The Lawless OPW

Mar 11

The Lawless OPW

March 11th 2023 
by Pádraic Fogarty

Emo Court in County Laois is a splendid example of neo-classical architecture completed in the mid-1800s and set within mature trees and manicured gardens. It was also, until recently, home to a nationally important roost for brown long-eared bats.

Emo Court is one of dozens of State properties which are managed and maintained by the Office of Public Works (OPW).

The OPW is also the chief public body with responsibility for flood risk management and, in what is these days an obviously conflicting role, the river drainage programme for the maintenance of agricultural lands under the Arterial Drainage Act.

The former has attracted much attention among environmentalists and indeed the Irish Wildlife Trust has not only campaigned for reform of the ADA but has highlighted works that we believe were in breach of nature protection laws, e.g. on the River Newport in Co. Tipperary.

In the winter of 2019, the OPW set about repairs and maintenance works at Emo Court which included the basement which was home to the brown-long eared bats.

All of Ireland’s bat species are protected under the Wildlife Act and any works which may disturb them can only proceed under licence from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

Indeed, bats are not just protected they are ‘strictly protected’ due to their listing on Annex IV of the EU’s Habitats Directive. A document published by the NPWS in 2021 states that ‘strict protection’ means “that the carrying out of any work which has the potential to capture or kill any specimen of a Strictly Protected species, or to disturb these species, or to take or destroy eggs of such a species, and for which a derogation licence has not been granted, may constitute an offence under Regulation 51 of the Regulations”.

The works which were underway in November 2019 by the OPW were carried out in the absence of such a licence. When this was pointed out they set about applying for one but this left the NPWS in a bind.

According to emails released to Sinn Féin Senator Lynn Boylan under the Freedom of Information Act, in the days before Christmas 2019, a senior NPWS ecologist told his colleagues that “based on the ecological report we have received, it appears that a significant impact to the bat population on site cannot be ruled out. On that basis the Minister cannot issue a derogation licence for the proposed works at Emo Court”.

Indeed, a site inspection by the local NPWS conservation ranger in November 2019 found that “there was evidence of recent works in the basement area, (hard wall filler stuffed into former crevices). Overall there has been quite a lot of works above the basement, which may have had the effect of disturbing the site. […] If there was a lot of bats in the basement – they’re not there now”.

On the day before Christmas Eve 2019 a letter was dispatched to OPW HQ in Trim, Co. Meath, from the NPWS to instruct that “no further works are done as we have concerns about possible detrimental effects to bats at the site from works already carried out to date and proposed in the future”.

However, a follow up visit from the ranger in January 2020 observed “direct evidence” of works taking place in the basement as well as a “person operating an industrial hoover on the first floor – the noise of which was causing a significant disturbance to the bats”. The ranger noted the fact that a letter had been sent from the NPWS before Christmas but, he added “the evidence […] suggests that the Office of Public Works were ignoring this letter”.

These details are contained in a report prepared by the ranger for line management in the NPWS and which was released to Senator Boylan only in September 2022, and after appeal to the Office of the Information Commissioner. It concluded that “breaches of the EU (Birds & Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 had occurred” and went on to recommend “that the Office of Public Works is prosecuted” under the aforementioned Regulations “for disturbing the breeding and resting place of bats in Emo Court House without a bat derogation licence”. The report drafts a summons and provides a statement of evidence. But no case was ever taken against the OPW.

Lynn Boylan has been dogged in her pursuit of this issue. The failure to act against the OPW is significant given that in March 2021 Minister of State with responsibility for the NPWS, Malcolm Noonan, said that he welcomed NPWS’s “’zero tolerance’ approach to offences under the Wildlife Act” which he (rightly) described as “serious offences”. He promised the establishment of a ‘wildlife crime unit’, such as operates in the UK, however that idea has been ditched (that’s another story).

How can the State maintain authority in prosecuting wildlife crimes when it would appear that these laws only apply to private individuals, while a blind eye is turned to crimes committed by State bodies?

The law around the protection of bats is enforced through the courts. As any developer will tell you, applications for planning permission are scrutinised for potential impacts to bats and applications are frequently accompanied by detailed reports based on ecologists’ surveys and promises of mitigation measures. Last August, a large housing development in Killarney was refused permission due to the potential for impacts to occur bats.

When confronted in the Seanad last March by Senator Boylan, Minister Noonan referred to his department’s “very strong relationship” with the OPW and that it was his “strong view that this ongoing good working relationship provides the best and most efficient means of protecting wildlife and our built heritage sites in the care of the OPW”. He refused to condemn the illegal works.

As for the bats themselves, the conservation ranger pointed out that Emo Court had been of ‘national importance’. The roost, which is used for both summer breeding and winter hibernation, has been monitored by Bat Conservation Ireland and had 74 bats in 2018. Minister Noonan informed the Seanad that “Bat Conservation Ireland undertook three surveys at Emo Court in 2021 and the surveying records indicate a stable population of bats in line with levels recorded in the 2012-20 period”.

However, this is a different picture to one that was revealed in survey data that the IWT received last month under a Freedom of Information request. This showed that on the 29th of March 2022, three long-eared bats were observed roosting in the basement of Emo Court. In May 2022, 16 bats were noted in various locations. Another check on June 7th revealed a single bat in the hallway of the basement along with two dead bats while no bats at all were recorded the following week, June 14th. On June 20th another survey, again no bats; on June 28th there was one, the next day: two. Two surveys in July identified no bats.

Brown long-eared bat by Maurice Flynn

A follow up survey in November 2022 noted that a “single unidentified bat was observed roosting on the ceiling in the round cellar room where there was also extensive droppings on the floor. This was the only bat observed within the entire basement at the time of the survey”.

A specially designed ‘roost room’ was a condition under an NPWS licence for works in 2020 and was constructed that summer. However, the 2022 surveys found no evidence that it was being used. While these surveys noted that “bats were still using the basement of Emo Court” in the summer of 2022, the numbers indicate that it is no longer of ‘national importance’.

The special status of the OPW, it would appear, will ensure that no sanction will ensue for this criminal damage. So much for Minister Noonan’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach to wildlife crime.

In February 2021 the IWT wrote to Minister Noonan to ask that a full investigation be carried out about the works at Emo Court. We have yet to receive a response.