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Intensive farming practices are pushing birds into extinction

Fiona O'Connell


Lay of the Land

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The little corn bunting

The little corn bunting

The little corn bunting

Maybe it’s time to update our idioms, for ‘salad days’ doesn’t cover the craze for ice cream that now characterises this season.

Vendors of that shivery snack could likewise consider changing the catchy titles of their offerings from the likes of ‘The Eton Mess One’ or ‘The Milky Bar One’ to a few finger-on-the-pulse names like ‘The Unsustainable Farming One’, ‘Goodbye To The Corn Bunting Forever One’ — or my current favourite, ‘How Long Before Our Current Agricultural Policy Pushes The Rest Of The Farm Birds Over The Edge Into Extinction One?’

Granted, that last one is something of a mouthful, but surely it would be appropriate to call one of those triple-scoop concoctions after the industry that is playing a pivotal role in the devastating decline of formerly abundant bird species, some already completely absent from vast swathes of land that were once strongholds.

Ireland’s farmland birds are now the most threatened of all birds here, according to BirdWatch Ireland, thanks to agricultural intensification, hedgerow destruction, climate change, and the devastation of insect populations due to overuse of pesticides. As they say, “This is a complex policy issue but the heart of the problem is simple — current agriculture policy is continuing to fail Irish wildlife.”

Because it’s not just unweaned calves and young bulls that are shoved off the land these days. From the yellowhammer to the barn owl and even the once common kestrel, we are in danger of depriving future generations of their iconic sights and sounds.

Despite all the greenwashing propaganda, drastic changes in agriculture practice over the past decades mean farmlands which were once rich areas for biodiversity that supported so many birds are now destroying their habitats and pushing them to the brink of extinction — as has been the fate of the little corn bunting that relied on low-intensity farming.

It’s not just beasts and birds and bees; us human beings will ultimately pay the price for the intensive agricultural practices that are killing our wildlife and poisoning our land, rivers and seas. 

Just as we are tainted by the moral bankruptcy of an industry that is backed by a government prepared to make an exception to EU sanctions to allow Russian ships to dock here recently to supply the imported animal feed on which this unsustainable industry so heavily relies. 

The power of the bottom line was evident in Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) president Pat McCormack’s response when asked if there was a moral dilemma for Irish farmers taking feed imports from Russia.

“It’s well beyond the farmers’ pay scale, that ethical issue,” he replied.

"That’s an ethical issue for the Government… if they feel that it passes the various protocols of trade at this given time, then Irish farmers will use that feed. It’s up to the Government.”

But thankfully it is also up to us, for BirdWatch Ireland believes a key aspect in preventing our farmland birds from slipping into oblivion is increasing public understanding of what is going on behind the greenwashing, with “ever more individuals and organisations trying to convince decision-makers that the environmental policies which govern farming should be weakened or even disregarded”. 

Not even one-sixth of a percentage point of the available funds from the next CAP budget for farming has been allocated to paying farmers to protect and restore farmland for the iconic curlew and other breeding waders that are the most threatened of our farmland bird species.  

BirdWatch Ireland is asking us to donate to their “Restoring Farmland Biodiversity Appeal’ so they can fight on our behalf to ensure our politicians, decision-makers and state bodies cannot shirk their responsibilities. 

They say we need a shift to substantially increase the proportion of existing funds to support more sustainable farming, so we can reverse these declines by rewarding those farmers and landowners who do the right things for nature — and therefore for the public good — by restoring and protecting farmland ecosystems.

Who needs to top off that good news with flakes?

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