A Serial Rogue?

This time last year I posted about re-introducing eagles into Wales, ( which you’ll need to read if you want some background……).  To cut a long story very short, last February, completely out of the blue, and within a couple of days of each other, two such projects were announced. One was being set up by a character named Paul O’Donoghue, at one time a “senior lecturer” at Chester University. More recently he is the figure behind the Wildcat Haven project in Scotland, and the Lynx UK Trust, which made an unsuccessful attempt to re-introduce wild lynx into the Kielder Forest on the English/Scottish border. I concluded by saying that Paul O’Donoghue was a controversial character whose

sudden arrival is bad news for rewilding in Wales in general and for the ERW project in particular. It must be hoped that Dr O’Donoghue will soon return from whence he came.”

More news about Paul O’Donoghue has emerged  in the last few days. Wildcat Haven (basically O’Donoghue and his wife) had set up a business partnership with the company Highland Titles Ltd, selling tiny souvenir plots of land which “entitled” the buyer to style themselves as “Laird, Lord or Lady of Glencoe”.  In a number of blog posts and tweets the Scottish Green MP and land rights campaigner Andy Wightman criticised this relationship. As a result Wildcat Haven sued Wightman for defamation, a claim involving the astonishing sum of £750,000 damages (plus interest).  In a welcome judgement, the case was very recently dismissed.

Meanwhile, the website “Wilder Britain”, set up by O’Donoghue to promote one of his companies (previously known as “Rewilding UK”) and its golden eagle re-introduction project, has mysteriously become unavailable.

Further digging has shown that in 2011/12 Scottish Natural Heritage gave grant funding totalling £5778.00 to the University of Chester’s Biological Science Dept, for research into the (genetic) purity of wildcats in the Cairngorms National Park; no results had been received by SNH more than five years later.

It has been suggested that O’Donoghue uses his websites and social media accounts (LynxUK, Wildcat Haven, Wilder Britain etc) to raise money for projects which never actually see the light of day. If that is the case, I wonder if any of the donors ever get their money back?

In an article about O’Donoghue in its 6th March edition (not the first, by any means), Private Eye tells us that he has recently set up yet another Community Interest Company called “We Rescue Animals” and suggests that we may soon be hearing more from him. It adds that Highland Titles has pulled out of its partnership with Wildcat Haven. Unfortunately the article also confuses “Rewilding UK” (O’Donoghue’s company), with the charity “Rewilding Britain” which launched the Summit to Sea rewilding project based in Machynlleth, mid-Wales. It’s not surprising that such a simple mistake could have been made, but I have written to Lord Gnome to clarify matters.

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You wait for years for an eagle re-introduction project to arrive….

Golden eaglet, Isle of Mull, 1981.

……. and then two come along at the same time!

A good friend and I have often discussed how good it would be to see golden eagles back in Wales. We have often thought that the area above Nant-y-moch reservoir, in the shadow of Pumlumon, would be one of the best sites in Wales for them. It is remote, quite mountainous and very little visited. One imagines there would be a fair few dead sheep to feed on too. In contrast, the number of walkers and climbers around the great crags and summits of north Wales and the Brecon Beacons are such that golden eagles would probably be unable to tolerate the disturbance. But when other conditions are favourable their nests can sometimes be at “walk-in” locations, as I discovered while doing a golden eagle survey on the Isle of Mull many years ago.  So quieter parts of Snowdonia, like the Arenig/Migneint and the Rhinogydd, might be suitable, despite a shortage of cliff or tree nesting sites.

A few months ago I became aware of the Eagle Re-introduction Wales project (ERW). It is based at Cardiff University, and has the backing of the Welsh Wildlife Trusts. It is currently undertaking some pre-feasibility studies to examine whether there would be a niche in Wales for either or both of the UK’s eagle species.  For most of its short life, the ERW project has been carrying out its activities very much ‘under the radar’. It expects that re-introducing eagles into Wales will be controversial and is building the case for it in a methodical and deliberate fashion. That all changed recently when a completely separate golden eagle re-introduction project made its TV debut on Countryfile Winter Diaries.

Presenting the proposal was Dr. Paul O’Donoghue, project leader for “Wilder Britain”. They plan to submit their application for a release licence to Natural Resources Wales in July. Dr O’Donoghue is quoted on the North Wales Live website (18th February) as saying –

If successful, project organisers hope to re-introduce 10 young Golden Eagles as soon as this autumn, though next year is more likely.”

The release will form the model for further releases elsewhere in Wales.  He is obviously very positive about their chances of success. The trouble is, any re-introduction project like this has to satisfy something like fifty-three guidelines set out by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). They just don’t happen overnight.

‘Wilder Britain’ is a Community Interest Company, based in St Asaph, with just one director – Dr. Paul O’Donoghue. It was set up on 25th August 2018, and until January 25th this year was known as  “Rewilding UK”.

As a result of some of his other recent initiatives, Paul O’Donoghue has become quite a controversial character. He is also ‘Chief Scientific Advisor’ to Wildcat Haven (directors Emily O’Donoghue and Douglas Wilson).  This is a fairly well-established project doing good work on wildcat conservation in Scotland; for example catching, neutering and re-releasing feral cats and wildcat/feral cat crosses so that they become unable to reproduce. It is also proposing to re-introduce wildcats from elsewhere in Europe into the Scottish Borders this year2019 . On the other side of the coin Wildcat Haven has also entered into an unpleasant war of words with the “official” wildcat conservation body Scottish Wildcat Action. Wildcat Haven has also sued for defamation a very well-respected Green Party Member of the Scottish Parliament. It is believed that the astonishing sum of £750,000 (+ interest) is involved. The court case is due to be heard later this year.

Then there’s the Lynx UK Trust. Its registered address is also in St. Asaph, and its directors are Paul O’Donoghue and Emily O’Donoghue. The Lynx UK Trust submitted an application to release wild lynx into the Kielder Forest (on the England / Scotland border) early in 2018, and it was turned down in December. The refusal was just about as damning as it could possibly have been. Natural England was concerned, among other things, about the project’s lack of financial security, its reliance on volunteers, its lack of liaison with land- owners and managers, the lack of an environmental impact assessment, and insufficient information on the methodology for “acquisition, release and monitoring of lynx”. They had failed to satisfy some of the most important IUCN guidelines. Despite this refusal the Lynx UK Trust now proposes to re-introduce Lynx at three locations in Scotland ………

It appears that ERW got wind of the Wilder Britain announcement and decided to take pre-emptive action. A press release from project leader Sophie Lee-Williams also dated February 18th appears on the BBC News website. In it she says –

“Wales is home to large expanses of potentially suitable eagle habitat but there are many questions we need to answer about the quality of habitat, and whether it can sustain eagles. The project is in the very early stages of development, and a reintroduction is not likely to happen for some time.”

The two projects couldn’t be more different in their approaches.

So what chance does Wilder Britain stand of getting a release permit this year for golden eagles in Snowdonia? My feeling is very little. So little ecological groundwork has been done. Also on their agenda for Wales is the re-introduction of mountain hares – a worthwhile project in itself but which could take years to undertake.   One of its aims is to provide prey for introduced eagles.  So why not work on this first? Perhaps the mountain hare isn’t sexy enough? While he may be very good at making headlines, in the cold light of day Paul O’Donoghue’s proposals seem to me to amount to little more than an elaborate wishlist. And with the track record he has quickly built up how can the authorities take him seriously?

I would also suggest that his sudden arrival is bad news for rewilding in Wales in general and for the ERW project in particular. It must be hoped that Dr O’Donoghue will soon return from whence he came.

Many thanks to Jonathan Stacey for advice and inspiration.

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