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Europe and Central Asia

The dark side of 'Star Wars'

By Niall Hatch, 12 Oct 2015
Skellig Michael has transformed from a home for monks into a haven for seabirds. Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki/Wikipedia

Picture a nearly-uninhabited rocky island. Greenery grows where the uneven ground flattens out. The sound of the waves crashing on the rocks is punctuated only by the bird calls of thousands of European Storm-petrel, Atlantic Puffin, Black-legged Kittiwake, Manx Shearwater… and the “zzznnn” of lightsabers.

The place in question is Skellig Michael, an island that lies 13km off the coast of southwest Ireland that is owned by the State. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was once home to a 6th century Christian monastery made up of stone “beehive huts” for hermit monks, and now houses breeding colonies of some of Europe’s most iconic seabirds.

The famous 'beehive huts' from the ancient monastery. Photo: Jen Lynch

The most recent seabird population figures available for Skellig Michael, taken from the Seabird 2000 survey conducted more than 15 years ago, estimated the presence then of 9,994 breeding pairs of European Storm-petrel (10% of the national population) and 738 breeding pairs of Manx Shearwater. 

It’s understandable why a lonely island is an attractive habitat for seabirds: For centuries, European Storm-petrel have been nesting in gaps between the huts’ stones and in adjacent stone walls, and the Manx Shearwater and European Storm-petrel colonies on the island are amongst the largest in the world.

They probably were not counting on the monastery’s ruins catching the eye of Walt Disney Pictures and Lucasfilm, who saw them as an ideal retreat for Luke Skywalker, the protagonist of the Star Wars films.

On 8 September, Irish heritage minister Heather Humphreys (responsible for the Irish Film Board and Ireland’s National Parks and Wildlife Service) granted permission for up to 180 Star Wars cast and crew members to travel to the island to shoot the new film: Episode VIII. Within hours of the announcement, they arrived on the island with masses of filming equipment, and production there lasted almost two weeks.

The mid-September filming date meant that many seabirds, including Skellig Michael’s famous breeding Puffins, Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills had already finished nesting and had departed the island with their chicks.

         A nesting Kittiwake chick. Photo: Laura Glenister

However, thousands of storm-petrel and shearwater chicks would still have been in their nesting burrows at the time of the shoot (they don’t fledge until late September or October). Their parents spend the daylight hours out at sea, only returning to feed the chicks once darkness has fallen, thus going unnoticed by visitors.

Despite the Irish government’s conciliatory measure of appointing an ecologist to monitor the shoot, BirdWatch Ireland (BirdLife in Ireland) and other Irish NGOs contest that the approval to film was given without proper public and expert consultation and without valid scientific evidence as to the potential effects on nesting seabirds. Permission was even granted for night-time helicopter filming on and around the island, at times when parent birds would have been returning from sea to feed their waiting chicks. 

A Puffin on Skellig Michael, with Little Skellig in the background. Photo: Liam Kane

“The lack of transparency in this case is particularly galling,” said Dr Stephen Newton, senior seabird conservation officer with BirdWatch Ireland. “It simply isn’t acceptable that decisions that may adversely affect one of Europe’s most important seabird colonies have been made in such a secretive way, without consultation or discussion… especially given the fact that the other island in the group, Little Skellig, is a BirdWatch Ireland reserve and that both islands are jointly designated as an IBA for breeding seabirds.”

Even if we assume the best – that no chicks or birds were affected – the risk of the accidental introduction of invasive alien predators such as the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus) and the American Mink (Neovison vison) during the transportation of filming equipment does not seem to have been factored in.

This was not the first visit to the island by the Star Wars crew. Despite fierce objections from BirdWatch Ireland and other Irish NGOs, and concerns from UNESCO, filming took place there in July 2014 (for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) for two weeks during the seabird breeding season. Long-term effects on the island’s breeding bird populations remain unknown, but there are disturbing reports that during filming, several hundred Black-legged Kittiwake chicks were blown by a helicopter from their cliff-ledge nests into the sea, where they drowned.

The State’s failure to carry out comprehensive surveys at this and other seabird nesting sites since 2000, despite being obliged to do so by law, severely hampers any assessment of the true impact of the Star Wars filming activity. It may now never be possible to judge the long-term effects on the island’s vulnerable seabird populations.