A Donegal landowner has been ordered to allow staff from the National Parks and Wildlife Service onto his lands in a bid to restore damage to the habitat of Freshwater Pearl Mussel.
Richard Homer (pictured above) appeared at Donegal Circuit Court after launching a District Court Appeal arising from a case heard last year.
Homer was found guilty of damaging the habitat of Freshwater Pearl Mussel and fined a total of €16,500 in Donegal District Court on 13th June 2022, which included costs in the case.
He had pleaded not guilty to all three separate charges against him, he was found guilty of breaching Section 23 of the Wildlife Act 1976 in that he wilfully disturbed the breeding and resting place of a protected wild animal, Section 69 of the same Act in that he used a mechanically propelled vehicle in the commissioning of an offence, and Regulation 35 of the Birds and Natural Habitats Regulations 2011 in that he caused significant damage to a European site.
Homer, of Orchard Drive, Donegal Town had cleared vegetation, disturbed the bank of the River Eske in Milltown, Donegal and dug a number of drains to the river using a digger on his lands.
This work resulted in significant sedimentation to the river which led to the deaths of hundreds of Freshwater Pearl Mussels and significant stress on those that survived.
Freshwater Pearl Mussel are a critically and increasingly endangered species and are protected under both the Wildlife Act 1976 and the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011, which has designated the River Eske as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for the species.
Barrister for the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Ms Emile Daly, BL, said that as well as parts of Norway and Russia, the River Eske in Donegal is one of the most important rivers in Europe for the species.
Ms Daly outlined the events which led to the prosecution of Homer last year.
She said the overall effect of the work meant that the mussel in the habitat had been “suffocated.”
She told how Homer had allowed a digger to be use don his lands to reprofile banks adjacent to Lough Eske on Good Friday during the first Covid Lockdown in 2020.
Photos of the damage caused to the banking were handed into court.
Ms Daly outlined how the lifespan of the Freshwater Pearl Mussel is between 10 and 250 years and so the damage of approximately 95 metres of banking had decimated this habitat.
Judge John Aylmer asked if the damage caused was irretrievable but Ms Daly said no.
However, because staff from the National Parks and Wildlife Service were not allowed to enter onto the lands while an appeal was ongoing, the demise of the mussels was still ongoing.
The NPWS was represented in court by Regional Manager, Mr Tim Roderick.
Ms Daly told the court that she had come to an agreement with Homer’s barrister, Mr Desmond Murphy SC, which would allow staff back onto the land in an effort to help save and restore the habitat.
The court retained the three fines in the case totalling €9,000 but reduced the costs of €2,500 on the first charge to €2,000 and vacated the costs in charges two and three meaning Homer will have to pay a total of €11,000.
An order to allow NPWS staff onto the lands within three months from today was also agreed.
Judge Aylmer said this was a very good result given the seriousness of the case.
He also allowed the prosecution liberty to re-enter if there were any issues relating to staff from the NPWS entering onto Homer’s lands.
At the time of the original prosecution, Minister Malcolm Noonan said: “I really welcome this conviction. Though they were once widespread in Ireland, Freshwater Pearl Mussels are now a critically endangered species and highly sensitive to environmental conditions.
“I’d like to acknowledge the sterling efforts and dedication of the NPWS staff involved in bringing this prosecution, and indeed the efforts of staff all around the country who successfully closed 21 prosecutions in 2021 and 20 more to date in 2022, and are currently progressing a further 48. I’d like to remind everyone that the NPWS has more rangers than ever, and that it has never been more focused – or more effective – on wildlife crime.”