'Star Wars' Filming in Ireland Exposes Birds to the Dark Side

The J.J. Abrams movie is shooting on the site of important bird breeding grounds.

An Irish navy ship patrols Ireland's Skellig Michael, where 'Star Wars: Episode VII,' directed by J.J. Abrams, is filming this week. (Photo: Charles McQuillan/GC Images)

Jul 30, 2014· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Conservationists fear the filming of the new Star Wars movie on a remote Irish island this week could create more than a phantom menace for thousands of nesting birds.

The island of Skellig Michael features stunning alien-like cliffs and landscapes, making it a great set for director J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: Episode VII. Skellig Michael is also home to six ground-nesting bird species that are currently in the height of their breeding season.

"Skellig Michael is internationally important for six seabird species," said Stephen Newton, senior conservation officer at BirdWatch Ireland, one of the organizations that has criticized the plan to film on the island.

Three of those species—Atlantic puffins, Manx shearwaters, and European storm petrels—nest below the ground, where they can't be seen. The shearwaters and petrels are also nocturnal, which makes them hard to observe and track.

"They nest in burrows, holes, and crevices and only visit their nests during the hours of darkness to feed their young," Newton said.

That makes it hard to protect the birds' nests because even locating them is a challenge. "How can the authorities safeguard these birds from disturbance when they do not know where they are?" Newton asked.

The Irish Naval Service is doing more to safeguard the film set from prying eyes than anyone appears to be doing to protect the birds. The navy has set up a two-mile exclusion zone around Skellig Michael, effectively sealing off the island from tourists and fans hoping to get a sneak peek of the movie. The Irish Examiner reported that even the ferrymen who were contracted to shuttle the film crew back and forth needed to get special security clearances.

The United Nations has also wondered about the production's impact on the island. Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation established nearly 20 years ago to protect the island's seventh-century Christian monastery.

A UNESCO spokesperson told The Irish Times that the organization has requested information on how and why permission was granted to film on the island. The National Monuments Service in Ireland said it would provide a report to UNESCO "later this week." Filming is only scheduled to take place for three days, so the crew will be on to its next location by the end of the week.

None of the six bird species nesting on the island is endangered, but all face declining populations, and Newton pointed out that the Skellig Michael is critical to their future.

"Skellig has at least 10,000 pairs of storm petrels and is one of the largest colonies in the world," he said.

BirdWatch Ireland had requested information on how the production company would safeguard the birds, but it has not yet been provided.

For its part, the Irish Film Board, which approved the shoot, said the crew's week on Skellig Michael "has been designed to specifically avoid disturbance of breeding birds on the island."

All the same, conservationists are definitely feeling a disturbance in the Force, as the production's long-term impact on the island remains to be seen.