Monday 26 September 2016

Lay of the Land: We need to keep it country for all rural residents

Fiona O’Connell

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

Next August could also see hedge-cutting, as Minister Heather Humphreys pushes to extend the existing half-year allowance. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Next August could also see hedge-cutting, as Minister Heather Humphreys pushes to extend the existing half-year allowance. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

The fields are full of hay rolls sealed in black plastic that shines incongruously in the sun - for modern farming has come a long way from haystacks and scythes.

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And next August could also see hedge-cutting, as Minister Heather Humphreys pushes to extend the existing half-year allowance that conservationists warn will wreak havoc for our wildlife. But feedback from farmers and other rural residents about my recent article addressing this issue, makes for interesting reading.

Aside from those comments that dismissed my points as the "usual enviro lobby crap". Or assumed I think "I live here, so you should make the place look nice for me, as I have lost touch with agri realities".

Maybe it's agri realities that have lost touch with the natural world, given how many disagree that the primary purpose of hedges is "the security of field boundaries". As one farmer put it: "To have a good farming country, we also need to have a good wildlife country." Another complained that "the Irish countryside is increasingly looking American, with wide-open fields with no hedges. Not good for the environment; not good for wildlife; not good for balance."

Many farmers care about our fellow creatures. "I grow a lot of hawthorn around my land and leave them for a few years," says one. "They attract our native fauna, from bees, rabbits - even the bats like them in the evening for feeding on flies."

"The quality of the countryside from a wildlife perspective is nowhere near what it used to be," another believes. He "always ran a good few beehives... and it's getting harder the whole time to get spots to put them in, with good forage and yield prospects, between lads cutting ditches very tightly, spraying out all the briars, furze and so on, and rye grass monocultures".

But it is unfair to put all the blame on modern agricultural practices.

"How many of your neighbours have lawns left uncut?" asks one frustrated farmer. "How many have whitethorn or blackthorn hedging planted? How many have left clumps of briar to provide food for overwintering animals? How many have daisies in their lawns and let other wildflowers grow and propagate?"

"A lot of people have paved over their front gardens," another rural resident agrees. "For myself, I have a nice wild garden and a pond with lots of frogs, as well as a bird feeder that supports families of blackbirds, sparrows and finches."

Just as well, for our lush landscape is not only critical for tourism - but possibly the future for farming.

"No wonder there have been big declines in so much wildlife," says another, "all in the name of producing ever greater volumes of commodity foods that the world doesn't want." Especially, as some believe, that farming "is going to change a lot in the next 20 years in western Europe; we can't compete cost-wise, so a change to high-value, less intensive will happen naturally." So best protect wildlife habitats, and not hedge our bets for what lies over the horizon.

Sunday Independent

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