Mooney Goes Wild Monday 23 December 2019

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Mooney Goes Wild

Mooney Goes Wild

Derek Mooney and guests explore the natural world in all its forms.

Mooney Goes Wild Christmas Tree Special

Most of us are familiar with the classic Yuletide song Oh, Christmas Tree. A festive season staple since the beginning of the 20th Century, at this time of year it is sung across the English-speaking world. But did you know – as is the case with many Christmas traditions that we hold dear in Ireland and elsewhere – that it originated in Germany?

O Tannenbaum – literally, "O Fir Tree" – began life as a German traditional folk song. The melody was composed back in the 16th Century, but had to wait until 1824 to be paired with its tree-themed lyrics, which were penned by the Leipzig organist, teacher and composer Ernst Anschütz. it was never intended to be a Christmas song. The lyrics, unlike English ones that came later, don’t actually make reference to Christmas at all, but rather to the tree’s evergreen nature, which was meant to convey faithfulness and constancy.

But over the course of the following decades Anschütz’s song gradually became associated with Christmas, no doubt prompted by the role that evergreen trees had begun to occupy during the festive season over the same period.

In celebration of their bright foliage and their resilience during the dark days of midwinter, and as a symbol of life itself, Protestant German families had begun to bring vibrant conifers into their homes at Christmas time. It is a widely held belief that the Christmas tree as we know it today was born in 19th Century Germany.

It soon became the custom in German homes to decorate these special Christmas trees with pieces of fruit, coloured paper, sweet treats and tinsel, which actually predates the modern Christmas tree by over 200 years. Before long, candles were also added to the trees’ branches and lit to bathe the tree and the room in light: these were the days before electrification, after all. Electric lights have replaced candles on Christmas trees in most places today, though lit candles remain popular tree adornments in Scandinavia.

So, the Christmas tree as we know it today was originally a German tradition. It is widely acknowledged that Prince Albert, the German-born consort of Queen Victoria, played the key role in the adoption of the tree as an integral part of British Christmas tradition. Albert was not the first actually to introduce the Christmas tree to Britain – that distinction goes to Queen Charlotte, the German wife of King George III, who erected a tree for a Christmas Day party at Windsor Castle in 1800, 19 years before Albert’s birth. But it was certainly Albert who popularised the custom amongst his wife’s subjects: thanks largely to his influence, the Christmas tree soon became a British Yuletide institution, as Dr Leon Litvak of Queens University, Belfast explains.

This drawing—which was published on the cover of the Illustrated London News on 23 December 1848—depicts Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, their five (at the time) children and Queen Victoria's mother (Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who was also known as the Duchess of Kent). 

But Prince Albert can’t take all the credit for the present-day popularity of the Christmas tree. That honour goes to a character almost as famous as Father Christmas himself: Charles Dickens. So much of what is considered Christmas tradition, especially in the English-speaking world, flows directly from the works of the most celebrated author of the Victorian period.

(Dr Leon Litvack, Reader in Victorian Studies, School of Arts, English and Languages. Queen's University Belfast with Queen Elizabeth.)

Leon Litvack, Professor of Victorian Studies at Queen’s University Belfast and world-renowned expert on the life and work of Charles Dickens.

Regardless of when the tradition started, there is no doubt that Christmas trees have really caught on. Today, they appear in all shapes and in all sizes. At this time of year it is almost impossible to walk down the main thoroughfare of virtually any European city without seeing at least one.

Kathryn Jones, Senior Curator at Royal Collection Trust picture copyright  Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019. 

But probably the most famous – not to mention the most glamourous – Christmas tree of all is to be found in North America: the massive Christmas tree outside Rockefeller Center in New York. Every year, thousands of locals, tourists and celebrities turn out to witness the switching on of its lights, which has become a Big Apple institution. This year’s tree is a 77-foot-tall Norway Spruce, which weighs approximately 14 tons. It lived for between 70 and 75 years before it was chopped down in November, and it has been decorated with over 50,000 lights. During the festive season, 750,000 people are expected to visit it . . . every day!

Christmas trees have become a tradition all over the world, but why do we go to all this trouble? Why do we take trees, drag them into our homes and cover them in baubles and lights? It’s quite an odd thing to do, if you think about it, and seems to have precious little connection to celebrating the birth of a major religious figure, aside, perhaps, from the star on the top. Well, some psychologists maintain that it’s all about making ourselves feel good. Simply put, there is scientific evidence that Christmas trees make us happy. Perhaps it’s the whole ceremony of decorating the tree together as a family and the sense of nostalgia it brings. Perhaps it’s the warm glow of the lights and the twinkle of the decorations. Perhaps it’s that unmistakable fresh conifer smell and having such a potent symbol of nature in the house. It’s certainly not the needles all over the carpet.

Not only that, studies have shown that people who put up their Christmas tree and decorations earlier are happier than those who wait until closer to the big day. There is a huge psychological element to Christmas, and indeed to the Christmas tree, as psychologist Michael Murphy explains.

(Michael Murphy - photo courtesy of

When it comes to choosing a Christmas tree, not just any old tree will do. Some species are much better suited to the task than others. Nordmann Fir, Norway Spruce, Lodgepole Pine, to name but a few. 

(Dr Matthew Jebb, Director of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland)

And having a real Christmas tree means cutting down – and therefore killing – a tree . . not just once, but every year. Is there an environmental consequence to this? Or, indeed, does creating large commercial plantations of non-native trees cause problems itself? How beneficial or otherwise are Christmas trees to the environment and to wildlife? 

(Photo - Niall Hatch)

The species of conifer that are usually grown commercially as Christmas trees originally hail from northern latitudes, and the Nordic countries in particular have long been associated with the business of Christmas tree production. Traditional Christmas tree species are also ideally suited to the Irish climate and tend to grow very well here, and there is a thriving Christmas tree farming sector in this country too. 

Size? Shape? Smell? Colour? Non-shedding needles? What makes the perfect Christmas tree? Prof. Gary Chastagner of Washington State University – better known to many as Mr. Christmas Tree – has spent his whole career trying to find, and indeed create, just that: the perfect Christmas tree.

Gary Chastagner, Professor of Plant Pathology at Washington State University

So, a tradition that developed in 19th Century Germany has become a worldwide phenomenon, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the British Royal Family and the world’s best-known Victorian novelist. The Christmas tree has become the focal point of family celebrations, and the festive season has become almost unthinkable without it.

So, as you gather around your own tree this Christmas season, think about where it came from, what it represents and what it means to you. It’s much more than just a simple tree, it’s a celebration of the natural world.

Back from the Brink is a one-hour programme that plans to celebrate the hard work, dedication, and commitment of conservationists who are striving to save endangered species from extinction. Here, Derek Mooney discusses this unique, pan-European natural history event.

I've been working in natural history broadcasting for over 30 years now. In that time, I’ve seen some truly wonderful sights, but I’ve also seen first-hand the problems that wildlife is facing, both in Ireland and around the globe. There has been a growing awareness amongst the general public, particularly in the last few years, of the threats to our environment and biodiversity.

In many ways, this has been long overdue, but I’m also aware that for a lot of people the current state of our planet can seem overwhelming, even depressing. We are increasingly bombarded by tales of doom and gloom. Issues like climate change and animal extinction are too often made to seem insurmountable, as though tragedy is a foregone conclusion, but that’s simply not true. It’s not too late to help nature. 

We need to find a way to bring some much-needed optimism back into the conservation. That’s definitely what attracted me most to Back from the Brink. Through my work over the years on Mooney Goes Wild, in particular, I have met thousands of dedicated scientists and conservationists out there, fighting hard to save endangered species and working miracles. By telling some of their stories, I thought we could inspire people and show that there is every reason for hope.

Nature is resilient, and if given a chance it can recover from all sorts of abuse. It was once thought that the Red Kite, a stunning bird of prey, was lost forever from Irish skies, shot and poisoned to extinction. To see dozens of them now flying over the Co. Wicklow countryside again, all thanks to the dedication of people who simply weren’t prepared to give up, was a humbling and inspirational experience.

The same goes for the enormous efforts that I witnessed to safeguard the growing populations of Wolves in Italy, Brown Bears in Spain and Eurasian Beavers in The Netherlands, to give a few key examples from the programme. Perhaps the most sobering part for me personally was seeing the dramatic effects that climate change has wrought on the Swiss Alps, where glaciers are rapidly melting and high mountain habitats are disappearing, along with the unique animals that live there. Even then, against all the odds, people are fighting back.

Back from the Brink is not just a story about animals. At its core, it’s really a story about people. We, humans, have caused our planet’s problems, but people are also the key to fixing them. Literally every conservationist I interviewed for the programme spoke with such passion about their work, coupled with an unshakeable belief that what they were doing was utterly worthwhile, and I think that shines through on the screen. It must do because even the production crews, and there were many across Europe, not least our own team here in Ireland, headed by Colm Crowley from RTÉ Cork and scientific advisor Niall Hatch, were totally dedicated to this project.

We want to empower as many of those viewers as possible, and to reinforce the truth that every single one of us can play a role in saving endangered species and the wider environment. It’s not just about doing your bit – it takes much more than a bit, it takes a lot! – but about understanding that we need to accept fundamental changes to the way in which we live our lives. Having seen what can be achieved when the will is there, it will be well worth it, believe me.

Watch Back from the Brink at 6:30pm on Monday, 30th of December on RTÉ One.

Second Chance Archive

Have another chance to hear some of our Mooney Goes Wild programmes uncovered from the RTÉ Radio 1 archive. Click the links below for more information. 

The Dance of the Cuckoos - Mooney Goes Wild Special 

The Blue Whale - Mooney Goes Wild Special

Feathers - Mooney Goes Wild Special

Bergen Whale - Mooney Goes Wild Special

Sparrows  - Mooney Goes Wild Special 

Wildlife Film Makers - Mooney Goes Wild Special 

The Common Swift - Mooney Goes Wild Special 

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Ireland and Climate Change: Are we up for it? Professor John Sweeney - Maynooth University

When the countries of the world assembled for the now famous Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to adopt the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, they undertook to take the necessary steps to prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change. Defining what was dangerous proved a difficult task, however, and largely as a result of the European Union’s prodding, a value of 2oC warming above pre-industrial times was generally adopted as the criterion. Gradually the rest of the world fell into line with this, except the Small Island Developing States of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. For them this was something that would have condemned their island homes to submergence beneath the rising sea. So when the Paris Agreement emerged in 2015, it had a nuanced objective: "to hold increases in global temperatures to well below 2 °C and pursue efforts to limit increase to 1.5 °C." To flesh out what the 1.5oC target would actually mean, the Conference asked the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to produce a Special Report, which they did in October of last year.

The report confirmed that significantly greater climate problems would be experienced at a warming of 1.5oc compared to the present day, even though we have already warmed by 1oC over pre-industrial levels. These would include increases in extremes of heat and heavy rainfall events in several regions, accompanied by more frequent and more intense droughts. But most worrying was the realisation that the remaining carbon budget to avoid this warming would only last for a decade or two at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions. After this budget was exhausted the carbon would be in the atmosphere for a century or more. Globally, emissions needed to fall by 45% on 2010 levels by 2030. It was this realisation that galvanised many groups and energised many individuals around the world, culminating in the mass protests we see around us. This was true, even in an Ireland whose compliance with its international obligations are failing miserably and its laggard status approaching the level of a national shaming. As a developed country with historical responsibility, we should be bearing more of the burden of tackling this problem than most other countries. Instead our per capita emissions are 50% higher than the EU average and place us as the second worst contributor to climate change on a per capita basis within the EU. The recently released 2018 figures confirm we are now 5M tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over the limit we agreed solemnly with our EU partners over a decade ago.

At the same time as we declared a climate emergency in Ireland this year we also declared a biodiversity emergency. This was in recognition that Ireland was also experiencing serious threats to its species and habitats, partly due to climate and also a number of other drivers, such as agricultural intensification. Another UN report in spring 2019 confirmed that human actions are now threatening more species with global extinction than ever before. The current rate of species extinction is 10-100 times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years. Around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades.

In Ireland, our peatland, coastal marsh and mountain habitats are particularly at risk. 29 different bird species and 120  species of flowering plants are in serious decline. Some bird species such as the Corn Bunting and Corncock have become extinct. Others such as the Curlew have been decimated and many species such as the pearl mussel, bumblebee, barn owl and marsh fritillary butterfly face serious threats. At the same time invasive species are moving into newly favourable ecological niches providing additional competition and stress to native species.

Ireland has warmed by 0.5oC over the past 30 years and is likely to warm by a similar amount over the next 2-3 decades. This  will have impacts on our growing season, making crops like maize much more feasible to grow. However, projected changes in rainfall are likely to be the main climate change problem Ireland will face. Already we are seeing an increase in intense rainfall events. Increased winter flood problems will result and the government will need to find €1B of taxpayers’ money to protect against future events. Winter storms are also likely to become more problematical. Winter 2013/14 was the stormiest winter in Ireland for at least 143 years. Winter 2015/16 was the wettest winter on record over half of Ireland. Former hurricanes such as Ophelia and Lorenzo pose additional late autumn threats which are likely to increase as the Atlantic warms and summer droughts will bring their own difficulties for agriculture and municipal water supplies. All in all, it is changing weather extremes which will bring the message of climate change home to Irish people and instil in them the urgency of playing a constructive role in international negotiations.

Conscious that it their legacy that is under threat, young people have been in the vanguard of protest. The ‘Fridays for Future’ schools protest has taken up the baton of Greta Thunberg who has become the icon that communicates the reality of climate change more effectively than a hundred graphs and tables. Armed with the factual knowledge of the Green Schools, it is to these inspirational leaders that the rest of society must now turn. The time for tinkering around the edges with excuses about efficiency or identifying ‘low hanging fruit’ on the basis of economic cost benefit curves is now over. The problem is now an ethical one of intergenerational equity, one where scientists can no longer be labelled ‘alarmists’ but rather ‘realists’. In an emergency the unthinkable has to be considered and Ireland is now at a crossroads where the next decade will determine what legacy we leave to the next generation. It’s an awesome responsibility. Are we up for it or not?

Professor John Sweeney is Ireland’s foremost climatologists and was a  lecturer at Maynooth University’s Geography Department for 40 years until his recent retirement. Over the past 30 years he has published approximately 60 scientific papers and edited and co-authored texts on various aspects of climatology and climate change in Ireland.


Statement from BirdWatch Ireland, Thurs Feb 28th 2019:

BirdWatch Ireland wishes to remind the public, local authorities and contractors that hedge-cutting is NOT permitted between 1st March and 31st August inclusive, except in the case of any of the derogations permitted under the Wildlife Act 1976, as amended. The Heritage Act 2018 gives the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the power to make certain changes to these dates, but it is important to note that, as yet, the Minister has not done so. As a result, the usual dates when hedge-cutting is prohibited currently remain unchanged.

It is an offence to 'cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy hedgerows on uncultivated land during the nesting season from 1 March to 31 August, subject to certain exceptions'. For more information, click here.  To read the Heritage Bill 2016, as passed by Dáil Éireann on July 5th 2018, click here.  To read the Heritage Act 2018, click here.

To contact your local wildlife ranger, click here for contact details. To read the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000, click here.

Caring For Wild Animals

Please note that many species of mammals, birds, invertebrates etc... are protected under law and that, even with the best of intentions, only someone holding a relevant licence from the National Parks & Wildlife Service should attempt the care of these animals.  For full details, please click here to read the NPWS Checklist of protected & rare species in Ireland.  If you are concerned about a wild animal, please contact your local wildlife ranger - click here for details.


Please DO NOT send any live, dead or skeletal remains of any creature whatsoever to Mooney Goes Wild.  If you find an injured animal or bird, please contact the National Parks & Wildlife Service on 1890 20 20 21, or BirdWatch Ireland, on 01 281-9878, or visit



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Twitter: @NatureRTE

Presenter: Derek Mooney

Series Producer: Ana Leddy


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