Niall Hatch of Birdwatch Ireland has said that while wardens will shoot foxes to protect the little tern colony in Kilcoole, this is as an absolute last resort. 'I can't stress how reluctant we are to ever kill a fox,' he said.
Mr Hatch was responding to concerns raised locally regarding the management of foxes at the site, which is there for the protection of the endangered species of bird. The numbers are tiny and the bird is very much close to extinction. He said that the largest little tern colony in the country is located at Kilcoole beach. While it is managed by Birdwatch Ireland, that is under the authority of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
He said that the species is under threat from predators of all types, including human beings. 'The eggs and chicks are very highly camouflaged, they look like stones,' said Mr Hatch.
The colony moves a bit each year. They are protected by a portable fence which can be rebuilt.
'Occasionally foxes do get in, or chicks wander out,' said Niall. 'That poses a risk. The National Parks and Wildlife Service mandated that there has to be fox control.'
The majority of that is non-lethal, with a lights system installed to scare foxes away. Wardens also patrol the beaches and have spotlights to scare them away.
'One fox could wipe out an entire colony and make the little tern extinct,' said Niall. 'Most colonies have disappeared, so drastic measures are needed.' The little tern was once very common in Ireland but human activity has led to it reaching such small numbers.
'Having to kill a fox is not something we would derive pleasure from,' said Niall. 'It's a terrible thing to have to do, but it's the only way to save the species. We hope dearly that it would not happen, but sometimes it's a necessary conservation tool. It's also required by the NPWS.'
Niall addressed a claim that someone reported Birdwatch Ireland shooting starlings some years ago. 'If someone doing that said they were from Birdwatch Ireland, then they were lying,' he said. 'We have never killed a starling and we never would. It would in fact be a criminal act.' He said that the starling is not a predator to the little tern.
Hedgehogs, however, are, as they will eat the eggs. 'On one occasion a few years ago a single hedgehog nearly wiped them out.' It was early enough that the adults were able to lay more eggs. 'Hedgehogs are easy to catch, they can be picked up and relocated, so have never been harmed.' The practice of shooting foxes has been under way at the site for several decades, but has happened less frequently as Birdwatch Ireland introduce other measures to deter the predators.
'If there were no wardens and no fences there would be no terns,' said Niall.
Kilcoole is the largest colony in the country, with around 120 pairs of the birds. 'It's the only substantial colony in the country,' said Niall. There is another in Louth with fluctuating numbers, sometimes several dozen, sometimes none, and occasionally up to 100. Other areas will see just a couple of pairs.