Tuesday 27 September 2016

Ecologist brought in to monitor Star Wars filming on Skellig Michael

Published 08/09/2015 | 16:51

Skellig Michael will be used in the latest Star Wars film
Skellig Michael will be used in the latest Star Wars film

An ecologist has been given the power to shout cut on the filming of the latest Star Wars movie.

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The sea crag of Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry, an Unesco world heritage site, has been opened for a second time to let George Lucas's production back on the island for several days this month.

Despite criticism from heritage agency An Taisce, the Government sanctioned the crew's return to the former monastic hermitage - but gave a conservation officer the final say on movie making.

Heather Humphreys, Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, said getting another film in the latest Star Wars trilogy back on Ireland's Atlantic shores is a win.

"Sceilg Mhichil (Skellig Michael) is one of our most dramatic and beautiful islands and it is very easy to understand why its stunning scenery has caught the attention of the makers of one of the world's biggest film franchises," she said.

Filming is expected to last between two and four days, with preparation and clear up work covering several weeks.

Eight return helicopter flights have been licensed and it is understood director Rian Johnson has been cleared to film some scenes at dusk and at night from the sky up to 9pm - despite concerns about nocturnal sea birds.

Ms Humphreys said she wanted to facilitate filming by one of Hollywood's most powerful studios while protecting the island with an ecologist and personnel from the National Parks and Wildlife Service supervising the shoot.

"The return of Star Wars to Sceilg Mhichil is another win for Ireland and the Irish film industry, which is a growing and dynamic sector of our economy," she said.

LucasFilm has been in talks with the Government since March about a return to the Skelligs.

In a bid to dispel further concerns about the impact on the important breeding ground, Ms Humphreys said a survey has been completed to collect detailed, site specific and up-to-date information on all the island's inhabitants.

Producers have also been told to abide by stringent bio-security protocols to stop rats getting on to island.

But BirdWatch Ireland said it has serious concerns as the island is home to colonies of the manx shearwater and the European storm petrel - both said to be vulnerable and highly sensitive to disturbance.

"(The) colonies on the island are amongst the largest in the world, and the site is of enormous international importance for both species. Due to their nocturnal habits, however, they generally go unnoticed by visitors, unlike Skellig Michael's famous breeding puffins," spokesman Niall Hatch said.

"Thousands of chicks are still in their nesting burrows and cavities in the island's walls and beehive huts, however. Their parents spend the daylight hours out at sea, only returning to feed their chicks once darkness has fallen."

It has been 15 years since a thorough survey was carried out of sea bird life on the Skelligs.

Mr Hatch added: "The assessment which has been carried out by the National Parks and Wildlife Service on the potential impacts of the filming on Skellig Michael's vulnerable nesting sea bird populations is far from conclusive, and conclusions have been made without sufficient scientific information upon which to base them."

Film crews were on the island last year for the forthcoming Star Wars VII - The Force Awakens, but their presence drew criticism as it was during the nesting season.

An Irish Navy ship was also used to enforce an exclusion zone around the island during filming.

Episode VIII is scheduled to be ready for a release in May 2017.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, the cast is expected to include Benicio del Toro - but little else is known about the latest in the trilogy.

Ms Humphreys said: "Later this year, when the latest Stars Wars film is released, the incredible beauty of Sceilg Mhichil will be brought to hundreds of millions of cinema goers across the world.

"This is a great example of how film-making can operate in harmony with environmental protection, providing all necessary safeguards are in place, allowing us to showcase our unique cultural and heritage to a global audience."

An Taisce said it wanted to know if the Government had gone to the dark side after refusing to reveal the exact details of the filming licence.

Ian Lumley, heritage officer, said: "It is utterly unacceptable for the minister, charged with the protection of cultural heritage, to conduct herself in such a secretive fashion.

"This is particularly so where the minister has granted permission to a private company to trample for three weeks over one of the most sensitive archaeological and environmental locations in the state for the sole purpose of generating a profit."

Press Association

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