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Dances with wolves

Dances with wolves
Solicitor Killian McLaughlin with his wolves (from left) Finn, Fergus and Oisín ALL PICS: JOE BOLAND/NORTHWEST NEWSPIX

Donegal solicitor sets up a wild animal sanctuary

‘Liens’ and tigers and bears! Donegal solicitor Killian McLaughlin explains why he set up the Wild Ireland Sanctuary.

Last month, a news story about the birth of six wild boarlets at the Wild Ireland Sanctuary in Burnfoot, near Muff, Co Donegal, brought some welcome relief from the relentless battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The striped sextet, thought to be the first of the species born here in more than 800 years, were an unexpected ‘gift’ from a female boar called Tory, after the island.

What you may not know, however, is that the man behind the sanctuary, Killian McLaughlin, is a solicitor from a family steeped in the legal profession.

Dances with wolves

Dances with wolves

His father Ciaran, who runs the long-established firm of CS Kelly & Co in Buncrana (where Killian also works), was state solicitor for Donegal from 1983 to 2005.

Appearing at the Omagh Bomb Inquest, he established the right of lawyers from the Republic to represent clients at inquests in the North.

Killian’s wife Katie is also a solicitor at CS Kelly – they met at Blackhall Place, from where they both qualified in 2014.

As well as a solicitor specialising in litigation and family law, Killian has a degree in zoology. So which came first, the law or the lynxes?

“Animals came first! I was fascinated with nature as a child. The law came along later. Dad was a solicitor, and I followed in his footsteps.”

His legal skills came in very handy when he developed Wild Ireland, a dream funded out of his own pocket. “Mad ideas often come from solicitors – they’re used to hearing the word ‘no’,” he jokes.

Killian has a one-word answer to the question of how he manages to combine his passion for animals with his job as a solicitor – technology.

“I can access pretty much my whole office through my phone. Yesterday, I was stamping deeds on the go, which is pretty incredible.”

He believes the pandemic has given us a glimpse of what is possible in the world of work in the future.

Lynxed in

Wild Ireland, which focuses on animals once native to Ireland, such as bears, wolves and lynxes, opened in October last year.

“The legal background definitely assisted me. I had to be a solicitor to get through the amount of red tape. Ireland has very high standards – there’s a lot of legislation to get through,” Killian says, explaining that he had to deal with two main State organisations when setting up the sanctuary.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service is responsible for licensing and inspection, as well as a number of other licences and permits related to the importing of wild animals; while the Department of Agriculture has a significant role in regulating animal health and movements.

The sanctuary has attracted huge interest since it opened, and it was “flying” in the early part of the year, says Killian, employing 12 full- and part-time workers.

There were plans for more, including an education officer for the anticipated school tours. Then came the pandemic and the inevitable closure.

Now, there’s just Killian and one keeper, and he says he can’t be certain about future employment levels until the sanctuary gets up and running again.

While the site is now closed to the public, the work of caring for the animals goes on, as do preparations for reopening.

“I would hope I could open up in the coming weeks. Social distancing is quite easy inside Wild Ireland. The problems will be the entrance – getting people in and out.”

Bear with us

In the meantime, the centre is hoping the public will continue to support it by buying tickets online at its website at wildireland.org (€10 for adults and €8 for kids). These can be redeemed any time until the end of 2021.

Killian sees three different objectives for the Wild Ireland project: rescuing animals, educating visitors, and inspiring a new generation of conservationists.

He believes that the effect of seeing animals like bears in a TV documentary can never be the same as seeing them in the flesh. Those at Wild Ireland were rescued from what was literally a prison cell in Lithuania.

“The bears were terrified when we set them free on to grass – they had only known concrete. They don’t even know how to swim.”

There has been a growing movement to ‘rewild’ areas of Europe, bringing back formerly native species that had become extinct. The reintroduction of beavers in areas of Britain has been particularly successful.

Beavers are referred to as a keystone species – they can alter the environment in a positive way, such as by building dams, which can prevent flooding.

Wild boars are also a keystone species – their foraging is seen as important in forestry regeneration – but Killian is less optimistic about their return to the wild in Ireland.

The boar’s head

“There have been haphazard attempts at releasing wild boars, but they can be very destructive and can carry diseases. They can also breed rapidly, as they have no natural predator. At the moment, we don’t have the wilderness in Ireland – nor the enthusiasm for them.”

His dream is to have around 7,000 acres set aside as a reserve for the animals, but in the medium-term, of course, expansion plans have been delayed by the pandemic.

“My ultimate dream is to make everything bigger, but a lot of things and new species, such as golden eagles, have been put on hold.”

While the animals consume much of his time, Killian isn’t planning on giving up the law any time soon.

And there’s another new life to look forward to, as his wife Katie is expecting a baby in June.