Dr George Smith. Photo: Ann Hennessy.

From Tennessee to Moate . . .

DR GEORGE Smith smiles as he explains how he made the trip from Tennessee to Moate!

“My wife brought me to Moate!”
George's wife, Rachel Flanagan, is the reason Moate became his home.
Back in the early 90s, George arrived in Ireland to study in NUI Maynooth for a year, as part of a study abroad programme. There he met Moate lady Rachel, who, at the time, was studying for her BA in Maynooth. 
He returned home to complete his studies in his native country. They kept in touch and as he says they were “over and back” for a number of years, before deciding to settle in Ireland in 1998.
“We were living in Dublin until last year and we moved back to Moate,” he says.
They live in Moate with their three-year-old twins Juanita and Oisin. George runs his own business Blackthorn Ecology, while Rachel teaches Maths in the Bower in Athlone.
George, who studied Biology for his Degree, is a consultant ecologist and also works in environmental management and biodiversity. 
His job is varied and never boring. He works on a range of projects from roads, housing developments, wind farms and solar farms.
“I provide people with ecological advice and expertise should they need it. I'm involved in development type projects where someone wants to build something and they want an ecological impact statement. The great thing about the job is there is a huge variety of things to do,” says George.
“For example, if someone is building a house and it is near a special area of conservation or a sensitive place they might need an ecological report,” he explains.
He does a lot of work for developers, government bodies, local authorities, community groups and tidy towns committees. He also helps at Dun na Si amenity park in Moate, by offering advice. It makes for a busy schedule and given that he works for himself, does he find it difficult to motivate himself every morning? A resounding “No” is the answer! George loves his job and is delighted with the varied working week. “The hard thing is to find the time to do it all. I'm all over the country and that's one of the nice things about it.”
He has come a long way from his initial days living in Ireland. “When I moved to Ireland I didn't know about the Irish plants so I had to learn them all off!” he says.
One project in particular that he is keen to talk about is his involvement in the Living Bog, a bog restoration project in which 12 bogs around the country are being restored.
“It's a decent project. I am involved with it a lot now. There is a project ecologist and I am helping him out with baseline surveys,” says George. “I am living in Moate. It's raised bogs central!”
“What I like about this project is that it is not about minimising something but it's about enhancing biodiversity.”
He set up Blackthorn Ecology seven years ago, having worked with environment management company Atkins in Dublin prior to that. He had considered setting up by himself for some time but the downturn in the economy delayed his plans.
“Because of the crash I stayed with Atkins longer than I had intended and then in 2011 I went out on my own. I have been kept busy since then. Thankfully the ecology sector is recovering after the crash,” he says.
Windfarms are a substantial part of his work. “A lot of the work that we do is underpinned by requirements and legislation. Windfarms kept a lot of ecologists going in the crash. You need to have fairly rigorous ecological assessments done,” he says.
Work on windfarm projects can take several months, or even a couple of years. In contrast, a survey on a new house will take a shorter period of time.
“If it's a handful of houses you do a survey for a day and spend another few days writing up the assessments, but for a big windfarm project you could be working on it for two or three years,” he explains.
An average ecological report involves research, field surveys, an evaluation, a discussion with the developer and a possible revision of an assessment of the impacts, before a report is compiled.
It's clear that George loves what he does. It was something that he had an interest in from a very young age.
“It was the way I grew up at the east end of Tennessee. I used to go out camping and hillwalking all the time with my Mam and Dad. I had a book of plants and I was interested in trees and plants. I always wanted to do that sort of thing. Now, I am more interested in moss!” he says.
He is happy to see that there has been an increased interest in biodiversity across the board, among young and old people alike.
“It used to be a case of uprooting everything and primping it. Now there is a huge interest in conserving old graveyards. The attitude is changing, at least at a local level. People are definitely more interested than they were,” he says.