Derek Mooney: ‘The easiest way into wildlife is with a wildlife garden’

Game Changers: Derek Mooney’s new documentary highlights nature success stories across Europe, ‘like a Eurovision for wildlife’

Nature is a yes and no thing for Derek Mooney. Yes, we put nature centre stage during Covid, but the “no” bit just crystallised in a call minutes earlier. He talked to an old friend. Together they had put a wildlife garden into a school. “But the parents have lost interest.” So they chatted about asking wildlife expert Éanna Ní Lamhna to talk about how important the wildlife garden was, “as important as soccer or Gaelic and camogie and hurling. This is as important,” Mooney says. “The easiest way into wildlife is with a wildlife garden,” the RTÉ presenter explains with his trademark energy.

On Sunday evening, RTÉ broadcast the third series of Back from the Brink, featuring stories of wild animals in Ireland and across Europe. The brink is looming larger than ever. Last month a Queen’s University study sounded yet another alarm. We are in an extinction spiral, with almost half the world’s wildlife in decline.

Last night RTE broadcast the first of a two-part documentary Back from the Brink

Mooney says he left his daytime radio show and went “into nature full-time” with a burning ambition to broadcast a dawn chorus across Europe. After that he approached Colm Crowley, head of RTÉ Cork, with the idea of making European wildlife television. “He told me, ‘we can’t make it all about birds’,” so Nature Live was born, co-produced with the European Broadcasting Union, live-streaming wildlife in six countries during the week of the Eurovision, “so it was like a Eurovision for wildlife”. Back from the Brink grew from there.


Mooney doesn’t underestimate the loss of habitat and the destruction of nature, most of it caused by intensification of agriculture with its overuse of pesticides. “But if you keep banging that drum, people get tired of it. You have to care about something to conserve it,” he says. So Back from the Brink is about highlighting successes “at a local level. That has an impact nationally and internationally. All sorts of things happen.”

The Irish story looks at the return of barn owls to Nicky Murphy’s Kilkenny farm. John Lusby from Birdwatch Ireland is the expert on the reasons barn owls have declined. The “overuse of rodenticides” is the key, Mooney says. Owls can eat 20 rodents a night, and if just one of those has been poisoned, “they suffer indirectly with secondary poisoning”. While an adult owl might survive one poisoned mouse, their chicks, who are being fed on the catch, can die from the poison. On the farm Murphy put up owl nest boxes, stopped using poison and the owls came to nest. Balance was restored and the owls became his pest control.

The second Irish story is the possible discovery of a native oyster bed off Portmagee in south Kerry, where Lucy Hunt of marine education NGO Sea Synergy is hoping the oyster bed could have a huge positive impact on biodiversity. “They’re hoping to get this designated as a marine protection area,” Mooney explains, “which will be a huge boost for the nature population.”

Mooney hopes the show will inspire people to do simple things. Padraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust tweeted last month that the most powerful simple thing is to email your TD and MEP asking them to back the EU Nature Restoration law.

Mooney credits some of his wildlife television as the genesis for the slow TV movement, like Norwegian broadcaster NRK’s Bergen-Oslo train camera. In 2000, Mooney live-streamed a nest box in Co Kildare, where quite a lot of the time nothing very much happened. Sensor cameras have made the up close and personal filming of wildlife slightly more eventful. One of the Back from the Brink stories highlights a woman who found moose were migrating through her garden. Twenty four cameras have been installed and people can get moose alerts to tell them when something is happening.

“It’s family viewing,” Mooney says of the two-part documentary. “Everybody can watch. The smaller the animal, the more people like it,” he explains. You would think it would be the big animals like the moose but show people some toads and they go “aah”. He’s proud that the content has been put together by RTÉ Cork. The series features 11 countries and will be shown across up to 52 countries.

“It’s an audience winner. It’s doing very well,” he says. Viewership has been in the 400,000 ballpark, “the kind of figures Patrick [Kielty] would be delighted to get,” he adds, in a can’t-resist-it reference to the next Late Late Show host.

Does that kind of interest mean we haven’t lost our connections to nature? “What do we come from only the land? It’s genetically hardwired for people to look at nature.” He heard the best answer recently to why someone would get involved in the natural world from ornithologist Pat Smiddy. “He gave the most beautiful answer. ‘Going to school I looked around and I saw nature,’ he [Smiddy] said. There were no distractions.”

On that front, mobile phones are a bugbear of Mooney’s. In a cafe recently he watched a couple both on their phones not talking to each other. Maybe they were watching wildlife livestreams? “They could have been, but I doubt it.”

Back From The Brink started on RTÉ One this Sunday, June 4th at 6.30pm and is available to watch on RTÉ player. Episode two is on RTÉ One at 6.30pm on Sunday, June 11th

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests