  But now, with earth ever developing  and populations expanding,  the awesome night  sky is mostly disappearing.  But there is one tiny corner  of north-west Europe, the  10,000 acre Wilderness Park  in the Wild Nephin range of  Mayo, where the distant stars  and galaxies can be viewed,  clouds permitting, in all their  glorious splendour.  One young woman, Georgia  MacMillan, a a graduate in  Outdoor Education at Galway-  Mayo Institute of Technology  (Mayo Campus) has a dream.  She is working tirelessly to  have Ballycroy and surrounding  area designated as a Darksky  Park, the first in Ireland.  Georgia, who grew up in  London and has a Mayo born  mother, Teresa (Barrett), formerly  from Bangor Erris, feels  the Nephin wilderness zone  has the potential to become  one of the best dark-sky locations  in the world.  Tourism would prosper  from such a designation, she  insists in a dissertation, “Preserving  our Night-Time Skies”,  which she recently completed  as part of her studies for a BA  (Hons) Degree in Outdoor Education  at GMIT.  To lend weight to her opinion,  Georgia points to the fact  that since Galloway Park in  Scotland opened in 2009 as  the first Dark-sky Park in the  United Kingdom there has  been a local surge in tourist  numbers.  “Seventy seven per cent of  local B&B owners reported  increased numbers,” Georgia  commented.  She added: “People who  visit National Parks in daytime  such as families, hikers,  nature lovers also tend to have  a passing interest in the nighttime  sky.”  Numbers of astro-tourists in  Ireland’s south-west have also  increased since the recent designation  of the Kerry Dark-sky  reserve.  A local committee has been  established – the Mayo Dark  Skies Steering Group – with  support from the National  Parks and Wildlife Service and  Mayo County Council.  There are representatives  involved from Ballycroy,  Newport, Mulranny as well as  other locations in the National  Park hinterlands.  The ongoing task is to build  awareness of the impact of  light pollution, not only on  our view of the stars, but also  its effect on wildlife as well as  reducing energy waste with  unncessary cost.  The response both locally  and nationally to the Ballycroy  Dark-sky initiative has been  tremendous.  In this regard, Georgia Mac-  Millan would especially like  to single out Professor Brian  Epsey of Trinity College,  Dublin, who has provided  research sources, light meter  equipment and even travelled  to Ballycroy for the purposes  of setting up a field study.  Members of Galway Astronomy  Club have also lent  the fledgling Ballycroy group  some valuable equipment.  The elimination of local light  pollution which could hinder  star-gazing is one of the immediate  aims of the Dark-sky  team.  “We want to encourage local  people to to think about the  type of lights they are using,”  Georgia explained. “Home  security lights are commonly  known to produce light pollution  in the form of glare. Simple  repositioning of the lights  can help.”  Georgia makes it clear she’s  not an astronmer adding: “But  I have always appreciated the  night skies.  “I would prefer to walk on  a dark street than a bright one  even though I am from the city  (London). I don’t like harsh  lighting. I think it’s a little unnecessary.”  Excessive lighting, she  adds, can also have impacts  for wildlife and human health  (through circadian clock interference).  The young graduate ends  our interview by emphasising  that Dark-sky status for Ballycroy  would not only bring  media attention to the area  for eco-friendly tourism but  would also fit in neatly with  the enviromental goals of the  National Park.  Fittingly, Georgia began her  dark skies thesis with a famous  quote from the 19th/20th century  French physicist, Jean  Perrin: “It is indeed a feeble  light that reaches us from the  starry sky.  “But what would human  thought have achieved if we  could not see the stars?”